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Aug 13, 2019 5:58 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press

In East Hampton, World War II Veteran Celebrates Purple Heart Day

Bill Hutton, Brian Porter, and James Baylock, Purple Heart recipients, celebrated Purple Heart Day.   KYRIL BROMLEY
Aug 13, 2019 2:48 PM

Martin Sylvester was 18 when he was drafted to fight in World War II. He landed on Utah Beach in France the day after D-day, fought in the Battle of the Bulge, suffered a sniper shot to the ankle, and escaped German prisoner of war camps three times before the war ended in 1945. Mr. Sylvester, a Purple Heart recipient, now 94 and living in Springs and Manhattan, celebrated Purple Heart Day at an event at the home of Michael Novogratz in Amagansett, organized with the help of Nick Kraus, and hosted by the Purple Heart Foundation on Thursday, August 8.

The Amagansett event followed three days of Purple Heart Foundation events in New York City that honored men and women who were wounded on the battlefield or sacrificed their lives during war.

As veterans and their families enjoyed lobster rolls, hors d’oeuvres and wine at his home, Mr. Novogratz said that his father, Robert Novogratz, had served in the military for 30 years, including two tours in Vietnam. Michael Novogratz also served in the U.S. Army National Guard after college.

“We thank you for your service,” Mr. Novogratz said over the microphone to a number of veterans from World War II and wars including those in Vietnam and Iraq.

Bill Hutton, a Purple Heart recipient and a board member of the Purple Heart Foundation, thanked the Novogratzes for their service, and for hosting the celebration.

“The reason we’re here is to celebrate Purple Heart Day and the veterans,” said Mr. Hutton, a Marine who served in Vietnam.

Later, Mr. Sylvester told his personal story.

His infantry, Company G, 12th Regiment, 4th Infantry Division, landed on what U.S. military forces called Utah Beach on June 7, 1944, at the beginning of the Normandy invasion. It was the start of a four-month battle in which nearly 6,000 Americans died.

Mr. Sylvester said his infantry was directed to board boats from England to France at 5 a.m. that day. Utah Beach didn’t see the same “fire power” as Omaha Beach, he said, adding that in a single day, the Americans had lost 3,000 men at Omaha Beach.

“We traveled through the fields,” he said, recalling pastures and farmhouses they marched past in France, whose citizens were thrilled to see Americans, he said, and offered them bottles of wine, food and hugs.

As Mr. Sylvester’s infantry traveled deeper into France, they encountered German fire.

From November 1944 until December 1944, Mr. Sylvester found himself in the Battle of Hürtgen Forest. The Americans suffered 33,000 casualties during that battle; it went down as the longest single battle in U.S. Army history.

“Everyone was being killed,” Mr. Sylvester said. “They booby-trapped everything — they knew every inch of that forest. We were always under fire,” he said, adding that there was a land mine just about every other step. “That was worse than D-Day. We couldn’t move without the Germans knowing.”

He said thousands of American soldiers were killed by mortars, cannons and machine guns, while others lost arms and legs to booby traps. His company lost one out of 10 men a day, he said, and at one point, he was one of the American soldiers who was there for the longest period of time.

Mr. Sylvester’s brother, Ernie, took a bullet to the head at the age of 22 in the Hürtgen Forest. His parents, who lived in Brooklyn, received two telegrams that week, one that Ernie had been killed and another that Martin was missing in action.

On December 13, 1944, Mr. Sylvester remembered, the Americans were relieved and sent to an abandoned town for rest and rehabilitation. “We got hot food and showers,” he said, adding that the Americans had an outpost overlooking the Germans on the other side of the Moselle River.

“We would watch the Germans lining up for food, and exercising. They always had hot soup,” he laughed. “We could hear them singing sometimes.”

It was Mr. Sylvester’s turn for outpost duty on December 16, 1944. It was dawn, and he had just awakened and opened a can of rations.

The man he was relieving started to shout, “Red! Red!” — they all called Mr. Sylvester “Red,” because he had red hair — “look at this,” as he handed him binoculars. Looking down from their camp, Mr. Sylvester could see hundreds of German soldiers piling across the river.

This was the beginning of the Battle of the Bulge.

American soldiers told the outpost they were surrounded by Germans — and outnumbered.

“You guys better get out of here! Don’t come down. We’re outnumbered and surrounded,” the outpost soldiers told Mr. Sylvester.

From there, Mr. Sylvester and a group of men made their way south and ended up in Liege, Belgium. Movies and restaurants were open, he remembered, with people were going about their everyday lives.

However, Germans were prepared to attack Liege on Christmas morning.

“The Germans were expected to attack Christmas Day. We set up a line, dug in, and waited for them. I was up all night,” Mr. Sylvester said, adding that the Americans knew they probably wouldn’t stand a chance. “The Germans started running across the field. We opened fire. We knew we’d be overrun — all of a sudden, from behind, fresh troops came in. The 28th Division came to relieve us.”

He said the Americans charged in and started shooting. The Germans started “dropping like flies,” Mr. Sylvester said, adding that he and his men climbed up from the foxholes and started cheering.

