LTC Sam Lombardo (Army, WWII Veteran)
To sit and break bread with Sam Lombardo, is to sit and break bread with the larger-than-life embodiment of an absolute titan. At 99 years old, Lombardo is a magnanimous individual who appears 20 years younger than his age and whose memory is elephantine in every faculty. His Italian accent is a reminder of heritage not forgotten, and his spirit manifested in every word spoken. As Sam first sits and begins to retrace his memories, you can see the veritable self-assurance of a victor who knew his place on the battlefield. And, although you can feel the vibration of heaviness in Sam's speech, stemming from seeing such violent combat; you're also made aware of a certain joy. Lombardo has truly lived life to its' fullest, enjoying the spoils of war. Those spoils not actually being treasure or materials, but assurance of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Sam realizes that his freedom was forged on the battlefield. Warfare has long been an unfortunate aspect of our planet's history. Sometimes even the most minor infractions lead us into the most barbaric of engagements. WW2's historical foundation was cemented in a time where Sam Lombardo was still roaming the Italian countryside as a young boy. His time under Mussolini's rule formulated educational faculties no institutions can ever replicate. Lombardo was brutally honest in his interview about the truths of tyranny and growing up under an unequivocally evil dictatorship. His time as a youngster living in Italy kindled a fire that at 17 years old turned into a four-alarm inferno which culminated in Sam's service as a proud Lieutenant in the United States Army. Sam Lombardo would find himself in action against those very forces that had ruled his country of birth with an iron-wrought grip. Ironic? Serving as a Lieutenant during one of the world's most hellish campaigns wasn't enough for Sam, however. He turned that service into a sterling 20+ year career and retirement as a Lieutenant Colonel.
When you read the story of Sam Lombardo, think about the intestinal fortitude of our nation's young men as they stepped forward into territory most had never even heard of. Think about the courage under fire, and the fact that Sam was just one of millions who took these steps toward ensuring democratic values being forever protected. We're not talking about some domestic engagement with provincial boundaries being refashioned by either side's victory. We're talking about unmitigated violence as a means of protecting ideological freedoms, and our very way of life. Men sprinting across earth with perilous consequences, using weapons in sometimes barbaric engagements that ended with complete and utter bloodshed. Hear the groans and screams of those in the trenches, begging for their mothers and a quick end. They fall in the wake of fearsome artillery barrages, screaming tank shells, and the whistle of automatic rounds fired with extreme prejudice. There are documented cases of field medics from both sides assisting each other in triage, as the carnage was so horrifically massive in scale. Realize those sacrifices were made at a degree that's difficult to even fathom in our modern society. Somewhere around 400,000 American men would give up their lives in this conflict, roughly 66 times what we've lost in OIF/OEF and in 9 years less time. Entire American towns were ravaged by the death of these war-fighters. Sam's story, like other heroes of WWII, stands as a testament to the ultimate sacrificial valor of our greatest generation. Never forget. Here's Lieutenant Colonel Sam Lombardo.
Can you talk a little bit about the history of your family?
SL: My father first came over to America in 1905, at age 15 with two brothers – Joseph and Vincenzo. At the end of the first year, the two brothers got homesick for the holidays in Italy and returned to Italy permanently.
My father was still an Italian citizen, and he went back to Italy to see his ailing mother in 1914. While he was there, the Italian government drafted him to serve in the Italian Army because WWI broke out. He was wounded in the war while fighting against the Austrian forces and met my mother because he was stuck at home as convalescent. They had these things called "dum dums" in WWI and they packed the projectiles with those things. They were basically marbles and I believe they've been outlawed by the Geneva Convention since then. It exploded near my father and one of those was lodged in his hip. My father said he went to 23 hospitals in Italy and none of them could perform an operation. That’s how backward that place was.
In 1920 my father moved back to America as soon as he could recuperate from his hip procedures and built the most beautiful church while he was there. He had two jobs and worked very hard to provide. He worked on the railroad at one of those jobs and inspected the brakes. He did that from 11-7 at night. He went to his other job after that at an atrium. I don’t know when he slept but I figured it out and it must’ve been about three hours of sleep a night. I remember when my father sent for my family. We escaped Italy and Mussolini’s rule. I still remember waking up as early as I could on the boat to see Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty.
What do you remember about seeing the Statue of Liberty the first time?
SL: When my family first came over on the ship, I wanted to be the first to see the Statue of Liberty. The last morning we were on the ship they told us we would arrive in New York at 5 o’clock the next morning. It was still dark out and I snuck up to the ship's railing. I didn’t think about what would happen if my mom woke up and didn’t see me there in the bed. I got up and went upstairs and stood on the air vents. There were 15 young GI’s there already and I had wanted to be the first to see it but it just didn’t happen. It was so foggy we couldn’t see a thing. I got one of those guys to put me on the top of the railing and when the fog lifted we saw the statue. It was the most beautiful sight. The whole ship was up in the front watching and I think if we had been on a smaller ship the whole ship would have went down (laughs). Everybody was happy. I looked back to see my mom coming up and she was crying. She came up and got me and I got a paddling on the backside on the way back to the cabin (laughs).
