BANGOR, Maine — More than a decade after its disappearance, a Vietnam War soldier’s Purple Heart has returned home thanks to a chance visit to a Bangor coin shop.
Army Pvt. Larry J. Nadeau was just 18 years old and far away from his hometown of Orono when shrapnel wounds cut his life short. Since Pvt. Nadeau’s death on Jan. 2, 1966, photographs, letters and medals keep his memory alive for his younger brother, Allen Nadeau, who still lives in the family home in Orono.
His parents had signed paperwork allowing Larry Nadeau to join the military at age 17, making his death all the more difficult to handle, according to Allen Nadeau.
The Nadeau family received the medal, which had “Larry J. Nadeau” inscribed on the back, a level of personalization that is usually reserved for medals that are issued posthumously.
Nadeau’s Purple Heart came from a stockpile of medals that were crafted in 1944 in preparation for casualties and injuries that would stem from a U.S. invasion of the Japanese mainland that never happened, according to Paul Zebiak, owner of Maritime International, a downtown Bangor historical memorabilia, coin and jewelry dealer.
Nadeau said that sometime around 2000, he loaned his brother’s Purple Heart and several other medals and possessions from his brother’s military career to Vietnam Veterans of America, which planned to take them to schools and events for educational purposes.
Somehow, the medal was lost. Nadeau said he had tried many times over the years to get the Purple Heart back, but the organization told him it was either in storage or that they couldn’t find it.
Frustrated, Nadeau said he submitted a request to the federal government seeking a replacement medal, but he also wrote a letter in January to the the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 185, which had undergone a change in leadership, asking for help finding the missing Purple Heart, as well as a bracelet his brother wore and two other badges.
Ted Pietz of Franklin, vice president of the veterans group chapter, said he felt for Nadeau and started asking around and researching in an attempt to find the medal. Pietz said he has been trying for 40 years to get his Purple Heart after field records of his injury were lost during the Vietnam War.
After seeing an advertisement for Maritime International, Pietz decided to stop into the Central Street shop and ask about the medal while he was in Bangor during the first week of June.
On a whim, Pietz walked in and asked Zebiak if he had seen the Purple Heart or had seen the name Larry J. Nadeau.
“You’ve come to the right place,” Zebiak said before going to one of his cases to retrieve the medal and other items associated with Larry Nadeau, which he obtained at the same time as the Purple Heart.
Pietz said he was shocked and had to go to a chair in the corner of the store to sit down. He called Nadeau soon after.
“That phone call I’ll never forget,” Nadeau said Monday.
Zebiak said the medal had been in his shop for more than a decade and that he bought it from a couple that he believed at the time had legitimate ownership of it.
The next week, Nadeau came to the store and Zebiak gave him the medal. The two spent several hours at the shop talking about Larry Nadeau, his service and his medal.
“You never know where the whim or winds will blow,” said Wayne S. Cartier, vice president of the Maine branch of Vietnam Veterans of America.
Zebiak said he often has files filled with information on people attached to the objects in his collection. That includes one on Larry Nadeau. Nadeau’s file includes military records of his service and a list of badges and pins he earned. He said he forms a relationship of sorts with those names by digging up this information.
During a visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., a few years ago, Zebiak looked for Nadeau’s name because he had formed a connection with the name on the back of that Purple Heart, Zebiak said.
He found the name in row 48 of panel 4E, a “powerful experience,” Zebiak said.
While a Purple Heart is just a piece of metal attached to a ribbon, it represents much more.
“They’re important symbols of someone’s sacrifice, devotion to duty and love of country,” Zebiak said.
To Nadeau, it is a relic that carries on the brief relationship he had with his brother, who went into the military when the younger Nadeau was just 8 or 9 years old. He said the brief connection they had persists through his brother’s medals, photographs and letters.