When I read about Sargeant Sylvester Antolak, the first two things that popped into my head were “was he insane?” followed by “I don’t think he was even human.”
I mean, he took three frickin’ shots from, what, a 7.92×57mm? Yet he managed to spring up his feet three times and charge toward the machine gun nest like there was no tomorrow (no pun intended). Reminding me of another mad-lad Medal of Honor recipient Edward A. Carter, but unlike him, who fortunately survived his brutal wounds—Antolak wasn’t that lucky.
Antolak, however, inspired his men so much that he took all their fears away and charged on towards the remaining machine gun trenches of the Germans and brought them down.
A Humble Farm Boy From Ohio
Born and raised on a family farm in St. Clairsville, Ohio, Antolak was the youngest son of Polish immigrants. He enlisted in the U.S. Army in July 1941, just five months before the tragic Pearl Harbor attack. At age 23, Antolak served in the European theater as a platoon leader, spending most of his military career with 1st Platoon Company B of the 15th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division.
Under the command of Major General Charles F. Thompson, Antolak’s platoon was among the men sent to Anzio, a coastal region of Italy about 15 km south of Rome, to partook in a critical invasion that would make or break the end of World War 2. Accordingly, troops would break through the Anzio beachhead, eliminate the Germans’ defensive lines, and provide a clear path for the Allies to access Rome, one of the Axis-controlled capital. But the feat was easier said than done.
Though dozens of troops attempted to cross, Germans would shower them with bullets, resulting in a dreadful massacre at the beachfront. However, Antolak and his platoon would make significant progress amid a fierce exchange of fire and eventually reached a necessary railroad embankment near the town of Cisterna on August 24, 1944. The platoon had already had a rough day beforehand, and the barrier had provided them temporary protection from the enemy’s machine guns and a proper place to recuperate.
That morning was quiet. After regaining strength and seeing no movement from the Nazi Germans, the platoon started moving forward. But as expected, the enemy troops were waiting for them to split up into two and for the first group to tread halfway across the open field before opening fire, trapping the men down the grass. Antolak knew that if these men remained to get isolated, they would likely be destroyed by either bullets or fear. So, he needed to make a decision quickly.
What happened next would become a legendary move that would cement his legacy as a soldier who goes beyond his duty.
Proof Antolak Was A Superhuman
Creating space and distraction, Antolak rose and started running like a madman into the open field opposite where the first group was trapped. He weaved through the 200-yard distance between his platoon and one of the enemy positions, blasting them with a machine gun. The platoon leader made himself a difficult target by zigzagging, all while counterstriking the enemy nest with his Tommy submachine gun.
He was hit, yet Antolak just stood up, signaled his men to follow, and went on his mad sprinting. The Wehrmacht machine gun would hit him again twice, one shot shattering his shoulder, but he continued springing up his feet, picking up and tucking his submachine gun under his good arm and resumed charging.
“Fascinated, we watch as he gets up for the third time and dashes straight into the enemy fire,” a fellow Medal of Honor recipient Audie L. Murphy recounted in his book, To Hell and Back. “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.”
Antolak’s persistence and drive boosted his men’s morale, while he left a terrifying impression on the firing Germans at the trench. Imagine being one of those German soldiers, knowing you hit that man thrice yet keep coming back up; I’d be frustrated and terrified too—and might even think he’s possessed. So I don’t blame them for immediately yelling “Kamerad” as soon as the heavy breathing, severely injured Antolak reached their trench.
Murphy later recounted how Antolak ignored “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 added. “He reeled, then tottered forward another few yards before falling.”
He was 25.
A Noble Sacrifice
His men and, eventually, allies would not have secured and liberated the Italian capital if it wasn’t for his courage and love for his fellow soldiers. Antolak was an exemplary leader willing to put himself out there to save everyone from his platoon, with no one left behind. Moreover, the critical victory occurred thanks to this man’s insane initiative coupled with his drive and endurance, even if it meant his life being sacrificed.
The official citation read during his posthumous awarding ceremony on November 1, 1945:
“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 strongpoints 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.”
You can watch the documentary narrative of Antolak on Netflix.