How a Florida centenarian and Army veteran helped dupe and defeat the Nazis
By JORGE MILIAN | Palm Beach Post | Published: January 25, 2021
BOYNTON BEACH, Fla. (Tribune News Service) — Seventy-five years ago, Boynton Beach's Lee Weiss played a leading role in shifting World War II to the Allies' favor.
Only thing was that Weiss, who turned 100 years young on Dec. 24, didn't know it until decades later.
Weiss served as a radio operator in the U.S. Army's 3103 Signal Service Battalion that was employed in an elaborate ruse to make the German high command believe the Allied invasion of Nazi-occupied France would take place in Pas de Calais, not Normandy.
Weiss' job was to send coded messages creating the illusion of a large-scale troop buildup for the Calais assault. The deception worked so well that the German leadership kept vital units in Calais months after the D-Day landings in Normandy.
It wasn't until around 30 years later that Weiss was reading an article on the Calais hoax and realized his battalion was at the center of it, said Barbara Strogatz Pankhurst, Weiss' daughter.
"We were sending these messages, but we didn’t know what we were sending because it was all coded," said Weiss, who retains a sharp recollection and wit about the experience. "I didn’t know what I was doing. It’s a good thing somebody else knew what they were doing.”
Weiss wasn't done making history. He arrived with his battalion in France shortly after D-Day and took part in the Battle of the Bulge, a German counteroffensive in late 1944 that was Adolf Hitler's last bid to maintain his crumbling fortunes.
Monday marked the 75th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge's conclusion.
"We wiped out the Germans," Weiss said.
Weiss was living in Pittsburgh and ice skating with his then-girlfriend Renee on Dec. 7, 1941 when he heard that Pearl Harbor had been attacked. He immediately decided to enlist, but was stopped short by his mother.
"I was ready to go, but my mother said she would kill me before the Germans did," Weiss quipped.
He eventually enlisted anyway and was schooled as a tank radio operator. In January 1944, his battalion shipped out to Europe where it began to simulate messages from the fictional 1st U.S. Army Group led by Gen. George S. Patton.
Weiss said he was tasked with assuming the identity of someone else in the military and sending scripted messages meant for the consumption of the Germans.
Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower later said he "cannot over-emphasize the decisive value" the trick had on the Normandy landings.
"Whatever they told us to do, I did it," Weiss said. "That's why I'm still here."
Weiss escaped World War II unscathed except for a disease — he can't remember exactly what it was — that put him in a hospital in France. Weiss jokes that it wasn't too bad because it gave him an opportunity to meet nurses.
"He was just a young kid, having a good time, not taking things seriously and just doing his job," said Strogatz Pankhurst, one of Weiss' two children.
Married to Renee by the time he returned home from Europe, Weiss came back to Pennsylvania to raise a family and go to work as a salesman hawking Duro-Test light bulbs.
Among his clients was an Atlantic City, N.J., casino owner named Donald J. Trump.
Weiss reached an agreement to outfit Trump's Taj Mahal casino with his company's bulbs.
"He never paid me," Weiss said.
Six months after the first order, Weiss said Trump wanted more light bulbs. He was told he would have to pay for the first order.
"He didn't pay for either one," Weiss said. "He told me, ‘Tell everybody you sold to me and they’ll buy from you."
These days, Weiss lives in a Boynton Beach seniors community with his second wife, Cele Lieberman, 97. Renee Weiss died in 1999.
Weiss played softball for most of his life, regularly tossing both ends of doubleheaders in a recreation league in Pennsylvania, before giving it up at age 87. Instead, he's taken up duplicate bridge four times a week. He bets 50 cents a game.
“I win, I lose, but it keeps the mind going," Weiss explains.
Weiss said he doesn't reflect on his military service "anymore." He says all of his old pals from the 3103 Signal Service Battalion have passed away.
The focus now is on his family, which includes three great grandsons. They, and a score of other family members, joined a Zoom call last month to celebrate Weiss' 100th birthday.
"I’ve had a great run,” he said.
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