WORCESTER, Vermont — Paul Pike never knew his namesake but now is keeper of the man's legacy for whom he accepted the Purple Heart on Thursday.
Pike accepted the medal at a ceremony in Worcester to honor his cousin who died in the Battle of the Bulge during World War II.
School children looked on as Pike was given the framed Purple Heart and other medals his cousin earned during the war.
The soldier Pike was killed weeks after he wrote home to his parents telling them he was going to the front line. The Purple Heart was given to his family decades ago but ended up in the possession of the Worcester Historical Society in the town where he grew up and is now buried.
"He was my father's cousin," said the 68-year-old Pike, who lives in Roxbury. "He must have been quite a fellow because my father didn't suffer fools gladly. He named me after him."
A member of the 75th Division, the soldier Pike was killed Jan. 20, 1945. He was first buried in a national cemetery in Europe. But his parents brought his remains home to Worcester in 1947, the younger Pike said. The ceremony Thursday was arranged by the Worcester Historical Society and the group Purple Hearts Reunited.
Historical Society member Audrey Richardson said she first heard from the younger Pike about a year ago when he called the town clerk after Memorial Day asking that his cousin's grave be decorated with an American flag. At first she didn't believe there was a second Paul Pike.
"I remembered his dad when they used to come to visit the Pikes," Richardson said.
Richardson said the Historical Society was looking for a Memorial Day project to do with the older students in the town elementary school. She discovered Purple Hearts Reunited when she went online looking for some way to honor Pike, one of two Worcester men killed during the war.
Purple Hearts Reunited was started by Vermont National Guard Capt. Zacharia Fike, who has made it his mission to return Purple Heart medals to the people who earned them or their descendants.
Since he began his mission three years ago, the organization has returned more than 150 medals to the relatives of the people who earned them. The organization now has about 400 medals they are trying to return.
"It symbolizes a young man or woman who took that oath, who stepped up for us so that we could be a free nation," Fike said. "We owe it to them to never forget, ever, because we wouldn't be here taking that breath if it wasn't for them."