Harold Sandler didn’t start out to be a “Ninety-day Wonder” or a war hero, but that’s what he became by the time World War II was over.
The Venice, Fla., resident’s lottery number for the draft came up two days after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Sandler began his military career as a halftrack driver.
“On the company bulletin board was a notice to sign up for Officers’ Candidate School. So I signed up,” he remembered as he sat at his dining room table six decades later. “I ended up at Fort Benning, Ga. Three months later, I was a 2nd lieutenant in the U.S. Army.”
He and a bunch of other newly made officers were sent to North Africa. They missed the North Africa fight, but they were in time for the invasion of Sicily in 1943. He was assigned to headquarters company, 3rd Infantry Division. Gen. George Patton commanded the 3rd Army, of which the 3rd Division was a part.
“This was about the time Patton got in trouble for slapping a shell-shocked soldier. The feeling among the guys in our unit was that Patton was wrong in this instance,” Sandler said.
On several occasions, the young 2nd lieutenant had his own face-to-face encounters with the flamboyant general. Patton liked to sit in on the debriefings of platoon leaders who had just returned from reconnaissance patrols into enemy territory. He wanted to get a feel for how the war was going.
“I came off this patrol one day and had my sleeves rolled up and I hadn’t shaved. Patton was standing there watching us. There were a bunch of newspaper photographers with him. Newspaper people were always with him,” Sandler said. “He said to me, ‘Lieutenant, you didn’t shave and your sleeves are rolled up. Unroll those sleeves and get a shave.’
“Patton was the most meticulously dressed solder I ever saw. He was the ultimate professional soldier. He was a complete soldier from the top of his head to the bottom of his feet. He thought he was a soldier in the Roman army. His motto should have been, ‘Kill or be killed.’’’
Sandler’s unit was sent through the center of Sicily into the little villages while taking Messina from the Germans. Both Patton and British Gen. Bernard Montgomery were racing to capture the principal city first.
“We ran into a lot of German mortar fire going through the center of Sicily as the Germans were falling back. The enemy also liked to use anti-personnel mines,” Sandler said. “I told my men, ‘Let’s not take the obvious path.’ Then I would lead the way through the brush.”
They were lucky and reached Messina without encountering any serious injuries. From there, the 3rd Infantry Division moved on across the Straits of Messina to Salerno, Italy.
“We got pounded when we hit the beach at Salerno, but we kept on moving and headed north toward Naples,” he said. At the Volturno River, north of Naples, the 3rd Division ran into stiff enemy opposition.
“We just got across the river and there was a lot of enemy resistance. The headquarters unit sent my platoon out at night to see what the Germans were up to,” Sandler said. “We knew the enemy was all over the place so this time they also sent an intelligence major with me.
“My platoon was walking along the sides of a road in the dark at 10-yard intervals. All of a sudden, enemy machine-gun fire broke out on our right,” he said. “I heard one of my guys get hit. Then, on the left, another German machine gun opened up on us.
“I could see the muzzle bursts in the dark from the closest machine guns. There was a little vegetation between me and the gun,” he said. “I was carrying a Thompson with a 50-shot drum. I started firing at the gun as I charged the enemy position.”
“The Germans couldn’t have been more than 50 feet away when they cut loose on us. As I ran toward them, I kept my finger on the trigger,” he said. “Then all of a sudden the enemy fire quit. When I got to where the machine gunners were, there were three dead Germans in the ditch.
“I turned around and charged the second machine gun. Moments later, they quit firing and ran off.”
Sandler’s injured soldier only suffered a minor flesh wound to one arm. They put sulfur powder on the wound, bandaged him up and continued on their mission.
“The major who was with us that night was much impressed and put me in for a medal even though he said I shouldn’t have done what I did. After thinking about it for a while, I had to agree with him. I shouldn’t have charged the machine guns, but sometimes you do what you have to do,” he said.
For his action that night in Italy, 2nd Lt. Harold H. Sandler received the Silver Star for valor. It ranks below the Medal of Honor and the Distinguished Service Cross and is third in importance.
