FORT WALTON BEACH — After a few weeks in and around Europe's Ardennes Forest, Sam Lombardo was homesick, although not really for the Pennsylvania woods he knew so well.
What Lombardo really missed was something more quintessentially American than even his coal-country hometown.
He missed America's red, white, blue and star-spangled flag.
It was late 1944 sliding into early 1945, and Lombardo, now a resident of Fort Walton Beach, was the executive officer of a U.S. Army infantry company smack in the middle of World War II's Battle of the Bulge. The battle was a last-ditch effort by Adolf Hitler to split the Allied forces arrayed against him with a strong push though France into Belgium. Taking its name from the shape of the Allies' battle lines, the fight produced heavy American casualties.
"Things were pretty scary there, with the Germans pushing us back that far," Lombardo said this week from his room at the Meridian at Westwood, an assisted-living facility. "The first thing that came to me was,'This can't happen. This can't happen to us.' And finally, we started pushing back."
Seeking to boost morale among battle-weary troops as his company moved toward Germany — "We were like a beaten dog," he recalled — then-1st Lt. Lombardo asked his company commander in late January 1944 to request that an American flag be issued to the company. The request was denied by higher headquarters.
"The denial made me so furious that I thought to myself, 'If they won't give us one, we'll make one,' " Lombardo recounts in his World War II memoir, "O'er the Land of the Free."
His men were as enthusiastic as he was about the idea. So as the company moved across the countryside, eyes were peeled for material that could be used to make a flag. One day, the soldiers spied swaths of white cloth hanging from the window of an abandoned home. Inside, Lombardo and his men found pillows made of red fabric and blue curtains hanging in the windows.
One piece of the white fabric measured 3 feet wide by 5 feet long — the perfect size for a flag, Lombardo smiled as he remembered the discovery. And that wasn't all. As luck would have it, the pillow fabric and curtains were near-perfect matches for the red stripes and blue field of the American flag.
"The colors were great," he said. "We lucked out."
Getting the material, though, was just part of the challenge of making an American flag while moving into Germany. The medic in Lombardo's company had some scissors, so it was easy enough to put him to work cutting stars — 48 for each side of the flag — from some of the pilfered white cloth.
In another stroke of luck, one of the men in Lombardo's company had been a tailor in civilian life. But sewing the flag together by hand would have been an arduous undertaking, and the hand-sewn stitches might have worked loose as the unfinished banner was packed up and carried across the countryside.
And so it was that every time they came to a town, Lombardo and his men would go to local leaders, find someone with a sewing machine and borrow it for their mission. Working by candlelight, sometimes late into the night, they assembled the flag piece by piece, stitch by stitch.
"It was a nice project for us," Lombardo said. "I think it helped everybody, reminding them of America and what we had over here."
The flag was finished three weeks before the war ended in Europe on May 8, 1945, with Germany's unconditional surrender. In the waning days, the homemade banner made some history. It was, according to Lombardo, the first American flag to cross Germany's Rhine River, as he and his company crossed the all but bombed-out bridge at Remagen.
Soon after, the soldiers who fashioned the homemade flag would go their separate ways as they were assigned new roles in the Allied occupation of Germany. Lombardo, whose military career would go on to include service in Korea and Vietnam — he retired as a lieutenant colonel — wound up in Nuremberg, preparing the Palace of Justice for the war crimes trials of various Nazis.
But before they split up, the members of Lombardo's company called a special formation and presented him with the flag. Some years later, he offered the flag to the Smithsonian Institution. A kindly curator there dissuaded him from making the donation, Lombardo said, explaining that while the Smithsonian would love to have the flag, it likely would be displayed for just a short time before being relegated to storage with other artifacts.
And that's why the flag today is prominently displayed at the National Infantry Museum & Soldier Center at Fort Benning, Georgia.
For Lombardo, an Italian immigrant who came into America through Ellis Island, the flag is more— much more — than just a pretty arrangement of stripes and stars. It is, in a very real sense, America itself, he says.
"It represents the stores. It represents the ball games. It represents everything," Lombardo said. "It means home."