French government honors World War II veterans

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NORTHFIELD, Vt. (AP) – He has white hair and walks with a cane, but Amelio Cucinelli, 93, of Beverly, Mass., still fits into the Army uniform he wore during World War II, and he put that uniform on Friday so he could receive the French Legion of Honor.

Cucinelli, a former combat medic who landed in France 62 years ago following the invasion of Normandy and later rode a glider into Holland, was one of 12 former soldiers given the highest honor bestowed by the French government in a ceremony at Norwich University.

“It’s the highest honor of my life,” said Cucinelli, who has worked as a barber his entire life.

Messages of congratulations were read from French President Jacques Chirac and President Bush. Representatives of all the branches of the United States armed forces attended the ceremony as did members of veterans organizations and top officials of the Vermont National Guard and Gov. James Douglas.

Despite his age, Cucinelli sat ramrod straight while the medal was pinned on the lapel of his Eisenhower jacket by French Consul General Francois Gauthier, who works out of the Boston consulate.

The French National Order of the Legion of Honor was founded in 1802 by Napoleon Bonaparte to recognize service to the republic.

“What more eminent service can we find as the one these men performed: Young men, they crossed the ocean to come to a country they hardly knew and had never visited, and they fought to liberate it from oppression and tyranny,” Gauthier said before bestowing the medals.

“You liberated our people; The republic is forever grateful to you for this,” he said.

Fifteen service members from Massachusetts received the honor and three from Maine. Twelve of the 18 attended the ceremony.

It was the first ceremony of its kind held in the United States since the French government set out in 2004, on the 60th anniversary of the invasion of Normandy, to recognize the service of the hundreds of thousands of American service members who fought in France during World War II, Gauthier said before the ceremony.

Some were recognized in the past. The French government is now trying to find those who were missed.

“These people are getting old. It’s very important I would say to transmit, to convey the message of heroism and pass on our values to the young generation,” Gauthier said.

A decade ago, the French government set out on a similar mission to recognize the American veterans of World War I. About 650 medals were awarded, said consulate spokesman Alexis Berthier.

Since 2004, the 10 French consulates across the United States have been trying to identify the American veterans who deserve the highest medal the French government can bestow. A number of the medals have been presented to veterans in private ceremonies, but Friday’s event at Norwich was the first event in the United States done with full military honors, Berthier said.

The Boston consulate took applications from World War II veterans from across New England. They are all reviewed in France and only those deemed worthy are awarded the medal.

Berthier said additional medals could be awarded in the future.

The ceremony was held at Norwich, the nation’s oldest private military college, because Norwich officials had worked with the consulate on the project, Berthier said.

Berthier said ceremonies in France on the 60th anniversary of the Normandy invasion in 2004 drew heavy French media coverage and were attended by people from all over the country.

“This is really something people are aware of in our country,” Berthier said.

Cucinelli said he didn’t know who nominated him for the award. He only learned about it a week ago.

Louis Heliotis, 81, of Andover, Mass., a former prisoner of war captured during the of Battle of the Bulge after fighting in France and Belgium, said he applied for the honor when a French warship visited Boston.

“I am very proud to be here,” Heliotis said.

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