“About a week or two later, my platoon was walking along the same road farther north during the day when one of my men told me, ‘Lieutenant, there’s a German tank coming out from behind the church up ahead.’
“Sure enough, out came the enemy tank with its big 88-millimeter gun. I was standing in the middle of the road when the tank fired a cannon shell beside me,” he said. “The next thing I knew I was lying in the road with my helmet off, hit in the face with shrapnel from the exploding shell. My helmet saved my life. It stopped a big piece of shrapnel. Even so, the enemy shell tore my face up and broke my jaw. My war was over.”
Sandler was taken to a MASH unit behind the front lines, where he received specialized medical treatment from one of the few oral surgeons in the 3rd Army. The physician wired his jaw shut and someone else worked on his shrapnel-damaged face.
He was transported to a hospital in Iran. They wouldn’t send him by plane because they were concerned he might choke to death if he became airsick with his jaw wired shut.
“I went by hospital ship,” Sandler said. “The nurse came through and gave me a small pair of wire clippers. ‘If you feel you’re gonna throw up, cut those wires and force your mouth open or you’ll choke to death,’ she told me. “I made up my mind I wasn’t going to get sick.”
After nearly three months of recuperating, he was reassigned to light duty with the 204th Quartermaster Car Company based 30 miles north of Naples, Italy. His new unit controlled all the captured enemy cars and other vehicles used by the 3rd Army.
In early 1945, his company commander was ordered to deliver a message to Pope Pius XII at the Vatican in Rome. When his commander delivered dispatches from American forces to the pope, he took Sandler with him on the trip.
“We were ushered into this tremendously ornate room in the Vatican with a high ceiling covered with murals,” he recalled. “On the walls in this huge room were the Stations of the Cross in Hebrew. I could read them.
“My captain, who was Catholic, knelt and kissed the pope’s ring.
“I walked up to the pope and said, ‘I’m Jewish.’ The Holy Father extended his hand and said with a smile, ‘Wonderful. After all, our Savior was, too.’”
When the captain finished presenting the official messages to the pontiff, he told the pope they were on their way to tour the Holy Land. Pius pulled a piece of personal stationery out of his desk drawer, wrote a note and handed it to the captain.
“The note he wrote for the captain would get us into the Church of the Nativity or the Holy Sepulcher or anyplace else we wanted to visit in the area. The pope explained it was Greek Easter in the Holy Land.
“When we arrived at the Church of the Nativity, it was jammed to capacity with Greek Christians,” Sandler said. “From there we went to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where we were met by the bishop and taken to Christ’s tomb. On top of the tomb is a massive statue of Jesus and on top of that is the inscription in Hebrew: ‘King of the Jews.’
“We toured Egypt, went to Cairo and saw the pyramids. We were in Tel Aviv when the Germans surrendered. You talk about wild celebrations — the Jews were going crazy there when they got the news.
His Silver Star commendations
Second Lt. Harold Sandler received the following commendation for service with the 3rd Infantry Division, 3rd Army, in Europe during World War II. His citation with the Silver Star medal reads:
“HAROLD L. SANDLER, 2nd Lieutenant, Headquarters Second Battalion, Infantry for gallantry in action. Second Lieutenant SANDLER on the night of 22 October 1943, while leading a night reconnaissance patrol, was fired upon by an enemy machine gun, scattering his patrol. Without regard for his personal safety, he charged directly into the enemy fire with his tommy gun, thereby silencing the weapon and inflicting several casualties on the enemy. This made it possible for his patrol to successfully complete its mission.”
Name: Harold H. Sandler
D.o.B.: 24 January 1916
Hometown: Chicago, Ill.
Address: Venice, Fla.
Entered Service: Dec 1941
Discharged: Feb 1946
Service Number: 01309612
Unit: 3rd Infantry Division, Headquarters Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment
Commendations: Purple Heart, Silver Star, Combat Infantry Badge, America Theatre Ribbon with 3 Battle Stars, World War II Victory Medal
Married: Mary Gloria Ponzio
Children: Arlene Moore, Aaron Sandler
Grandchildren: Brendan Moore, Devin Moore
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida in 2005 and is republished with permission.
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