Had it not been for what he describes as his "hands-on" nature, Woburn resident Judd Doucette's life might have turned out drastically different on Christmas Eve some 75 years ago.
Then a 20-year-old solider in the 66th Infantry Division, also known as the Black Panthers, the combat engineer spent the late afternoon hours of Dec. 24, 1944 inside the belly of a Belgian tank landing ship transporting heavy machinery and other equipment to France.
The 95-year-old Doucette, whose love of working with tools and fixing things had led to his combat engineer assignment, described that hours-long cruise across the English Channel to the French port of Cherbourg as completely uneventful.
On Christmas Day, the Peterborough, N.H. native and the rest of his unit learned about the disastrous fate of the two other regiments that were supposed to join them in the Allied Forces' attempt to dislodge Nazi Germany from the whole of France.
And according to the father of three, who during a recent interview bragged constantly about his five grandchildren and 17 great-grandchildren, he may have very likely shared in that misfortune and misery, had it not been for his own grandfather's pre-war instruction in how to fix things.
"There's that page and that page and that page…All these people got killed on that boat," said Doucette as he sat in his Woburn apartment on Campbell Street, where he flipped through a list identifying hundreds of US servicemen who perished in a torpedo attack.
"When we left, we just went right up the English Channel. We didn't even know anything had happened. The combat engineers, we were in a separate ship, because we had all the equipment — air compressors and bulldozers and what-not," explained the World War II veteran.
According to historical records maintained by the US Army, a total of 2,500 soldiers in the 66th Infantry Division were sailing across the English Channel in a Belgian passenger ship when the vessel suddenly lurched out of the already choppy waters in a thunderous explosion.
Struck on the starboard side by a German torpedo, the transport, known as the SS Leopoldville, would hours later sink suddenly and somewhat unexpectedly with hundreds of soldiers still onboard.
Though much of France been freed as a result of the D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944, at the time of the 66th Infantry Division's entry into World War II, Adolf Hitler's Germany had launched a major counteroffensive that led to the historic 40-day Battle of the Bulge by the Ardennes Forest.
According to some historians, in the rush to push back that German advance, the Black Panthers had been hastily loaded into the troop transport ship. Doucette counts himself amongst those critics, though he has no desire to harp on the issue.
"That submarine base the Germans had was right off the coast of France. I never understood [why we didn't take it out]…They took a loaded transport going to France with no protection. I guess they thought they had the Germans under control," said the longtime Dorchester resident.
"It screwed up the whole division, because what's a division without infantry? It created a whirlwind. We didn't know where we were going, because our command was gone," he added.
According to a combat record maintained by the US Army on the 66th Infantry Division, two battalion commanders, a dozen other officers, and 748 enlisted men were lost in the Christmas Eve German U-boat attack in 1944.
Ultimately, the sinking of the Leopoldville proved to be the second deadliest ship transport disaster in the European theatre during World War II.
In a series of stories published by news organization Stars and Stripes in 1944 and 1945, reporters described the chaos that ensued in the hours and days after the devastating Christmas Eve attack.
"In the swirling waters caused by the ship's sinking bobbed scores of soldiers, clinging to bits of wreckage…Those that were able to withstand the icy waters were picked up by tugs, Coast Guard cutters, and PT boats that came to the rescue," the news account reads.
"It was a sad Christmas Day when the two regiments reassembled at Cherbourg. Men searched vainly for missing buddies. Reports of deaths trickled in…Two days later, assigned to fight approximately 60,000 Nazis in pockets along the French Atlantic coast, the Black Panther Division, the 66th, entered combat," Stars and Stripes further reported.
According to Doucette, his unit never fully recovered from the Leopoldville attack, and as a result, the 66th was constantly used to relieve other divisions charged with eliminating German soldiers stuck behind enemy lines as a result of the D-Day invasion.
