After 68 years, Destin vet may get Purple Heart

Retired Army Lt. Col. Sam Lombardo poses with medals he earned during a military career that spanned three wars, World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. His medals include the Silver Star and Bronze Star with Valor. Paperwork has been submitted that could lead to a Purple Heart medal for the 93-year-old Destin man.

An "anomaly" on an MRI scan may mean a Purple Heart for one Destin World War II vet.

“When they took it, my knee heated up,” said retired Army Lt. Col. Sam Lombardo, with a laugh. “They found shrapnel after 68 years.”

The Destin man suspected he has been carrying the metal since Dec. 16, 1944.

Then-1st Lt. Lombardo, a 99th Infantry Division platoon commander, was busy emplacing his man along a ridge when the Germans struck with a mortar barrage.

During the attack on the first day of what would become known as the Battle of the Bulge, three of his men were wounded and, apparently, so was Lombardo without knowing it.

He was protected against a West Europe winter by layers of clothing, never feeling the small piece, or pieces, of metal penetrate his right knee. Nor was blood noticeable.

Lombardo started his military career as a Pennsylvania Army National Guard soldier. When the U.S. entered World War II, the immigrant from Italy itched to fight in Europe but was refused because of a special talent. He knew how to read maps very well and taught map-reading classes in the States.

“I volunteered to fight because I thought the war would be over in two years,” he explained. “I wanted to get Hitler.”

In April 1942 he went to Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, Ga., and by October 1944 Lombardo was finally in Europe.

The Battle of the Bulge saw German infantry and tanks pour into Belgium, an offensive that took Allied commanders by surprise. Days of fierce fighting resulted in the Germans withdrawing back to Germany. Lombardo followed.

He and his platoon were the first 99th ID soldiers to cross the Rhine River into Germany. They used the famous Remagen Bridge before it dropped into the broad river.

With unabashed pride, Lombardo tells the story of how he and his men carried a handmade American flag across the river because the Army-issued Stars and Stripes were unavailable.

As the Allies pushed eastward into Germany, Lombardo crossed a minefield that moments earlier maimed two infantrymen from two other 99th ID companies.

“I looked up at Heaven when I started and said 'God help me,' ” he said. “That took more courage than anything I did during the war.”

He recalls the incident with a combination of words and hand gestures mimicking feet stepping onto snow before making contact with the ground. Lombardo started with his left foot, pressing it a few inches into the snow incrementally. “Crunch, crunch, crunch, crunch,” is the way he described the sound of the snow before making contact with the ground. No explosion. One hundred and sixty men followed in Lombardo’s footsteps to safety.

The officer took part in battles big and small. He saw men die, cradling a private who had his arms severed during an artillery attack until the teenager died.

When the war ended, Lombardo was near the banks of the Danube River. The Allies then became occupiers and Lombardo a “building officer” took on the duty of preparing a palace for the war trials at Nuremburg.

Among the Germans he saw was Luftwaffe commander Herman Goering and an elderly German woman who stood at the palace gate daily. Eventually she was asked what she was waiting for. The woman, said Lombardo, was hoping for a glimpse of “panzer general Patton.”

Lombardo would serve in Korea and Vietnam as an intelligence officer. Among his jobs when he retired from the Army was avocado farming.

“I never worked harder in my life and it was a losing battle,” he said about his avocado venture. At one point, it cost him 37 cents to raise one pound of the fruit but he was getting 15 cents from wholesalers.

Though often encountering tragedy, the widower considers himself a lucky man, right down to his decision to make Destin home.

He wrote in a Christmas poem sent to The Log, family and friends with his Christmas cards, “Now I’m looking to the future after one year of stay, Thanking God that I live in Destin, Cause He led the way.”