Crestview mayor remembers World War II veteran, Lt. Col. Sam Lombardo

‘He was truly from the Greatest Generation’

Brian Hughes | Special to the News Bulletin/USA TODAY NETWORK

CRESTVIEW — The passing June 11 of local World War II hero and legend Sam Lombardo, retired lieutenant colonel, touched many throughout Northwest Florida.

After his June 19 funeral, Crestview Mayor JB Whitten fondly remembered a visit with him last summer at the Magnolia Grill in Fort Walton Beach.

As Crestview prepared to observe the August 2020 75th anniversary of the Allies’ World War II victory, Col. Lombardo agreed to be the opening ceremony’s keynote speaker.

Whitten, public information officer and event organizer Brian Hughes, and event caterer Mary Richard shared a memorable July 2020 lunch with the lively war hero.

Organizers of the Aug. 27-28, 2020 Crestview World War II Victory Commemoration had lunch with event guest speaker Sam Lombardo, retired lieutenant colonel and World War II hero, at the Magnolia Grill in Fort Walton Beach. From left are Caterer Mary Richard, Crestview Mayor JB Whitten, and Crestview Public Information Officer Brian Hughes. Lombardo died June 11, 2021 at age 101.

Over cannelloni soup — the colonel’s favorite lunch selection — Lombardo shared stories from his colorful, then 101-year-old life, captivating his audience with tales of derring-do and Yankee ingenuity.

“The amazing thing about Lt. Col. Lombardo is that his reputation, his charisma, and his utmost military professionalism extended beyond his home in the city of Fort Walton Beach and the Emerald Coast,” Whitten said.

Stories from his youth and career

Tales from his youth as a 9-year-old boy who immigrated from a village in the Heel of Italy in 1929 showed how his love of his new country shaped him. They include the following:

•Shortly before leaving Italy, he watched Fascists detain an old man in his native Samo di Calabria. “He was hauled away because he could not raise his hand to salute the Fascists. It made me so mad because I couldn’t do anything to help him. He couldn’t raise his hand if he tried. He was old and all bent over!”

•When a classmate plucked a small flag from Lombardo's pocket that he'd brought from his homeland, he said, “I thought they were going to arrest me for having the Italian flag. But this is the land of freedom. Instead, the teacher said, ‘Sam, why don’t you do us a show-and-tell and tell us about Italy?’”

Then 1st Lt. Sam Lombardo, at right, and his unit display the American flag they made as they advanced into Germany. When they carried their handiwork across the Bridge at Remagen, it became the first U.S. flag carried by American troops over the landmark Rhein River.

•Helping feed his family, young Sam Lombardo joined his dad and learned to hunt in the woods of Pennsylvania where they had settled. Learning the woods helped him navigate the thick forests in Belgium and Germany with Company I of the 394th Infantry, including during the Battle of the Bulge.

“My men told me if I hadn’t, they would still be wandering around the German woods,” he said.

•His trailblazing led his company and a couple others to an open field on the border between Belgium and Germany. The field turned out to be heavily mined.

“The first guy took a step and blew up. The second guy took a step and he blew up, too. Then it was my turn.

“I looked to heaven, I said, ‘God, help me!’ I took that step, and nothing happened. I took another step, and nothing happened. I took another one and another one for 200 yards. I looked back from the other side and saw everybody following my trail. It took more courage to do that than anything else I’ve ever done.”

•His love of America drove him and his unit to sew what became the first American flag to cross the Rhein River during the war.

“I really got homesick not seeing the American flag, so we made one of our own.”

He and his outfit worked on the flag between fighting Germans over two months, using blue eiderdown comforter covers for the field and borrowing a German village bürgermeister’s sewing machine to complete the flag, which is now displayed at the National Infantry Museum at Fort Benning, Georgia.

•The flag crossed the Rhein over the Bridge at Remagen (the river’s last standing bridge) in the dark of a March 1945 night as Lombardo and his men paused periodically to look for gaping bomb holes in the deck. 

•As the building officer in charge of the Palace of Justice in Nuremburg, then-1st Lt. Lombardo oversaw the refurbishment of the Nuremburg Trials courtroom in which members of the German hierarchy were brought to justice.

“I passed (Reichsmarschall Hermann) Göring every day. It’s too bad I couldn’t take pictures. I wish I could’ve.”

•He was asked to take a special visitor to the Palace of Justice’s renowned legal library, which hadn’t been opened since bombings had wedged the door shut. Opening it up, the first thing he found among toppled books was a dust-covered, autographed copy of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf manifesto.

“I should’ve taken it. That’d be something to have!” he said.

Lombardo would later also serve in the Korean Conflict and the Vietnam War, earning 16 U.S. decorations, including the Silver Star, the French Legion of Honor, and awards from Belgium and the Republic of Korea.

Cooking for Julia

Retired from the military since March 1962, he once had an avocado farm in northern California. A friend and neighbor asked him to pick up a distinguished visitor from the small community airport, who turned out to be world-famous TV chef Julia Child. While his friend had plenty of champagne on hand to welcome her, he had no food to serve with it, so Lombardo, an accomplished cook himself, baked a batch of homemade biscotti.

“I’ve had biscotti with coffee, with tea, with Coke, but never with champagne. We had biscotti with Julia with champagne!” Lombardo said.

These and many other adventures are detailed in his book, "O’er the Land of the Free."

“There’s so many stories I could tell,” Lombardo said. “I’ve been blessed. I’ve been real blessed.”

“After the colonel was involved in Crestview’s commemoration of the 75th anniversary of D-Day, he kept in contact with me and city members, even inviting us to his 100th birthday,”  Whitten said. “I will always treasure his friendship. He was truly from the Greatest Generation.”