By Barbara Tetreault
BERLIN — On his 80th birthday Saturday, Raymond Coulombe returned to the city of his birth to visit the grave of his brother at St. Kieran Cemetery. In a ceremony later in the day in Bethel, Maine, he received the long lost Purple Heart awarded to U.S. Army Sgt. Joseph Maurice Coulombe posthumously for his heroism in the Korean War.
Coloumbe said it was exactly 66 years ago as he celebrated his 14th birthday with his grandparents that the family learned of his brother’s death two weeks earlier.
His brother, whom the family called Maurice, had joined the U.S. Army at age 17, requiring the approval of his parents, Ralph and Veronique (Martel) Coulombe. Raymond Coulombe said his mother signed the permission form.
Maurice Coulombe was the oldest of five boys and by the time he entered the service, the family had moved to a farm in Bethel, Maine.
Coulombe said he was 11 when his brother left to join the army and it was the last time he would see him alive. He has fond memories of his older brother and recalled how the two would play together. His brother’s death hit him hard and Coulombe said he was honored to receive his Purple Heart.
“I feel so honored because I loved my brother to death. I idolized him,” he said.
He pointed out that his brother had advanced to the rank of sergeant in just over two years and was waiting to be processed out when he volunteered to go on the mission that proved to be his last. A member of the 73rd Heavy Tank Battalion 7th Infantry Division, Coulombe said his brother was killed when his tank was bombed during Operation Ripper on March 31, 1951 and a fragment hit him in the head.
“He was always a hero to me,” said Coulombe.
His brother was awarded the Purple Heart as well as the Korean Service Medal, the United Nations Service Medal, the National Defense Service Medal, and Korean Presidential Unit Citation, and the Republic of Korean War Service Medal.
Unknown to the family, Maurice Coulombe had married just days before being shipped to Korea. His Purple Heart was awarded to his wife who never met his family. His widow kept the medal all these years and her daughter discovered it recently after she died. Looking to return the medal to the family, the daughter read about the non-profit organization Purple Hearts Reunited and contacted the group.
Headed by Captain Zachariah Fike, the Vermont-based organization was formed almost five years ago to return lost or stolen medals to veterans and military families at no cost. A Purple Heart recipient himself, Fike said the organization has returned over 200 medals and is working on over 300 medals that need a home.
Fike’s organization tracked down Raymond Coulombe, the only living family member left. Coulombe said he was at his Los Angeles, Calif., apartment alone one night when he received a call from Fike about his brother.
“I thought it was a scam and hung up,” he said.
Fike called back and left a message on Coulombe’s answering machine.
Coulombe had not been back to Berlin and Bethel in years and Fike’s organization arranged to fly him to Portland, Maine, and then drove him to Berlin to pay his respects to his late brother.
“In this case, it meant something for him to come home and see his brother,” said Fike.
Clearing the grass away from his brother’s marker, Coulombe planted an American flag. He was then driven to Bethel where he received the medal in a ceremony at the American Legion post.
“I’m going to be proud to have it on my wall,” said Coulombe of his brother’s Purple Heart.
Eventually he said he plans to donate the medal to the Bethel American Legion so his brother’s sacrifice will be remembered.