When the ship landed, we had to go through processing. There were three things that could keep you from getting into the country. Nowadays, people just come into our country whenever they want apparently, but that’s a different subject. You couldn’t come into the country with a communicable disease, with bad character (i.e. past prisoner, prostitutes, or people with bad pasts), and the last one was literacy. The first two things we passed on but I remember being ten and looking at these guards that looked every bit of ten feet tall. I told mom, “Remember when they ask you where you’re going that Altoona, Pennsylvania has two o’s.” When they asked her where she was from she pronounced the o’s for like ten seconds (laughs) because she didn’t want to be refused entry. The guards let her past. When we landed off the ship, and got to the boardwalk I remember my father meeting us and telling us, “Be proud of your heritage because you can’t change that you were born in Italy, but you’re Americans now. American is what you are. It’s your new country so obey the law, learn English as fast as you can, and be the best American you can be.” I tell people nowadays, “I’m still working on learning the language part (laughs).”
Tell me about when you were young?
SL: When I was young and still lived in Italy, in the summer, we would go for thirty days to the beach on the Ionian Sea, which is a branch of the Mediterranean. My uncle and grandpa would build thatch huts, like they do in Polynesia. We spent a whole month during the summer there. I realized that you couldn’t walk in that sand because it’s not like most sands in the ocean. In that part of the world, you can’t walk in the sand because it’s glass.
At home in Caraffa, we stayed with my grandpa. He had a wine cellar with six barrels of wine. When I was 9 years old he took me in there to taste. He held me by the finger so he would taste and then he would give me a little nip afterwards. I was nine years old and my mother had been waiting upstairs to go home. I remember her coming down into the cellar to get me. She took me up the steps by the hand and I got sick. I didn’t know how to vomit. (laughs) I got sick so badly, she said, “Well throw up, throw up,” and I finally did. She chewed out her dad. The next day she exclaimed, “Don’t you ever give Sam wine again!” (laughs)
I was ten years old when I arrived at Ellis Island. This was near the beginning of the Great Depression, which lasted until I was 18. When I was 16, I got a job at the JW Parks poultry farm, which was the largest hatchery on the east coast. After school that’s where I did my chores and in the fall he would give us a couple hundred baby chicks. I could get all the eggs I wanted because during the depression that would really help my entire family. They hatched baby chicks and we raised them. The roosters we butchered and the hens we kept for eggs. We had fifty hens so we didn’t suffer from lack of food, which was very fortunate in those days of the Great Depression. We had a half acre cultivated with everything you could grow. I can grow everything. JW Parks really helped us come through the depression. It’s out of business now.
What do you remember about growing up in Italy?
SL: I was out of the house all of the time as a kid growing up in Italy. I learned a lot at even seven and eight years old just roaming my town. Everyone was so superstitious in my hometown because of the religion there. I remember seeing this man’s body being brought out of a brick oven when I was very young. He thought that the heat would extract the venom from a spider that had bit him. There was a man singing with a guitar near the oven, “And the spider will not bite him anymore… (laughs)” He lived fortunately. We had plots of ground all over town because we were sharecroppers. We had a wheat field, grape field, olive grove, and then we had a place half a mile out of town with chestnut trees, olives, and watermelons. My mother and father should’ve used their heads but they put the watermelon patch near the fence. It should’ve been in the middle of the plot of our 2-3 acres. People would jump over the fence and they’d be standing right in our watermelon patch. It was easy to steal from us (laughs).
My uncle built a loft about twenty feet up, above our chestnut trees and I’d go up there to watch the watermelon patch to make sure nobody stole from us. I was only eight years old but I’d yell in a really deep voice so people would believe I was an adult. I remember coming back to our place one day and there was this trail. There was a dead end coming out of our place and this trail was the only way to get home. There were two giant iguanas hanging on this wall looking at me and over the top of the trail were these huge vines. I bet there were 8-10 snakes hanging off of these vines over the top of this trail. I was just a little boy looking at these snakes and thinking, “Where am I going to go?” There comes a time, just like when I was crossing that minefield during the Battle of the Bulge, that you have to man up and work through things you won’t enjoy. It was just as true in that moment as a boy as it was when I was serving our country, stepping across that 200 plus yard minefield with explosives every three feet. I closed my eyes, yelled at the top of my lungs, and ran through that tunnel of snakes. I tell everyone that the Army obstacle course was peaches and cream compared to that (laughs).
Can you tell me a little bit about your family? What do you remember about them growing up?
SL: We grew up in Italy with my sister practicing opera and that’s why I was in the woods all the time. I went to the woods every day while she would sing. The two of us were born right after World War I while my dad was home convalescing, and he got married then somewhere between ‘15 – ‘17. He was there for three years until he got well enough to travel, then he went back to the United States. He made a trip back to Italy in 1923 for 30 days - that’s when my youngest sister was conceived. He got his U.S. citizenship in 1927 and could finally send for us.
Once we moved to Altoona, Pennsylvania I went to school through the ninth grade and then had to quit. While growing up in Pennsylvania during the depression my dad was earning $8.00 a day and they were paying the helper $4.00 a day. He didn’t tell me to quit school and they didn’t want me to quit. I was President of the homeroom and played football. I went up to the teacher and told him that I had to quit right after the first semester. He was so flabbergasted. “What?!” he said. “I’ve got to do it,” I replied. I did it to help the family because by my quitting and getting $4.00 a day, I increased the income 50%. I learned my trade. I can do anything having to do with stone masonry, and that was my first job.
Can you go back into your basic training time?
