Before being drafted into the Army, Richard H. Lacey remembers making music with the band at LaSalle Junior-Senior High School in Niagara Falls.
He played clarinet, but his heart struck romantic notes as his eyes drifted from the sheet music to Doris Nelson, another clarinet player.
Almost an entire lifetime would unfold before Lacey, just five years ago, officially became her boyfriend.
And at age 87, the World War II veteran says he might never have lived to see that day had he not been so fortunate during his time as a soldier. Thrice he was wounded, and each time he was awarded a Purple Heart.
A machine-gunner, he suffered his first wound Oct. 12, 1944, just outside of Aachen, Germany.
“They were shelling us with mortars. We had just finished digging a foxhole, and I was standing outside it when I was struck with shrapnel in the right hip,” Lacey recalls . “I was among the walking wounded. A medical Jeep came and took me. I ended up in a Belgium hospital. They took the shrapnel out and put me on a train to Paris.”
From there, he was flown to England for recuperation.
“I was there a month, and then we crossed the English Channel in a British ship on Thanksgiving,” he says. “I slept in a hammock and ate cold canned turkey. I was on my way back to the front.”
The journey included two days inside a “40-and-8” boxcar, which he said could accommodate 40 soldiers or eight horses.
“We had no food, and the train would stop and we’d run out into the fields and get whatever food we could from farms,” Lacey says.
“The train would start to move, and we’d run up to it. I don’t know if you want to know this, but one fellow fell under the wheels of the train and lost his legs.”
He recalled an officer at a replacement camp asking him if he was eager to get back to the front lines.
“I thought to myself, ‘Are you crazy?’ but I said to him I was anxious to be returned to my outfit, the 30th Infantry Division. It was nicknamed ‘Old Hickory’ after Andrew Jackson.”
During the Battle of the Bulge, Lacey suffered his second wound, but this time he was only out of commission for a day.
“I was hit by a tree burst. When the shells hit the trees, pieces of the tree came down, and a limb hit my left side, but it was nothing serious,” he says. “I got treated at company headquarters. There were a lot of other guys worse-off with frostbite, losing toes. We were fighting in snow 2 feet deep.”
His third Purple Heart was earned back in Germany.
“It was another minor injury, and, to be honest with you, I can’t even remember the circumstances,” he says. “It’s on my discharge papers. The company clerk was very thorough.”
In civilian life, Lacey pasteurized milk for 33 years at Wendt Dairy in Niagara Falls and returned several times to Europe to visit the old battlefields.
“Each time I go back, I feel great, except when I see the different cemeteries with hundreds of the dead from the 30th Division,” Lacey says. “I feel bad that those guys are there. It’s sorrowful.”
Last September, he was back in Europe for his sixth visit and participated in a documentary about the 30th Infantry. Efforts are now being made to sell the documentary to the History Channel.
But there is more to Lacey’s life than war memories.
He sings all over Western New York in the Retired Men’s Service Club Chorus of Niagara Falls and plays golf at Hyde Park. When his second wife died five years ago, he renewed a friendship with Doris Nelson, whose spouse also had passed away.
“We have our own homes, but we are only a mile and two-tenths away from each other,” Lacey says. “We shop together, we have dinner together every night, and we play cards.”
And occasionally they remember the good old days when both played clarinet for the school band.
Richard H. Lacey, 87
Hometown: St. Petersburg, Fla.
Residence: Niagara Falls
Rank: Private first class
War zone: Europe
Years of service: 1943-1945
Most prominent honors: Three Purple Hearts, four Bronze Stars, five battle stars
Specialty: Machine gunner