A fitting, final tribute that almost wasn’t: Korean War veteran lived quietly, died alone in his French Hill apartment

Courtesy photo A hand-drawn arrow identifies the late Norbert Bruneau in a section of a larger photo, which was taken at Fort Devens soon after Bruneau and the other soldiers entered the service during the Korean War.

The tall, lanky French Hill kid everyone just called “Bruneau” so loved baseball that one day, upon learning that a pro tryout session was coming to Fenway Park, he quit a pretty good job at the old Nashua Corporation and made plans to head down and show ’em the fastball nobody could hit.

Bruneau may have forgotten in his excitement that these were lean times for families like his; they had no car, and even if they did, his father wasn’t about to raid the rent jar for gas money.

A friend offered to drive him to Boston, but never showed up. Undaunted, Bruneau hoofed it toward heavier traffic – I’m guessing around Library Hill – and stuck out his thumb.

It got Bruneau to Fenway, but it was late afternoon and the field was empty – except for one guy walking toward an exit. The good news was the guy was a pitching coach; the bad news, his response to Bruneau: “Sorry, tryouts are over.”

Bruneau persisted, the coach relented. “OK, get up there and throw a few,” he said.

“You’ve got promise,” the coach admitted, moderately impressed with Bruneau’s famous fastball. But once they parted ways, Bruneau’s 15 minutes of fame was over.

But Norbert Charles Bruneau kept on throwing that fastball, and it kept on baffling everyone who picked up a bat and stood in the batter’s box on the diamonds down at Atherton Field – until he, and many of his friends, were summoned for a mission that had a different kind of tryout: The United States military.

Among those friends were Charlie Colletta and Moe Chasse, both, like Bruneau, born-and-bred French Hillers, and two of the several people who spent lots of time over the past few weeks searching for anyone, or anything, that might tell them more about the months leading up to Bruneau’s death in June 2017.

What they found, thanks to their willingness to follow one lead after another and success in enlisting the help of people who could hook them up with other helpful people, allowed one more U.S. military veteran to receive the recognition he deserves for serving his country in a foreign war.

Colletta, the retired hardware salesman long active in Nashua’s American Legion Coffey Post 3 and a fixture in its band, said he was at a service at St. Patrick Church one day in December when he picked up a copy of the church bulletin.

“I saw his name under the prayer notices,” Colletta told me the other day. “I didn’t know he’d died. I called a couple of people, they didn’t know either.”

So Colletta called Bruneau’s landlady, who he knows, because if you’ve lived in French Hill long enough, you know pretty much everyone.

“‘Is he gone?’ I asked her. She said, ‘jeez, Charlie, he died in June … we found him in the attic.'”

That Bruneau was not only a friend but a fellow serviceman, there was no way Colletta was about to say “gee, that’s too bad,” and let it go at that.

He started with Eric Rochette, the funeral director who handled the arrangements back in June. When he ran into Mayor Jim Donchess at a banquet of some kind, Donchess suggested calling Barney Barbera, a former Post 3 commander and one of the area’s best resources on such matters.

“Barney said, ‘give me whatever information you can,'” Colletta said. “He called me three weeks later with a bunch of stuff he’d found.”

The only surviving family member they were able to locate was an elderly cousin, Colletta said. Although he lives in Nashua and knew of Bruneau’s death, he is caring for his ailing wife and lacks the necessary resources for a funeral.

Colletta, at first concerned that the cousin wouldn’t take kindly to “me just taking over like that,” found that he was instead grateful that someone cared enough to do something for his cousin.

Colletta was in turn grateful to the cousin, who found and turned over several vintage photos of Bruneau, and enough information so that Colletta’s little committee was able to track down Bruneau’s service record, known as “separation papers.”

Bruneau was 20 when he answered Uncle Sam’s call in the fall of 1952. One of the photos Colletta has shows him with about 50 other soldiers of Company K, taken shortly after they arrived at Fort Devens on Oct. 10, 1952.

He was subsequently shipped to Korea, where he spent one year and four months on active duty, attaining the rank of corporal and earning two bronze service stars and the United Nations Service Medal for combat in Korea.

So on an otherwise non-descript day in late January, Colletta, Chasse and several other members of Post 3 and its auxiliary drove to the New Hampshire State Veterans Cemetery in Boscawen, where, with the assistance of Rochette, gave their friend and fellow soldier a proper military sendoff.

Dean Shalhoup’s column appears Sundays in The Telegraph. He can be reached at 594-1256, dshalhoup@nashuatelegraph.com or @Telegraph_DeanS.