SL: First I joined the National Guard. I was always very patriotic. The war was going on in Europe and I knew that eventually, we would get into the fight. I asked my dad if I could join the National Guard. My best friend was in the Guard and he said, “Sam, come on and join.” I joined on November 11, 1939, which was called Armistice Day. I’ll never forget the day. The first two hours of having joined and I found myself in the first parade. We would have to wear wrapped leggings and if they were too tight they would shut off your blood circulation. If they were too loose they would fall to the ground. I had just joined and had to wrap these leggings and I was worried the whole time about passing out. The other thing I learned was how to do “Right shoulder arms." Halfway through the parade, the Captain said, “Left shoulder arms!" I didn’t know what to do so I just grabbed it and put the rifle over on my left shoulder (laughs).
It was the best two years with the guard because I became a specialist in map reading. I loved maps. When we went to the Carolina maneuvers I took the battalion and the companies all through the woods. One of the biggest operations was when I gave a reading to all the companies. I took them out quite a few miles and had them come back to camp as I led the little detachment. We had been out a couple hours in 105-degree weather in the Carolina summer. It was ridiculously hot. We came upon a hill and our colonel got red in the face so I gave him the last drop of water I had. I didn’t drink any water because I was very water disciplined. The sergeant came over and said, “Sam, the colonel is worried that we got lost. I told him that you were the best map reader around.” Not to brag, but I was. Everyone was afraid of maps for some reason. I took a liking to them. They said I was bucking for corporal and I didn’t know what bucking was. I had no idea. Apparently, that meant I was "sucking up (laughs)." I loved maps. I taught classes on Saturday to anyone that wanted to learn on their own. I took them out on the weekends so they could compare the ground they were walking on with what they saw on the map.
Anyways, I remember we were coming up this hill and really perspiring. The colonel was worried and I convinced him that I knew maps. I wouldn’t change my direction for anything. We climbed the hill and came to the plateau. We could see his tent was twenty five yards away. I couldn’t do anything wrong after that. The whole camp was in a cotton field and we were there at the edge of the woods. When we reached the top of the hill the whole camp was there and his tent was there. He called the general right away and told him he had the best map reader around. I was a staff sergeant at the time and that was the best field operation we had. We went to Louisiana on maneuvers and while we were there I applied for OCS. I went to Fort Benning for school and ended up fifth in my class. Camp Livingston, Louisiana was a World War I camp that had cement everything, even sinks. We were there for a couple of months training. There were 70 of us sergeants that departed Camp Livingston and went to Fort Benning for OCS. I kept asking to go overseas because I wanted to get Hitler myself. For two years I kept asking and then we moved to Camp Fannin. They sent me down with a company of 200 to Camp Fannin near Tyler, Texas. I took care of the company and we had no AWOLs. We had a really good record. I didn’t know that was the Rose Capitol of the World but there were beautiful Abraham Lincoln roses which we saw every place we camped.
Can you talk about your time overseas and what led up to that?
SL: After two years a levy came up and the colonel came up and said, “Lombardo you still want to go overseas?” I told him I had tried for two years and I wouldn’t go back on my word. We went to the Queen Mary at Pier 44 and traveled to Camp Shanks, and practiced getting off the ship utilizing the cargo nets. You had to practice getting off the ships. You had to time it otherwise you would fall and with a 70 lb. pack on it was a really, really rough fall and you would probably drown. We went over on the Queen Mary and it took five days before we landed in Scotland. I was looking forward to seeing Scotland. My company had two hundred men and they called it a “packet." We were in F Deck which was the lowest deck on the ship. I thought when they debark it was from the top but it was actually from the bottom. My company was the first out, so I didn’t get to see Scotland unfortunately. We rode the train down to Chester, which was midway to Liverpool in England and we were housed in a World War I camp again. There was cold water to shave, and no heated water for anything those weren't the best conditions. From there we went to Liverpool and then on to Omaha Beach. We got there and marched nineteen miles to a railhead. During World War I, the French had these small rail cars and we gave them the name “forty and eight” which means forty men can fit or eight horses. They gave me one of those and thirty-six men to take up to the front line. My journey into warfare had begun.
We ended up moving slowly and freezing because it was October. We had to do something to make our own heat. I told the men that we'd have to make our own stove. It was pitch black going up and we stopped every ten minutes. The men got a barrel and brought it back to the rail car. We put holes in the barrel with a trenching tool. I said, “Go out and get some wood and stones then we will have our own stove.” We got the k-ration boxes, started a fire and pretty soon the car was warm. About 11 o’clock I smelled smoke and I went over to the barrel and it had burned right through the floor. The first that came to my mind was an old movie of an Indian chasing a train with the train on fire. (laughs) I awakened everybody and they all got up and we threw everything out. We stood around the fire in a circle and did our duty and put the fire out (laughs). We put all our empty K-ration boxes on it so it would look good when we got there.
When we got to the front line, everybody went to different directions and I was assigned to I Company. The mud and the rain was awful. JJ (company commander) took me to see the company and we could only see half of the company in one day. The Germans knew we were thin because we'd thought the war was going to be over by Christmas. I had asked JJ what we were doing there because I couldn’t see the next foxhole. You couldn’t see each other from foxhole to foxhole. I could bring a patrol right through here. His response was to forget what I learned at Fort Benning because that was the way they did it here. The Bulge happened a few days later. Before the big bombardment came we started digging a foxhole. JJ and I were in the same hole. A foxhole is about four feet deep and twelve foot long for two guys, but we went down seven feet because we could. I’m lucky it was farmland and easy digging. We settled down and at five o’clock the biggest bombardment in probably the history of any war came for an entire half hour. It was Armageddon and felt like the end of the world for us. I thought we would die. They shot everything they had at us.
