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Humble merchant, heroic WWII soldier

The chilling news arrived via telegram at the DeVoren household in West Philadelphia on a bitterly frigid January day in 1945.

Morton M. DeVoren
Morton M. DeVorenRead more

The chilling news arrived via telegram at the DeVoren household in West Philadelphia on a bitterly frigid January day in 1945.

With "deep regret," the War Department informed the parents that their son, Morton M. DeVoren, had been "missing in action" for more than three weeks.

What the family did not know was that Lt. Morton DeVoren was very much alive, had escaped capture by the Germans, and had saved the lives of 25 fellow soldiers.

Mr. DeVoren, who died Nov. 23 at 89 at a hospice in West Delray, Fla., after a long battle with lung cancer and heart problems, would receive a Silver Star and a commendation from the president for his heroism in the Battle of the Bulge.

Not many friends and associates of the humble, devoutly Jewish Philadelphia tobacco merchant, who in civilian life always armed himself with a tape measure and ChapStick, knew about his incredible war exploits.

Mr. DeVoren rarely talked about them. "Once in a while he'd say, 'I was in the war,' " said his son, Ivan.

Mr. DeVoren, who served with the Seventh Armored Division, already had been awarded a Bronze Star for heroism on Sept. 6, 1944, for keeping his platoon advancing near Gravelotte, France, despite an antitank barrage.

Then on Dec. 22, near Regne, Belgium, Mr. DeVoren was among 26 men who had become separated from the main body of troops, according to the official citation. They came under heavy fire, but Mr. DeVoren led them to safety, carrying some of them on his back.

He was wounded and captured by the Germans. He managed to escape the next day. Unknown to his captors, his son said, Mr. DeVoren understood German. He discerned from their conversation when they were taking their smoke breaks, allowing him to time his escape back to the American lines.

On Jan. 27, the family received the good news that he was alive, albeit hospitalized. He was honorably discharged in December 1945 with a citation from Gen. Jacob L. Devers.

He returned to the West Philadelphia family home with scars, shrapnel wounds, a wired jaw, and the remnants of a bayonet gash suffered in combat.

Although he was more than eligible, Mr. DeVoren refused to apply for Veterans Administration benefits because he believed that as long as he was able to make a living, he shouldn't accept the government's help, his son said.

Mr. DeVoren, who graduated from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania before joining the service in 1942, turned down a chance to attend law school to enter the family business.

His father operated popular cigar and tobacco stores at 52d and Market, in the heyday of the 52d Street Strip, and in Center City, Ivan DeVoren said.

Mr. DeVoren eventually took over the business and ran it until 1980. The shops at 12th and Market Streets and at 13th and Market were local landmarks, with their signature white neon and prominent "Optimo" cigar signs. For a time Mr. DeVoren served as president of the Retail Tobacco Dealers of America. In all, the DeVorens would operate five stores, as many as three at any one time, Ivan DeVoren said.

Mr. DeVoren was diligent about using every inch of retail space, and when he shopped - be it in a department store or elsewhere - he often took out his tape measure to see how other stores allocated space to their wares.

In 1988, Mr. DeVoren and his wife of 55 years, Renee, who were original members of Congregation Beth El in Broomall, moved to Boynton Beach, Fla.

Mr. DeVoren became an expert wood-carver, creating miniature figurines to give to his children and grandchildren.

They included pirates, men smoking pipes, and, of course, soldiers.

In addition to his wife and son, Mr. DeVoren is survived by a daughter, Marcelle; a sister; and three grandchildren.

A graveside service was held Nov. 25 at Har Jehuda Cemetery in Upper Darby. A memorial service was held last Sunday in Boynton Beach.