“Near Cisterna di Littoria, Italy, he charged 200 yards over flat, coverless terrain to destroy an enemy machine-gun nest during the second day of the offensive which broke through the German cordon of steel around the Anzio beachhead. Fully 30 yards in advance of his squad, he ran into withering enemy machine-gun, machine-pistol and rifle fire. Three times he was struck by bullets and knocked to the ground, but each time he struggled to his feet to continue his relentless advance. With one shoulder deeply gashed and his right arm shattered, he continued to rush directly into the enemy fire concentration with his submachine gun wedged under his uninjured arm until within 15 yards of the enemy strongpoint, where he opened fire at deadly close range, killing two Germans and forcing the remaining 10 to surrender. He reorganized his men and, refusing to seek medical attention so badly needed, chose to lead the way toward another strongpoint 100 yards distant. Utterly disregarding the hail of bullets concentrated upon him, he had stormed ahead nearly three-fourths of the space between strong points when he was instantly killed by hostile enemy fire. Inspired by his example, his squad went on to overwhelm the enemy troops. By his supreme sacrifice, superb fighting courage, and heroic devotion to the attack, Sgt. Antolak was directly responsible for eliminating 20 Germans, capturing an enemy machine gun, and clearing the path for his company to advance.”
–Citation read at his Medal of Honor ceremony
The Medal of Honor is the ultimate form of recognition for actions on the battlefield. There is no easy way to earn it. It comes at a price paid in blood, sweat, pain, and tears. Its recipients find themselves in a place where odds are stacked high against them. But in such moments, we see baffling courage: the ordinary becomes extraordinary, and the extraordinary becomes historic.
Such is the story of Sergeant Sylvester Antolak, who rose from a small city in Ohio to a special spot on the pages of history. Born in St. Clairsville to Polish immigrants on September 10, 1918, Antolak enlisted in the U.S. Army from his hometown in 1941. He served in the European theater of the Second World War as a platoon leader with 1st Platoon, Company B of the 15th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division.
Antolak’s moment of heroism came during an Allied offensive near Cisterna, Italy. The Allies had intended to burst through a formidable German line of defense around the Anzio beachhead, in a bid to move toward Rome. During the offensive, the Germans turned out to be much more prepared than anticipated and had their firearms blasting in all directions. Allied casualties mounted fast as they strove to quench the overwhelming German defenses.
Antolak led another famous soldier into battle: Audie Murphy, the most decorated soldier in American Military history. Murphy, also a recipient of the Medal of Honor and every other medal our nation has to offer, described Antolak’s courage in his book, To Hell and Back, calling him “Lutsky.”
Murphy wrote, in part:
“We roll over the wall and find ourselves in the range of two enemy strong points. But for the moment, the krauts are ignoring us. They are absorbed in trying to split the two groups of men that preceded us. A sergeant in the first platoon senses the predicament. If his men are isolated, they will likely be destroyed. He makes his decision quickly. Motioning his men to follow, he rises and, with a submachine gun, charges head on toward one of the enemy positions two hundred yards away.
On the flat, coverless terrain, his body is a perfect target. A blast of automatic fire knocks him down. He springs to his feet with a bleeding shoulder and continues his charge. The guns rattle. Again he goes down.
Fascinated, we watch as he gets up for the third time and dashes straight into the enemy fire. The Germans throw everything they have at him. He falls to the earth; and when he again pulls himself to his feet, we see that his right arm is shattered. But wedging his gun under his left armpit, he continues firing and staggers forward. Ten horrified Germans throw down their guns and yell ‘Kamerad.’
That is all I see. But later I learn that the sergeant, ignoring the pleas of his men to get under cover and wait for medical attention, charged the second enemy strongpoint. By sheer guts, he advanced sixty yards before being stopped by a final concentration of enemy fire. He reeled, then tottered forward another few yards before falling.
Inspired by his valor and half-insane with rage, his men took over, stormed the kraut emplacement, and captured it. When they returned to their leader, he was dead.
This was how Lutsky, the sergeant, helped buy the freedom that we cherish and abuse.”
Since 1861, fewer than 3,600 Americans have received the Medal of Honor. Those who are greatly honored for courage often share something in common: They ran toward danger to save others. Medal of Honor recipients demonstrate courage that must be decided upon in a split second with great potential cost to oneself. Sylvester Antolak did just that; he took out a German machine gun nest single-handedly and after already suffering grievous injury. Despite his wounds, and despite achieving the goal of subduing the enemy machine gunners, Antolak wasn’t done–and he paid for his courage with his life. Sylvester Antolak died on 24 May 1944. He was 27-years-old.
His unfathomable courage and devotion to the protection of his comrades were on that day written into the pages of history, to be told for generations to come. On 19 October 1945, he received the Medal of Honor, posthumously. His resting place is in the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery and Memorial, among the graves of 8,000 other fallen comrades, all of whom paid the ultimate price in service to their country.
Citation read at Sylvester Antolak’s ceremony: https://themedalofhonor.com/medal-of-honor-recipients/recipients/antolak-sylvester-world-war-two
Heavy. Sylvester Antolak. Heavy. 2018. https://heavy.com/news/2018/11/sylvester-antolak/
Kalu, Micheal. Sylvester Antolak. War History Online. 2019. https://www.warhistoryonline.com/instant-articles/sylvester-antolak-his-bravery.html
Murphy, Audie. To Hell and Back. Picador. 1949.