What did it feel like being in that hole when the Germans bombarded your position?
SL: It felt as if it was the end of the world when the Germans hit us. We put our hands over our head and knelt down. The last shot finally came after a half hour of bombardment, and hit up at the top of the foxhole. We had emplaced all of the dirt in front of the hole and had created a great protection wall with it. The shots hit right in the middle and the whole wall of the foxhole caved in. I described it as like being inside an inverted ice cream cone. The whole bank fell on us and we had to dig all the dirt off of us. It was all quiet on the front and you could hear a pin drop. A bit over five minutes later, you could hear our own artillery bombarding the Germans. The Germans never returned fire. A young boy about 16 years old joined my platoon as we were headed up to make the relief. I took him under my arm and I told him to stay close to me because it was dark, and through the night he would feel much safer. We hit this hill and all the pine trees had been cut off from artillery. He told me that he thought he felt a limb, an arm, or leg. I told him it was a just the limbs of the trees. We got up there to where the battle had occurred.
They sent my platoon up to make a relief. We didn’t know what size unit to expect and it was getting dark. We replaced a whole battalion, it was the fourth battalion of the 82nd Airborne. They sent a GI paratrooper to guide us and we got to the pillbox. There was a tall colonel and he said, “How many men do you have?” I told him I had 36 men with me. He blew his lid. He said, “You know how many men I've lost? I lost over two hundred taking this hill! They send me just thirty six men?” He called General Gavin who was a famous general in the Army at the time. Gavin said, "You’ve got to make do with the relief anyway because tomorrow we have another mission." The colonel settled down and said, “Lombardo, I’ll leave a phone with you and a couple concentrations of 155 on the front line.” When I went there, instead of replacing the line where the 82nd was, I saw the men were still packing to get out. I had my men dig in a little knoll and we stayed there. I stayed with the concentration of this artillery and every twenty minutes, I would send a volley of the 155mm cannon that the colonel had left me. The last shot hit the kitchens because you could hear the tin flying and the horses neighing. At daylight the next morning, JJ and the whole battalion and the rest of my company came up, and they all wanted to know if everything was okay. There was no use to tell JJ anything. I just told him everything was okay and he never actually knew what happened.
The next day I was told I had a two day pass, so I walked to this area where we had been the night before. The area we had walked through had two hundred paratroopers lying dead. The boy I was with could feel it but I had told him it was pine boughs, so he wouldn’t get scared. I stopped and took my hat and said a little prayer. Two hundred GI’s out of a battalion of 6 or 7 hundred. It was no wonder the colonel was so mad.
What was it like being on the front line?
SL: I was there six months on the frontline and all I got was two days off. You would get artillery support and just hope you didn’t get hit. When we were going across the plains of Cologne after we broke out from the Bulge, the report came in that a bridge had been saved. It was the last bridge on the Rhine. They told us to hurry as fast as we could so we got there about dusk. There was a barn right next to the bridge that we could see. Right beside that barn was the biggest gun America makes, a 240 Howitzer. Every 20 minutes it would fire and shake the entire building. When we got to the bridge there was a big pile of lumber there, because it was a railroad line. I had the men pick up a piece of lumber to place across the railroad tracks on the bridge so that our vehicles could drive across. Every twenty seconds a shell came in and the biggest worry was the big gaping hole that it left, and someone falling down through that hole. I was also worried about losing the flag because it was only half made. We put planks across and crossed without a casualty. Two days later they told me I could send two men back for R&R. I sent the two oldest men in my platoon who were 34 and 36 years old. I sent them back and they were killed in the middle of the bridge. We crossed that whole thing through fire every twenty seconds and then that happened. You just never know what can happen in an environment where combat is a constant activity. We took the hill.
I remember our position being riddled with machine gun fire and you could see all the limbs of willows above shot off the minute you showed your head. A reporter came up and he wanted to see Honningen. I told him, “You can’t! Do you see those limbs up there?” He still said he wanted to see it. I told him to go ahead and the Sergeant and I laid down and we watched him walk up there. The minute he got up there he was shot by a sniper with a .30 round. He was fortunate because he was hit in the muscle, not the bone. We low-crawled to his position, dragged him back down and bandaged him then sent him back to the rear. He kept saying he was a lucky man over and over. I should have said, “I told you so,” but I was just happy he was alive.
You couldn’t see the Germans down on the other side because of the density of the woods. We had these big drums of wire, so I grabbed one and wrapped the wire around me. I took a telephone and walked down to the left edge of the woods. It was all full of old German foxholes that were vacated. I got there and I crawled down in the foxhole and hooked my phone up. I looked down the field and there was that machine gun that had been shooting at us. I called for 81mm mortar fire and I saw them hitting in the vicinity. Those rounds landed very close. I saw two guys who were manning the machine gun jump out and run. I did make a mistake by moving to that foxhole by myself across the bridge. I should have taken a man with me because someone could’ve easily killed me. I wanted to be active all the time and do something useful.