Afterward, the American troops organized as a fighting force and headed back to fight at the Battle of the Bulge — the Americans suffered 75,000 casualties, but by the end of January 1945, American troops had retaken all ground they had lost.

That battle was Germany’s final attempt to drive the Allied forces out of Europe.

On January 23, 1944, Mr. Sylvester’s infantry planned to attack a German town called Fuhren, where troops had been stationed. As American troops entered the town, Germans emerged from their buildings with their hands raised.

Mr. Sylvester, his lieutenant, and a handful of other men began to retreat into the basement of a wrecked house at the far end of town, knowing the Germans had surrendered. All of a sudden, something hit Mr. Sylvester’s ankle. At first, he thought it was a rock. It knocked him off his feet, and it burned, but they kept walking to the basement. The bullet went through his ankle but didn’t hit the bone, he said, pointing to his ankle, explaining that the bullet went in between two bones.

Mr. Sylvester’s leg continued to bleed as they retreated into the basement to use as their headquarters. Although the Germans had retreated, the Americans expected a counterattack within a few hours.

For the time being, the men lit a fire on a pot-bellied stove that sat in the corner of the basement, relaxed and ate. Minutes later, they heard, “Come out! Come out!”

On the top step stood a German soldier clutching a hand grenade. Outside the narrow windows, the men could see more German soldiers carrying grenades.

Mr. Sylvester and the seven men picked up their rifles. “We were going to take them out,” he said. “But if they threw one grenade, we would’ve been all gone.” So they decided to walk out with their hands up, surrendering to the Germans.

Mr. Sylvester still hadn’t been treated for his ankle wound and was sent to a labor camp. Fifty men were housed in a one-room schoolhouse, sleeping in hay full of lice and other bugs.

The prisoners were fed during the afternoon, in between grueling work cutting logs, chopping them into slices and shredding the wood into chips that the Germans used as fuel for their trucks.

“We had a bowl of watery soup and two slices of bread a day,” Mr. Sylvester recalled of his time being a prisoner of war. “When I got out of the camp, I weighed 80 pounds.”

After January 1945, the Americans were winning the war, and every time American troops inched closer, the Germans would move north, taking the POWs with them.

Mr. Sylvester escaped being a POW three separate times, with only the third time being a success.

At one point he noticed that at night, when they marched, a guard was posted every 20 feet or so.

“I figured out that if we went around a curve, and I stood behind one guard, the next guard wouldn’t be able to see me, you follow?” Mr. Sylvester said with a chuckle. “I just dropped into the brush and they’d all walk by.”

The first time he fell into a bush and escaped to a barn filed with cows. He crawled into a large haystack and slept for the night. The next morning, a woman uncovered him while feeding the cows, and called the Germans. While he was still asleep, a German with a bayonet began prodding Mr. Sylvester, and took him to headquarters.

He was taken back to a POW camp — this time, one with barbed wire and attack dogs. But again, American forces were moving closer, and the Germans had to retreat, taking the POWs with them.

On his second escape, he came across a small village that had been bombed.

“I went down the steps into a basement, fell asleep, and, again, woke up to being poked with a bayonet,” he said.

The third time, after falling into the brush, he stayed silent for an hour. He searched for a house to hide in during the day. He was covered in dirt and mud, and nothing on his tattered clothing identified him as a soldier.

He came across an open door and walked in. A woman began shouting to her neighbors in German. She walked down the steps with a key, opened the basement door, and pushed Mr. Sylvester in. She locked the door behind her. A cot sat in the corner. Being exhausted and feverish, Mr. Sylvester fell asleep.

The next morning, the basement door began to rattle. The woman opened the door and took Mr. Sylvester upstairs.

“She was friendly. She sat me down and gave me a big bowl of meat and potatoes, and offered me a shower,” he said. “I was very confused.” he stayed with the woman and her family for three days until American forces marched through the town.

Finally, he was taken to a hospital in France to be treated for his gun wound, typhoid fever and gangrene.

It was April 1945. He weighed only 80 pounds, his wound became gangrenous, and his body began to swell from infection. Doctors told him that in two more weeks, he would have lost his leg. Another week longer, and he would have lost his life. Penicillin saved his leg and his life, he said.

Several men in Mr. Sylvester’s POW camp died of malnutrition and dysentery, he said.

When the war ended, Mr. Sylvester remained in the hospital in France. “I took a walk outside, and they were screaming and drinking. I had to go back to the hospital. It was too much,” he laughed.

Mr. Sylvester said it was the friendship and comradery from the other soldiers that got him through the rough times.

Mr. Sylvester soon after went back home to Brooklyn and attended Brooklyn College. For 40 years, he had a private practice in psychotherapy and psychoanalysis. He went on to become an associate professor at the New York University Graduate School of Social Work and was on the faculty of the post-graduate center for mental health.

Now he lives in Manhattan and spends time in Florida during the winter. He has been coming to East Hampton for the summer since the 1970s.

He has two sons, Paul and Peter, three granddaughters, Emma, Jennifer and Sarah, and two great-grandchildren, Hattie Rose, and Alan. Two more great-grandchildren are on the way.

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