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Luck, and Zippo lighter, saved man in WWII

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Luck was on LeRoy Boyce's side on the day the U.S. 7th Army stormed the beaches of southern France in what later came to be known as Operation Dragoon.

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On that day, Aug. 15, 1944, Boyce was among the 60,000 combat troops that went ashore in what was termed "the single greatest one-day effort of the Mediterranean war," according to VFW, September 1994.

By the end of that day, nearly 200 U.S. servicemen had been killed, and another 400 wounded. And if it weren't for the fortuitous placement of his cigarette lighter in the right breast pocket of his shirt, Boyce might have been one of them.

"(After going ashore), I heard a couple of fellas behind me yelling, 'Can I have a cigarette?'" Boyce, now 85, says as he recalls the events of that day nearly 62 years ago. So he pulled out a pack of cigarettes and his trusty Zippo lighter -- only to discover that it didn't work.

It was then that he noticed the little dent in its side where the bullet had hit.

"It was right over my heart," he says. "I never felt a thing."

Though the lighter no longer worked, Boyce kept it as a souvenir -- a souvenir he now displays proudly in a special case alongside his various combat medals and service patches.

But that wasn't the only time Boyce got lucky during his two and a half years of serving in active duty in World War II's European Theatre, from North Africa to Italy to France and Belgium and finally, Germany.

Boyce somberly recalls another incident where one of his best friends came to relieve him from sentry duty in France's Alsatian territory.

As he was walking back to his tent, Boyce heard gunfire.

"I went back to see what was happening -- he (Boyce's friend) was caught in the crossfire. I held him all the way to the hospital... there was nothing I could do. He died."

Boyce, meanwhile, continued to fight. In fact, he served in no less than five battles during his stint with the Army, including the infamous Battle of the Bulge -- aka "Hitler's last stand."

Boyce still remembers how bone-chilling it was in that forest.

"Oh, it was cold," he says with a shiver. "I don't know how we stood it, but we did -- all we wanted was Hitler."

Boyce remained with his unit, Company C of the 202nd Engineers Combat Battalion (where he served with the military police), until he was honorably discharged on Nov. 20, 1945.

"We were on a point system... most of my buddies were married and had kids, so they (the Army) released them early," Boyce says. But he, a young, single man, was one of the last to go home.

Returning to his native New Jersey, Boyce began a relationship with a woman he had known before entering the service, but never dated.

"We reconnected, and kind of hit it off," Boyce says. He and Eleanor Magee were married the following year.

Blessed with three children, including sons Richard and Roger, and daughter Dolores, the couple stayed in New Jersey for a few years before moving to Pennsylvania, where Boyce worked in the office of a wire and cable company.

Most of his career was spent doing scheduling for various companies, before he and Eleanor retired and moved to Wolf Lake in 1979, "to be nearer to the grandkids," and to their children, who all live in the lakes area.

"It was one of our main reasons for moving here, and staying here... being near our family," Boyce says. Though Eleanor died 12 years ago, he continues to live in the home they shared.

On Aug. 9, 2002, Boyce and his fellow veterans were each presented with a certificate of thanks from Dominque DeCherf, consul general of the Republic of France, "to express the gratitude of the French people to the American soldiers who participated in the Normandy landing and liberation of France, on French territory and in French territorial waters and airspace, between June 6, 1944 (D-Day) and May 8, 1945."

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Vicki Gerdes
Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers and editor of MN Boomers magazine for the past 13 years. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.
(218) 847-3151
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