We went down to Ruhr pocket which produced very little fighting. We hit a town that was completely vacated but in the middle of town there was a roundhouse. We stepped into this round house and there were what had to be a thousand eggs on a table. It was the egg house for all the farmers in the immediate area. I saw this as an opportunity for us because we hadn’t had any real food in quite a while. In the corner was a fireplace which turned out to actually be a smoker. Sergeant Rosen peered into the smoker and there was a ham hanging up that was still warm. We brought the ham out and we had eggs and ham. One of the sergeants had 12 eggs (laughs). I told the men there would be no waste. It was a great meal. Knowing we were near victory made this food taste even better.
At the Northern end of the Ruhr, we came up to a hill on this little plateau – we could see about 1,000 yards away - and there were 300,000 German prisoners waiting to be interned by our people. They had given up. They ordered me to take a patrol and see what was in between us and them. I took Sergeant Rosen with me and patrolled across the field and in the middle of the clearing was a white building. There was an ambulance outside and I thought it must’ve been an aid station. He walked up the stairs and there was a doctor and two nurses working like hell to pack and leave. I let them finish packing. We got out of there safely and reported back to higher headquarters that there was no enemy between us and the 300,000 waiting prisoners. We commandeered a wagon and got the man driving to take us back to the front line. We laid in the back with hay over us and went back to the front line at which point we gave our password to get back inside our lines.
How hard was it to make the decision, to cross that minefield?
SL: I had to do it. It took more courage to cross that minefield than anything I did the entire war. I had to reach inside of myself and say, “I’m the leader.” It was nobody else’s job to commit to that duty. My scout wasn’t available to lead, because he’d fainted and dropped to the ground, so it was up to me. I didn’t want the men to retreat or anything because a few men were crying and you could hear them. I knew that would affect morale if I let it. The next two companies were in line and one of those men was yelling in the minefield with a blown up leg. That field, we believed, was full of “Bouncing Bettys (German S-mines) and two men from “L” and “K” companies had already lost legs. I had to do it. I reached inside and said, “This is it.” I had to become the living embodiment of that United States Army Infantry motto, “Follow me!” I looked up and said, “Please God, help me God.” That’s what I remember and I took charge the infantry way.
I could take you right back to that area right now and where I was. Instead of going straight across like the other companies tried to do, I took a 45-degree angle to my left. I took my left foot first and stepped and could hear an audible, “Crunch, crunch, crunch,” and nothing happened. I’d taken an angle, and that helped, and every time I looked back everybody was staying in my footprints. I died with every step I took. I said, “Follow me men, but don’t step out of my footprints.” Those were my words, and they did just as I said. I spoke up, “In case I get hit by small arms fire or if I hit a mine, Sergeant Rosen will take over.” I made my way across that minefield, and when I reached the other bank there was a tree, a gnarled tree, and I hugged it thanking God. I looked back and the whole line of men was in my footprints. The steps ended up measuring out to over 200 yards (almost two football fields). JJ was the last man back (company commander), as far as I could see. When he traversed the bank he said, “Well we did it.” I still remember that, and that’s all he said. He didn’t realize what an accomplishment that was (laughs). I never received any recognition for the feat.
Do you remember being afraid when you went into battle?
SL: No. You’re initially hesitant when shots are first fired but you have to do it. You are disciplined and proficient in the way of the warrior so you do what you have to do. You can’t be afraid and run but of course there is some fear. You’re hoping you kill him before he kills you. I think everyone is a little bit afraid. I remember being with John Cannon and we were patrolling across this field (some farms have a water well with a pump inside in the middle of the field) and I told him to shoot into the pump area before he looked. He didn’t do it but instead went over to look in and there was a sniper inside that shot him in the face and killed him. I don’t believe John heard me, because we were too far apart and the wind was blowing. This is why you have to shoot first. The only sniper in the whole area was hidden inside that pump and he killed John. Hesitation can get you killed in war.
Do you remember your hardest day over there?
SL: On the Elsenborn Ridge a couple of men got trench foot and I had to send them back. I would get the men out of the foxholes at night and have them walk. One of the men with trench foot who'd been sent back, wrote to me telling me that his foot was saved from being cut off because I had sent him back. That definitely made me feel good. I was always looking out for my soldiers, but one night one of the men was looking out of his foxhole and a sniper got him. I didn’t hear the shot it was so far down the hill, and when he fell down it was unnatural so I knew he had been shot. It's hard losing men. Some of the toughest times were being in the foxholes not being able to move. When you are attacking and moving it’s easier than being in a foxhole. You’re better off if you’re moving forward, on the offensive, like General Patton believed. The bombardment was the most scared I’ve been in my entire life. The Germans shot every weapon and artillery piece they had for over 30 minutes. The earth shook like an earthquake and for what seemed like forever. The first day of the Battle of the Bulge, one of our officers Colonel Allen was up on the front line. We received a call, and they thought a patrol had come through because that knocked the lines out, and they had lost communication with the front lines. I went in to get the orders to go up and make contact with Colonel Allen. I was headed out the door and was told to come back because they had another supplemental order. I led the company up and met Colonel Allen. They had lost 250 men out of 700. They had a little fence with one German prisoner inside. The lieutenant of this unit was crying and we had to hold the position through the night. I put my men in a small perimeter and had them dig in. I told them if they heard any animals it was a decoy from the Germans. In the morning we got called back and I led the whole company back. One captain had an ambulance, part of Colonel Allen’s group, and he said the men were too bad to move and they were going to surrender.
