TAMPA — In December 1944, Boris Stern climbed into an abandoned pillbox with his men, seeking refuge from the cold and rain as allied troops assembled on Normandy beach to crush struggling Nazi Germany once and for all.
But some of the men went back outside and started a fire, setting off an explosive device. Losing his dog tag — an oval medal worn around the neck to identify a casualty — was the least of concerns for Stern that day. Several men were killed in the blast.
His unit would push eastward into the forest and he survived the bloody Battle of the Bulge, returning home to enjoy a successful career in business. Now 92, Stern is retired and living in Carrollwood.
But seven decades after he lost it, the dog tag is taking on new importance in his life — starting with a phone call he received from Cincinnati two days before Christmas.
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Jean-Paul Mandier, 55, is a French army veteran who spends his days combing the beaches of Normandy looking for relics from World War II.
"My uncle was a prisoner of war," Mandier said. "My grandfather was a prisoner of war. The French people will never forget the U.S. Army."
Over the years, he has turned up U.S. coins, religious medals, and a ring. He swaps with others to build a collection of mementos from the war.
In November, Mandier ran into friend Jean-Yves Le Bay, another metal-detector enthusiast, and heard about an unusual find Le Bay had made two years ago — a U.S. Army dog tag from World War II belonging to a Sgt. Boris A. Stern of Chicago.
Eager to help a U.S. veteran, Mandier traded for the dog tag and started a search.
Who was Boris Stern? Is he still alive?
Mandier found a mention of Stern at a website about the Army’s 106th Infantry Division.
"Big surprise," he wrote in an email. "Mr Stern is alive !!!"
With that piece of information, Mandier turned to a friend he met through eBay — Kit Timmons, 66, an executive assistant from Cincinnati who spends her free time fulfilling cemetery photo requests for family history researchers.
Timmons said she was happy to help find Stern.
"Reuniting people with the symbols of their ancestral roots is a satisfying and fun pastime," she said, "and this folded right into that."
There was urgency to the search: World War II veterans are dying off quickly and both she and Mandier felt a sense of duty to get Stern his dog tag before it was too late.
Timmons went online and found a 2014 story from TBO.com about Stern’s service helping Jewish war veterans.
The story contained a phone number for the organization.
"It wasn’t Mr. Stern’s number," Timmons said, "but the gentleman provided Mr. Stern’s number after I explained the reason for my call."
Dec. 23, Timmons made a call to Stern.
"I think it was emotional for everyone," she said.
During the Battle of the Bulge, a massive German counterattack launched Dec. 16, 1944, Stern survived brutal cold and punishing artillery and rocket attacks, machine gun fire and a shrapnel wound to his left leg.
He moved to Florida in 1972 and retired from running several businesses in 2006. He spends his days volunteering at the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital and served as grand marshal for its 2017 Veterans Day parade.
"I got this call from a woman in Cincinnati telling me she had this friend in France who ran around with a metal detector and found my dog tag," Stern recalled. "I was stunned. I couldn’t believe someone found it."
At first, he was skeptical.
"I thought it would be a phony," he said. "I was waiting for them to call me up and tell me they needed $100."
Instead, Mandier put the dog tag in the mail for the 4,700 mile journey to Tampa. Of course, he paid the postage.
Stern wasn’t home when a letter carrier came to deliver the package, so the next day, Jan. 11, he drove to the Carrollwood post office to pick it up.’
"I was shocked," Stern said. "I kept looking at it to make sure it was right. It had the right serial number. My name. It was bent up a little, but not too bad."
Holding the dog tag in his hand, nearly 73 years to the day after he emerged from the the Ardennes forest, Stern was hit by a wave of emotions.
"It brought back a whole bunch of memories. Stuff about freezing my feet. Bad stuff."
Asked for more memories, Stern choked up.
"Hurting people," he said. "Killing people. I just don’t want to get into it."
Eventually, he plans to put the dog tag in frame. For now, it never leaves him.
"I keep it in my bag that I carry back and forth when I leave the house. I keep it with me all the time."
Contact Howard Altman at [email protected] or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.