Pile Driver, Broadcaster, War Hero

Photo by Rich Schmitt/ Staff Photographer

The Unstoppable Quiet Man, J. Herman Sitrick

By MARIE TABELA | Special to the Palisadian-Post

It was a grace moment of extraordinary humanity at the height of the Battle of the Bulge, the largest and bloodiest battle fought by the United States during the World War II. Amid the winter carnage, with over one million men fighting hand-to-hand in the bloody snow of the Ardennes forest in Belgium, came the hours when a humble soldier from Iowa demonstrated a generosity that proved once again why the Americans and their allies were the good guys during that titanic struggle.

Jules Herman Sitrick, an infantryman from Davenport who has two of his three sons now living in Pacific Palisades, had already been wounded four times since landing on the Normandy beaches as part of the second wave in June 1944. Six months later, as American, British and French forces pressed closer to the German border, he was to face his greatest moral challenge.

Sitrick’s commander had sent the crack shot and SCR 300 backpack radio operator out into the frigid wastelands on a deadly mission: find other soldiers that could help his undermanned company stand up against the fearsome Tiger tanks.

Instead, a shocked German soldier stumbled into his path, begging him not to shoot as he had three children. Sitrick had enough German and decency to recognize the truth here.

Seeking refuge from the weather, a deadly foe in itself with a wind chill factor of 40 below freezing, Sitrick shepherded his prisoner into the basement of a burned-out farmhouse.

“I spoke enough German to tell him that if soldiers came down, not to say anything to them or I would shoot them,” Sitrick recalled. “And I sat underneath the see-through steps with my rifle.”

With a cool, unafraid demeanor and impressive build, partially as a result of his teen years sledgehammering spikes into the Rock Island Railroad, the lone infantryman disarmed every Wehrmacht enemy that found their way to the basement.

“They kept coming down during the night out of the cold, and I had 21 prisoners by morning,” Sitrick, now 93, told the Palisadian-Post with that “doing my job” Midwest calmness.

Pictured, from left: Ronald Sitrick, David Sitrick, Michael Sitrick, Counsul General Vicent Fioreani, Jules Herman Sitrick, H Steven Blum and Lt. General USA (retired)
Photos courtesy of the Sitrick family

They might have been even less happy if they realized they had been outsmarted by a Jew, the kind of mild-mannered religious man their regime dismissed as barely human.

Sitrick collected their guns and held the Germans quiet and safe until General Patton’s Third Armory relieved him of his burden, and he could seek treatment for frostbitten feet.

It was a brutal time: News was circulating that the Waffen-SS were murdering hundreds of American prisoners at nearby Malmedy, Baugnez and Wereth meant that some were looking for payback.

But for Sitrick, doing the right thing was paramount and nothing to make a fuss about.

Last year the French government did just that. They tracked Sitrick down, after seven decades and a campaign by fellow survivors, to award him the Legion d’honneur—the nation’s highest military award. It was presented to him in a family-strong ceremony by French officials in Chicago in June 2017.

This is on top of a Purple Heart and Bronze Star, having fought from Northern France to the Hürtgen Forest in Germany, night after night, digging foxholes and sharing them with frogs and snakes—a bed a dream away. And being wounded four times.

Sitrick, of course, shrugs all this off but his sons—Michael and David Sitrick, long-term residents of the Palisades, as well as their brother Ron—know that their father, with two boxes of medals, is the epitome of the best and most unfashionable kind of hero. The quiet man.

“He took 21 prisoners, by himself, during the Battle of the Bulge—this is the kind of stuff they make movies about,” said Michael, whose reputation crisis management firm has dealt with its share of noisier screen heroes. “But who would believe such a story?”

Today the nonagenarian splits his time between running his own advertising business, J Herman Sitrick Advertising in Skokie, 15 miles north of Chicago, going into his office every day and, when he can take time off, visiting his sons Michael and David, as well as his grandchildren and great-grandchildren in the Palisades.

Family friends, speaking to the Chicago press at the time of his investiture in the Legion—an exclusive band of brothers with its own elegant “clubhouse” on the left bank of the River Seine in Paris—described Sitrick as a low-key and honest gentleman who had never uttered a profanity. He has found a kind of peace.

He could have been an instant hero, but he took the most life-enhancing course: to put behind him horrors such as a shrapnel-blasted leg, leaping over a fence to avoid bullets to land on a dead German soldier, then being chastised by a three-star general for looking unkempt.

And then came the Bulge mission. All the nightmares and surreal absurdities of war.

LIFE and several other magazines were already looking to anoint him as he recovered from frostbite, but he slipped home—to the most blessed night of his life, when at a dance at a community center he met his lifelong partner, Marcia.

“I danced with her most of the night, and the next night we went out to dinner and I asked her to marry me,” Sitrick shared. “She said, ‘Is it alright if I tell you tomorrow night?’ And the next night she said, ‘Yes, I’ll marry you.’”

The couple enjoyed a loving relationship for 71 years up to her passing last year.

“We had a storybook marriage,” he said. “In 71 years, we never had one bad day of married life.”

But there were some bad nights, when he would awake sweating and shouting at other soldiers to take cover. The difference—now Marcia was there to soothe him.

After the wedding, Sitrick attended college on the G.I. Bill while simultaneously working at Sears. He graduated in two-and-a-half years and was immediately offered a job as an assistant to the dean teaching night classes and another with the FBI.

Radio broadcasting, though, was what ultimately caught his attention. He got his start with two Chicago radio stations as a salesman, and eventually moved on to WGN, where he worked in sales and management, and eventually ran a group of radio and TV stations in Birmingham, Alabama, and Baltimore, Maryland. He worked at the first all-news radio station, WNUS, followed by the WCIU television station.

iPhone affixed to his belt, Sitrick still loves his daily grind. He handled the Chicago Cubs account for over two-and-a-half decades, and they have asked to honor him on the field at a game of his choosing.

“The Blackhawks honored me on the ice, right before the opening game against the Stanley Cup champions, and the president of the Blackhawks made a very warm speech about me in the skybox afterward,” Sitrick beamed.

As the Chicago Jewish News has put it, Herman has done his duty beyond what anyone could have expected and lives a long (and happy) life as the ultimate bonus.