We were so hungry and we didn’t have anything to eat for a couple of days. We came upon a big pile of beets like the farmers feed to the cows. I thought if the cows ate them they couldn't be poisonous. We tried to cut them up and they were solidified like wood. We got up to the front lines and by then hadn’t eaten in three days. I told JJ that I would go back and find the kitchens while crossing the snow-covered field toward Elsenborn. I looked back and saw that Elsenborn was about three miles away. I was walking across this field in the snow and I thought I saw a P-47 coming and I waved at it. When he crossed closer to me, I saw that it had a swastika on it. It was a German plane with a P-47 on its tail. The German plane, fortunately for me, was shot down and the pilot bailed out and our soldiers captured him. That was the only dogfight I saw during the war. I continued on and found all the kitchens and finally found the sergeant. He hugged me and said, “Where have you been and what can I give you?” I told him to give me anything he had. I took a jeep and a trailer all loaded up with food. No sooner had started back, a shell came in and almost hit us. We got up to the front lines and everybody was so happy to see us because it had been three full days without food. K-rations, C-rations, whatever we had they took. The driver just wanted to get the hell out of there so he turned around and left as quickly as possible (laughs).
Can you talk about how you came to receive your Silver Star?
SL: We advanced so quickly up through the Ruhr Pocket that we got away from our artillery support. We soon received a barrage of fire from a small hill to our north. We were pinned down heavily by this barrage from the enemy. Our CO, JJ, and I fell to the ground for cover and ended up in the same ditch. I was almost on top of him we were so close together. He said to me, "Sam, what are we going to do?" I knew the only thing we could do was use marching fire to repel the enemy. A bullet went through a tree about six inches above my head and I knew it was time to move. I jumped up and started toward the hill and my platoon along with the rest of the company rallied behind me. We went from being pinned down under enemy fire to capturing that hill. I was awarded the Silver Star for my actions.
Can you tell me about the flag project?
SL: I remember at the end of Battle of the Bulge I hadn’t seen an American flag anywhere. I went back for supplies and I didn’t see a flag anywhere. The Headquarters had to have a flag that was either regiment or battalion because they were issued one. So I came back and I told JJ, “You know I didn’t see a flag all the way back. I had to go back to the headquarters for supplies thirty kilometers, and the whole thirty kilometers I didn’t see a flag.” This made me homesick, and I said, “How about getting us one?” They would just issue it to the headquarters, but they came back in a few minutes and said “Sam, we’re not authorized to have a flag issued to us on the front lines.” I replied, “Okay, we’ll make our own.”
So at the end of the Bulge, we started crossing the plains of Cologne and came into a city. I looked up as we marched and all the cities had given up and everyone placed something white out their windows so that we wouldn’t bombard them again. I looked up and the street was full of the white flags hanging out of windows made up of towels, sheets, or anything white. I saw this perfect piece of white material and it turned out to be a three by five size. We took that white material and I sent Sergeant Rosen down to the mayor of the town, to borrow a sewing machine. We went inside this big house to look for other material. We found the pillows, red pillows, for the red stripes. The rich Germans were known to use only the best pillows. Those pillows were stuffed with down, which is a little pin feather under the goose's breast. We couldn’t fathom how many pinfeathers it took to fill one of those pillows. Can you imagine feeling those? When we opened them up we had a cloud of feathers and it went out the window. The guys were playing baseball out there and they came up to the window to ask what was going on. I told them, “We are making our own flag.” We started searching for more materials. The curtains in one of the big houses provided the blue material for the field of the flag. I’m so happy that the colors for our flag were perfect.
Every time from there on, if we were reserve, I would send the sergeant down to the burgermeister to borrow a machine and bring it in. We worked during the night, until maybe 12 or 1 o’clock and in the morning. We would take the thing back and we would march off again. We did that for two and a half months. It wasn’t an overnight job. I had one of my men, Private Bouvea that was a tailor from Massachusetts. He did such a beautiful job with the flag. One day near the end of the war being almost over, they called a formation. I remember we were all being called outside. Private Bouvea said, “Oh, you’ve got to be here.” The platoon donated the flag to me because I was instrumental in starting the whole thing. They gave it to me so that when I came home I would have it. I gave it to the museum when I returned home. Our flag is now at the National Infantry Museum at Fort Benning.
Is the flag at Fort Benning?
SL: I took twelve people this last year to see it during Flag Day, June 14th. The best thing happened when we went. I thought they had it in storage and they would bring it out. But on that day it was displayed in the number one spot in front of the infantry section of the whole museum. It was beautiful. They said they were going to keep it there and then within 60 days, it’s going to rotate over by General Patton’s flag. It was a beautiful trip. There were two waiters there in the restaurant and they said, "We want to sing for you." I had no idea that they had been in the Army. They started singing “Proud to Be An American”. It was so great and it turned out that both of them could have gone to Broadway. They were so good, really good. I thought being waiters that they were only bringing a pie or a cake.
It was a good trip and I took a picture of the flag. They took beautiful care of it. It’s in a huge case right at the entrance of the infantry museum section. I’m glad we made that flag and that’s the only place it's kept. Every time I see a veteran, I always ask them if they have any of their things from their time in service. Some of them put them in the attic for their in-laws and they get lost. I always tell them to give it to a local museum. Thousands of people will honor your uncle or your dad if you donate their mementos to a museum. I look at the thousands that will see that flag or whatever memento. Instead of packing it away. Every time I come across a veteran I always tell them, “If you have any mementos, give them to the closest museum so that people can see them.”