Despite not being at full strength, the combat troops were still involved in major battles at La Croix, France and by Lorient and St. Nazaire towards the end of the war. As Doucette remembers it, that fighting was blurred between long stretches of confused marches and initial reconstruction activity.
Though at times tedious, the eventual machine shop supervisor generally enjoyed his time in the service.
Particularly fond of the camaraderie he shared with his fellow soldiers, the 95-year-old laughed at the memories of a few special occasions, when the combat engineer mischievously delighted in the task of blowing up some French bridges in preparation for post-war reconstruction efforts.
"I was happy being in the engineers. Most of us had a speciality of some kind, and we got to fix and break things. That's what kept me from becoming negative [about getting called to a war zone]. I was always a doer and liked working with my hands," he said.
"I was a demolition guy. We blew up some bridges and other stuff near the end of the war. We did a lot more cleaning up than preventing or stopping the Germans. So we were blowing up bridges so they could then replace them," the former Virginia Beach, North Carolina snow-bird added.
Eventually ending up in the German homeland, the Woburn resident recalled being surprised by the hospitality of those residing in the countryside. Expecting to find a hostile people enraged by the Allied Force's successes, Doucette claimed that on many occasions, he felt more welcome in Germany than he had in France.
"Normally, you'd think you'd be sleeping overnight and someone would sneak over and blow up the building. But I don't recall anything like that. People were actually very nice," he reflected. "Still, serving this country for three years, it sure brought you around quickly. You see so many things. I guess if you haven't been to war, how would you know? I don't want to add anything to it or make it more glorious. It was just part of the nature of living in that time."
Though born in New Hampshire, the current 22-year resident of Woburn moved to Hyde Park to stay with his grandparents after the death of his mother when he was two-years-old.
Later, he was reunited with his father in nearby Dorchester, when his parent remarried. According to Doucette, though he had a happy childhood, he does recall frequent moves during his early years. But upon being discharged from the US Army, the war veteran quickly found his way back to his hometown neighborhood.
"In the old days, if they went up $5 on your rent, you moved. It was awful, but basically, until I went in the service, I lived all over Dorchester," he said.
Though struggling to figure out what to do next in life, his return to his native Dorchester proved fateful indeed, because it was then he was reunited with a longtime neighbor, Rae Edna. Eventually, the two former next-door neighbors would become married in 1948 — a union that lasted some 55 years until her death in 2004.
As a young girl, Rae Edna had often been tasked with errands by Doucette's stepmother, who often asked the neighbor to run to the store for a grocery item after being unable to find her stepson.
"When I came home from school, my stepmother would say, 'Junior, you have to get to the store to get this and this.' So I tried to stay away from there. [Then my stepmom would start asking my future wife if she could run out]. So that's how it all started. I became friends with her…," continued the 95-year-old, before pausing to reconsider.
"Well, actually, I guess she really disliked me back then," he clarified with a laugh. "But we had a great marriage. We were a close family, and we've stayed close."
At the time retired in North Carolina, Doucette and his wife moved to Woburn shortly before her death in order to be closer to Boston's world-renowned medical community and their children — who were able to help care for their ailing mother.
Despite success in his personal life immediately after World War II, Doucette struggled for a few years to find his way with his professional life, especially in the first years after his discharge — when the country's industry was retooling back to the civilian sector.
Working in a few factories and then later as a highway foreman in Whitman, where he lived for some 30-years with his wife and three children after World War II, Doucette eventually jumped at a job offer at a machine shop. Finding himself back in a familiar role working with his hands, he never looked back.
"It was a do-nothing country. The first job I worked for, I was putting stock away at a shoe factory. That's all there was after the war," he explained. "The factory machinery and everything else had to change. Anything that was machine-based had been committed to doing government work, so really it was tough."
"I putted around. My family was living in Whitman at the time. I worked in a warehouse down there for a year-and-a-half. And then I managed the highway department for 12 years. But eventually, I went into the machine shop business. Back then, companies used to make special equipment, but they don't do it anymore…I can't understand that, because I love working with my hands."