CHELMSFORD — Ninety-year-old William Poulios and 92-year-old Walter Hedlund have a lot in common. Both went to Lowell High School, served in France during World War II, and have lived for decades in Chelmsford, where their working lives often intersected.
On Thursday, in recognition of their wartime service, they will share France’s highest award: the French Legion of Honor.
But somehow, remarkably, they have just met. Now, over cups of coffee, the two veterans have begun forging a kind of “Odd Couple” relationship.
The compact Hedlund, a former president of the Massachusetts Funeral Directors Association, showed up for their second meeting at a Dunkin’ Donuts shop last week in a sport coat and tie, while the huskier, garrulous Poulios wore a tipped-back golf cap and a Red Sox jacket. He joked that receiving the Legion of Honor was no big deal.
But he and his family applied for it, as required by the French government. The process moved along like clockwork, said Poulios: “Bup-bup-da-ding!”
Poulios said his family is “flabbergasted” by his cavalier attitude: “Grampy, you take things so lightly!”
Given the things he has seen, it could be part of his coping mechanism.
While fighting in the battle of St. Vith, during the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium, Poulios and his Army infantry regiment captured about 150 German prisoners. Last week at the doughnut shop, he displayed a saber he took from a German soldier and pointed out the swastika insignia on the handle.
Asked how he got the enemy soldier to give it up, he narrowed his eyes. “There was a .45 in his throat,” he said.
Hedlund, too, experienced some of the most intense fighting of the war. After being selected for Ranger training with British commandos at a secret location in Scotland, he stormed Omaha Beach with the Army’s 115th Infantry Regiment, part of the second wave of the Allied invasion on D-Day. Wading onto the beach, he passed a fellow Ranger, Sergeant Bob Slaughter, who was wounded.
“You couldn’t stop,” recalled Hedlund. “You had to go through.”
About five years ago, Hedlund reconnected with Slaughter, who had written a book on the landing at Omaha. Their reunion was emotional, he said. “You want to see two guys cry — ”
Slaughter died last year at age 87. Hedlund, a widower who served the town of Chelmsford in several capacities over the years, has seen too many of his friends and loved ones pass on recently, he said. Earlier that morning, in fact, he had been to a memorial service.
“I’m getting tired of going to funerals,” he said.
Before shipping off to war, the young man trained as an undertaker at Saunders Funeral Home in Chelmsford. In a scrapbook he had brought to show Poulios, a yellowed news clipping about his military service bore the headline, “Former Lowell Embalmer Wants to Bury Nazis.”
Upon his return from the war, Hedlund went back to work for Saunders. In 1955, he bought the business.
Looking over Hedlund’s shoulder at the scrapbook, Poulios spotted an old advertisement for the funeral home.
“I used to deliver flowers there!” he bellowed. He worked as a florist for years before going into the insurance industry, he explained. Though Saunders Funeral Home was a regular stop, he never managed to meet Hedlund there.
Years later, as an insurance agent, Poulios served as the state’s assistant chief examiner.
“I was a big shot,” joked Poulios, whose late brother, Tarsy, was mayor of Lowell in the early 1990s.
Poulios has taken to calling his new friend “the squire.” When he recalled undergoing open-heart surgery 30 years ago, Hedlund said that he had had bypass surgery himself.
“Join the zipper club!” Poulios said.
Both men are already decorated veterans. Hedlund received three Purple Hearts for being wounded in battle; both have received European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medals.
Joint presentations for the Legion of Honor are comparatively rare, said Timothy Deer, the executive assistant at the Consulate General of France in Boston. Each year since 2004 the consulate, which oversees most of New England, has awarded the Legion of Honor to a handful of World War II veterans in the region, Deer said.
For all their banter, it was clear that Poulios and Hedlund share the humility and sense of duty that have become synonymous with the Greatest Generation. Upon their return from the war, said Hedlund, they never expected any recognition.
“We did our job, we came out, and we wanted to get back into life,” he said. “We didn’t worry about a parade.
“When I got into the harbor in New York and I saw the Statue of Liberty, I was like a computer – I completely forgot everything,” he added.
Similarly, when Poulios came home, he told his wife, Bess: “Don’t ever ask me a thing. What happened, it’s forgotten.”
As they spoke last week, two women seated a few tables away overheard the veterans and broke into a spontaneous round of applause. When the two friends, Sue Wilson of Fitchburg and Terry Leney of East Hampstead, N.H., came over to introduce themselves, Poulios teased, “I wish I’d known you when I was younger.”
Hedlund smiled and shook his head.
“We’re a real couple of beauts, that’s what we are,” he said.