What role did you take on after the war?
SL: I was given a job after the war was over during peacetime occupation of Germany. They gave me an assignment to go up and take charge of war prisoners in Hammelburg. They were all political prisoners inside this closed off area. There were artists, mayors, and politicians. I took good care of them but the only thing they really wanted was salt. They weren’t getting enough salt. One of these prisoners had a friend who had a salt emplacement that was not too far away. I told them I would send a GI with a jeep and a guard to bring back some salt. We brought back fifty pounds of salt. This artist was the happiest guy in the world. He wanted to thank me and he painted some pictures for me from inside the cage. That's what made us different than the enemy. We treated them humanely like we were supposed to treat POW. We were Americans.
What do you remember about Nuremburg?
SL: I remember going to Nuremberg where my first assignment was to get the building ready for the trials which was a really good assignment. Colonel Corley was the highest decorated colonel in the Army at the time, and he was the top man there. I saw Hermann Goring come up the steps every day being led by our guards. In Germany, the courthouse was on one side of the street and jail the other and in between was a tunnel. They did this to not expose prisoners to the public. The first rooms I had to get ready was for Goring. I remember preparing the rooms and a colonel from the Pentagon came up and said, “Lombardo, will you go to Nuremberg and get some white silk?” I replied, “For what?” He said, “We’ve got to line the walls of Goring’s room so we can impress him.” I said, “We just beat the hell out of them and you want to impress him with white silk?” I refused to do it because it was a stupid order and quite frankly, a waste of my time. Goring was stripped of all of his medals and we couldn’t take any pictures of him. He was gaunt and white because they had taken him off of the drugs. He wore a dark gray uniform with no medals or insignia. According to some writings, the major that was in charge befriended him. He had the cyanide capsules in his closet and Goring had the major bring those to him. He took the cyanide and killed himself in jail.
Colonel General Jodl took after Hitler. His wife came into my office with an orange and an apple to bring to the colonel. She came down from Berlin and she wanted to know if I would give them to her husband. Up until now, it was a secret we were there because we had been told to keep it quiet. I had to deny that her husband was there. I just told her we were getting ready for the trials and making preparations. She said, "The Stars and Stripes of in Berlin said they were going to be held here.” I replied quickly, “That’s news to me.” Colonel General Jodl was the top man in all of Germany and he was in the prison with Goring. I also distinctly remember that there was a little old lady at the front gate, who had to be 80 or 90 years old. She came every day at 5 o’clock. Colonel Corley told me to go out and find out what she wanted. I sent an interpreter to go out there and find out what she needed. She wanted to see General Patton. It shows you how much respect they had for Patton. They may not have liked him but they respected him.
Can you remember seeing the Statue of Liberty on your way back into America?
SL: Finally, I got orders to go to Marseilles and got on a ship to come across. On the way back, we hit one of the worst storms imaginable. The waves were forty feet high and those liberty ships had a propensity to break in half. The storm was that rough, and when the ship’s bow went up and came down, it was like hitting a concrete floor. The captain was smart and he turned toward the Carolinas which made us three days late coming into the harbor but also saved us from certain destruction. We came up and saw the Statue of Liberty which was a great sight. That was my second time seeing that beauty. Whatever little bit I contributed to the Army, I was just happy that I helped save the greatest democracy in the world. I appreciated it more because I knew what America stood for. It meant more to see it the second time because I realized what I had helped protect. I remember standing there on the edge of the railing. That moment had even more meaning for me then when I was a kid and saw it the first time. I’d earned my freedom.
When the war ended, do you remember that feeling?
SL: It was a relief that we won. When the Battle of the Bulge happened I just knew we couldn’t lose and that was the only time I worried while I was over there. I thought to myself, “We have to win this war. We can’t lose.” It was a massive battle with half a million men on each side fighting to the death for completely different principles. It's hard to explain it to people nowadays, because it was the highest level of sacrifice on such a massive level.
How were the Germans as an enemy?
SL: The Germans were good soldiers unlike the Japanese who were just mean savages. If the Japanese saw someone hurting on the street they weren't like us. They were not going to help. You have to realize that the actual Nazis were a small group of about 35-40,000 soldiers. The Nazis were much closer to Hitler than the rest of the German Army. I saw Wilhelm Keitel at the war crime hearings and I honestly felt kind of sorry for him knowing he was going to die any day. I still had compassion despite his position as a German commander. I always wondered whether he knew about the gas chambers. Dachau, the people in the city knew because of the stench. They would take people from the cities and have them remove the bodies and tell them that they hadn't been there nor did they see anything. There are no worse men in history than the Nazis.
Talk a little bit about your time in service after the war.
SL: I was in Japan for 7 ½ years and I spoke Japanese fluently. I went to language school for a whole year while I was over there, and with my Italian accent it really helped quite a lot. The accent was identical but I couldn’t convince my dad of that (laughs). The words in Japanese are consonant-vowel consonant-vowel. Hirosaki, Yokohama, YOKO-HAMA. Hirosaki, Nagashima, -NAGA- They are all consonant-vowel. The hard vowel pattern is also in other languages. We have it in Spanish, Italian, and Japanese. So, my pronunciation was the best of all the students in my class.
