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.

(Image source: St. Clairsville Public Library)

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.