France’s highest honor, the Legion D’Honneur (Legion of Honor), was established by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802. Since that time, it has been bestowed for military and civil merit upon individuals including King Leopold II, Sir Winston Churchill, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, and General George S. Patton. The latest recipient of the honor is 92-year-old U.S. Army veteran J. Herman Sitrick for heroism and bravery during the Second World War, and it isn’t hard to see why he belongs in such impressive company.
Sitrick was one of thousands of U.S. paratroopers to land on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day, where he was wounded. He could have been sent home then, but he didn’t want to. Instead, he continued fighting his way into France, in spite of the shrapnel in his leg. He then fought at the Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes Forest in Belgium. Surviving a second major battle of the war wasn’t nearly the end of his heroics, however. During the battle, he confronted a German soldier face to face. The German soldier told Sitrick, “Don’t shoot! I have three children.”
Knowing some German, Sitrick was able to understand the plea and, instead of shooting him, took the German prisoner. They sheltered in a nearby farmhouse that had been bombed. Sitrick put the enemy soldier in the basement. During the frigid night, more Germans sought shelter at the farmhouse, where Sitrick captured them as well. The next morning, Sitrick turned over 21 Nazi soldiers he had captured singlehandedly.
According to Sitrick, reporters and photographers had heard about his amazing act of capturing so many Nazi soldiers by himself and wanted to interview him. The modest soldier passed on the offer. He rarely spoke at all of his time in World War II, said his son, “like most true heroes.”
After turning over the Nazi soldiers to the U.S. 3rd Armored Division, Sitrick spent a week in an Allied hospital for “frozen feet” before rejoining his fellow soldiers and continuing to fight. Along with Normandy and Ardennes, Sitrick fought in Brittany, Luxembourg, and other areas of Europe. He left the Army when the war ended in 1946.
When he returned home, he founded the company, Sitrick Advertising in Skokie, Illinois, where he still works to this day. He met his wife, Marcia, at a community center dance two days after he returned home. According to the Chicago Tribune, he proposed to Marcia the very next day, and the following day she said “yes” to his proposal. They married shortly thereafter and have raised a family together since. “It was the best thing I ever did in my lifetime,” Sitrick said of marrying his wife.
“I never felt like a hero. I was there and I had to do what had to be done,” said Sitrick, adding that it was “a huge surprise” to receive the high French honor. His son, Ron Sitrick, said, “What this award means to us more than anything is that his bravery, selflessness, and service is not taken for granted at this stage of his life. The outpouring of love and admiration for our father by so many is astounding and touching for all of us as a family.”
The Legion D’Honneur was awarded to J. Herman Sitrick at a special ceremony from the Consulate General of France in Chicago. Vincent Florean, Consul General of France in Chicago, told The Veterans Site, “Thanks to their courage, to our American friends and allies, France has been living in peace for the past seven decades. We shall never forget.”
The bravery, fortitude, and courage Sitrick showed on the battlefields of World War II, like so many of his fellow soldiers, is truly incredible. His humility about his actions during the war are inspiring.
Jacob H. is an award-winning journalist and photojournalist who currently resides is West Michigan with his wife. In his spare time, Jacob enjoys writing, photography, mountain climbing, and camping.