How did you meet your wife?
SL: I lost two wives. I believe in fate. I was at Fort Ord and I took a train with a reserved seat from San Francisco to Los Angeles. It stopped in Salinas and there was only one seat empty and it was right next to her. I went and sat down in that seat. She was a nurse and she was reading a newspaper upside down because she got all excited to see such a handsome lieutenant coming down the aisle (laughs). I said, “Do you always read your paper upside down?” I got to meet her father because he was waiting for her there at the train station. I had the privilege of being with her for 26 years after that. Unfortunately, a drunk driver ran into her car. She died as a result of that crash. She was in such great pain after the wreck, that she was put on opioids. She accidentally overdosed and died at the age of 44.
My second wife was in charge of the charity for a golf tournament and I played golf. She had just lost her husband about a year before that and that’s how we met. Her best friend introduced us and we were married 36 years. She passed away about 12 years ago. Her father was a retired Air Force officer. They were both wonderful women and incredible wives. I had two kids. One retired with 36 years as a pilot for Fed-Ex, and he was a Marine for seven years and he flew helicopters. My daughter was in charge of the training section of Fed-Ex and she retired last year with 30 years at Fed-Ex. They both live in Pensacola, Florida. They didn’t grow up in the countryside like I did, nor during the depression. I think they missed out because I learned a lot about sacrifices and basic life lessons during that time. They both made good money and have nice homes there.
What did you do when you got out of the Army?
SL: I married Jean and we had an avocado grove, and I never worked harder in my life. I wanted to keep it manicured. I worked my tail off for 15 years and learned all about the different aspects of farming. I tell people every tree had to have 200 gallons of water a week. The pickers would come to pick and break the plastic piping accidentally, so I had to learn plumbing as well. The avocado farm was in Fallbrook, which was the capital of avocado farming, north of San Diego. It was a great experience. I had fourteen hives of bees too. My wine won "best wine" at the fair. I wanted to have a small winery and we made 1000 bottles a year. We went to a seminar at USC and learned what the cost was. We did it every year just for fun. We first picked the grapes and then a week later, we pressed them. We would invite 75 people for the BBQ and they would all take a bottle home.
A new grape came out called Carmine and I got the first hundred vines. I made the first Carmine wine. The great Bourdeauxs of France are mixed with Cabernet and Merlot, Dr. Olmos who was a foremost sommelier in the world tried to combine them and make a hybrid. It turned out to be a Carmine. I made the Carmine wine and took it to the fair where it won first place. Carmine never made it as a wine derivative unfortunately. I made a wine cellar underground forty feet into the ground and three feet on top. The front was the tasting room and then the tunnel where I stored the wine was all underground. It was beautiful.
What do you see as the biggest issue in our culture today?
SL: The youth aren’t truly learning about America and what originally made us the land of opportunity. That's the number one problem nowadays. Hillsdale College in Michigan is the most dedicated patriotic college in America. They had a seminar in Pensacola and my best friend had two tickets and he invited me to go along. Guess who raised their hand before the meeting is over? I did. I said, "I’m a ninth grade dropout and raising my hand (laughs)." The professor talked the whole two hours and I raised my hand and told them I was sure nobody was getting the education I did through my time in growing up in a hardened society. In fourth grade, I didn’t know one word of English. I love America for all its faults, but people don’t understand what oppression is and what a great country we have here. We better be careful with this political correctness junk because it'll ruin our entire society. I remember the professor wrote me the most beautiful letter and told me this was a topic in college because the youth aren’t learning about history. He sent me a book, “Churchill’s Crisis," signed by the president of the college.
What does poetry mean to you and why did you start writing it?
SL: Poetry just came to me. It came through my natural male infatuation with beautiful women and some of them I never even talked to. I would see them on the dance floor or in a restaurant and I thought they were beautiful. I love beauty, whether it’s architecture, or art, or women and for some reason, I just had to write about it. I just picked it up myself and I’m still learning.
My book of poems, “Poems for the Young at Heart”, is on sale at the Destin Barnes & Noble store.
My second book, “O’er the Land of the Free” is about my history and the making of our flag. It is out of print now, but on occasion, you can still find a copy on Amazon.
How do you want to be remembered?
SL: I want to be remembered as a patriot; an American -- that is number one. Even though it has its faults, I still love America for all it offers and all it represents.
Documenting the legacy of Sam Lombardo and others like him is a necessary step toward never forgetting those lessons learned, on a battlefield that is now 70+ years in our past. When reading the words of Lombardo the quote comes to mind, "Hard times create strong men. Strong men create good times. Good times create weak men. Weak men create hard times." Empires rise and fall under such principles. Sam Lombardo was forged by a culture of hard times, and this societal structure created the battle-hardened Lieutenant that found himself as the buffer emplaced in a war between the faculties of good and evil. These titans are becoming more and more of a rarity so unless their legacies are captured, some of our most valuable viewpoints will be forgotten. Sam's generation stands as a siren's song to both the greatest in humanity and the worst of all. Forgetting those purveyors of freedom and the cautionary tales told, is a massive disservice to their entire generation. Death was a common factor faced by all on those European battlefields, and the only certainty was found in the ever-present possibility of life's end. We as an allied force, must never forget the offering sacrificial suffrage of our warrior class. They set the table for modern democracy and ensured our pursuit of those freedoms we've held dear for so long.