By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News
Is a man any less of a hero if he doesn’t talk about his great deed?
Likely the truth is the exact opposite. An individual committing a heroic act, but not drawing attention to himself, only enhances himself. The news making event isn’t an outlier from his essence. It may dramatically stick out from his daily routine, yet cannot be separated from his basic persona. And it gives those close to him an even better measure of his heart and soul.
Such is the case of Jules Herman Sitrick — known to most as Herman — of Morton Grove. He has been the ultimate mild-mannered man to his family and friends for the majority of his 92 years. “He’s a real gentleman — I never, ever, ever heard him use profanity,” said Chicago Blackhawks president John McDonough, who worked with Sitrick the better part of three decades. Sitrick carved out a satisfying career in sales and management in broadcasting, then in 1981 opened his own Skokie-based advertising agency that he still runs today.
But almost out of the clear blue, an incident in which Sitrick seemed to rise far above himself surfaced. During the Battle of the Bulge early in 1945, infantryman Sitrick, a nice Jewish/Middle American boy from Davenport, Iowa, singlehandedly captured and disarmed 21 German soldiers. One Jew holding 21 Nazis all by himself for hours before George Patton’s Third Armored Division could take the POWs off his hands sounds simply staggering when first processed in the consciousness.
“If they were SS troops, fanatics, I probably wouldn’t be here,” Sitrick said matter-of-factly recently in his agency office. But these Germans weren’t crazed elite killers, just merely draftees looking for shelter in the middle of a snowstorm. Sitrick did his GI duty beyond what anyone could have expected. He has enjoyed long life as the ultimate bonus.
Since Sitrick hardly talked about his wartime experiences to his own family while never mentioning his heroism to the likes of McDonough, the concept of honors for his actions – which has no statute of limitations – was left to other veterans to prompt.
The end result was the Legion d’Honneur, the highest honor given by France to a foreigner for military and civil actions. Already a Bronze Star winner and possessor of a Purple Heart with four clusters – Sitrick was wounded four times in the war – the modest hero recently received his award from French consular officials at Alliance Francaise in River North. Also attending was Army retired Lt. Gen. H. Stephen Blum, who is Jewish.
American recipients of the French award include Patton along with Generals Dwight D. Eisenhower and Douglas MacArthur. Each year, only a small number of Legion d’Honneur medals are awarded.
Typical of Sitrick’s personality, he did not try to garner publicity at the time. After he transferred his POWs, he was hospitalized for frozen feet during the harsh 1944-45 winter that made the Battle of the Bulge a true horror show. In the meantime, reporters hearing of the Sergeant York-style capture of Germans descended on his company to try to interview the hero. With Sitrick absent, the reporters left, and the story was never pursued afterward.
And perhaps Sitrick had good personal reasons for leaving his past behind. He had survived a traumatic experience in the Army, seeing buddies killed, and being deployed as both an advance scout and carrier of the platoon’s SCR 300 radio strapped to his back — two inviting targets for German sharpshooters. He likely suffered a form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“I had nightmares in which I’d be shouting (to other soldiers) to take cover,” Sitrick said of his early months of marriage. “When I woke in the morning, Marcia told me of these nightmares. I had no recollection of ever having them. I didn’t remember any of it. I broke out in beads of sweat, according to my wife. She said she had to hold me down at times.”
In his conscious memory, he recalled enduring a German bombardment and not knowing if he would survive. Raised in a Conservative family, all he could do was “pray hard…I had a great faith in G-d. My prayers were answered.”
Sitrick kept his own counsel about the war.
“I’ve known Herman for 35 years,” said McDonough. “I never knew any of this. I’ve been around him, we’ve had social conversations, professional conversations, he never mentioned any of this.
“I read the story. It was astonishing, the fact he never mentioned it speaks to his humility. Maybe these are circumstances he’d just as soon forget.
“I knew he was in the service. But he never talked about it. Herman loves to talk. He loves to talk advertising. He loves to talk ratings points. He loves to talk about Marcia. He loves to talk about his kids. He might be the most persistent person I’ve ever met.”
There was no time for war stories once he left the Army. Sitrick was too busy maneuvering in life, including jobs as local sales manager of WGN-Radio, manager of WNUS-Radio, Chicago’s first all-news station, and handling the Chicago Cubs account for J. Herman Sitrick Advertising. All the while, he raised three boys with Marcia.
“I was just trying to earn a living,” Sitrick said. “I didn’t give any more thought to it.”
But his family has thought long and hard.
”We have always been proud of who he is, how he has lived his life and what he has accomplished,” said oldest son Mike Sitrick, CEO of the public relations firm of Sitrick and Company in Los Angeles, New York, Washington, D.C., San Francisco and Denver.
“We are grateful for the recognition of this outstanding feat he accomplished for our country and mankind.”
Said another son, Chicago attorney Ron Sitrick: “I used to play with two boxes chock full of his medals as a small child.”
The elder Sitrick simply completes the task assigned, whether holding German prisoners or booking TV ad time for the southwest suburban Darvin Furniture store, a 37-year client.
“That’s always been my philosophy,” he said.
Sitrick was a battle-hardened veteran by the time he endured his greatest test in rural Belgium. A member of the 83rd Infantry Division, he had landed at Normandy two weeks after D-Day in June 1944. He endured tough fighting immediately. Sitrick dug in among the hedgerows under heavy barrage of artillery and mortar, with crossfire machine guns blasting toward him. At one point, hot shrapnel penetrated his leg. Wounded, he had to leap the hedgerow, aware the whole time snipers aimed at him from the trees.
With multiple wounds, Sitrick was qualified to rotate out of combat. But an officer made a plea that due to high casualties, his skill as a rifleman was needed. Sitrick opted to stay in action, fighting through Brittany, the St. Malo Peninsula, St. Lunaire, then across France to the Moselle river and Luxembourg before his date with heroism.
“I didn’t think twice about the psychology of it,” he said. “I did what had to be done. I ended up with all those prisoners. If they measured wind chill during the Battle of the Bulge, I’m told it would have been 30 to 40 below zero. I had the hush-puppy-type boots. We had never received the leather boots a lot of other troops had received. Soaked through with the snow and ice, when I got back, the medics sent me to the hospital for frozen feet.”
Sitrick had captured one German prisoner who quickly surrendered, professing he had a family. GIs had to be especially careful in handling the enemy during Hitler’s last attempt to counterattack the Western Allies. Some English-speaking Germans dressed as GIs. The SS massacred hundreds of American POWs near Malmedy, the perpetrators handed over to war-crime trials a year later.
With his company blocked by German fire, Sitrick – with his prisoner in tow – was sent to get reinforcements. “I was trying to find any Americans who could help,” he said. The pair found a heavily-damaged farmhouse.
“I went into the farmhouse and put my prisoner in the basement at the foot of the stairs,” Sitrick said. “In what little German I could say, I told him not to talk to anybody who comes down. During the night, other (Germans) had the same idea, to get out of the cold. They were coming to the farmhouse one or two at a time.”
Despite his numb feet, Sitrick and his carbine had the jump on the Germans.
“I had a gun on them and they hadn’t expected me,” he said. “There were see-through steps I was sitting behind. I took their arms and put them back in the corner. I’m not surprised since they were regular German troops. If someone has a gun on you, you surrender. By the morning, I had 21 prisoners.”
“In the morning, I heard some (American) tanks. I told them I wanted them to take the prisoners, and they did.”
The scenario begs for further understanding. An American Jewish GI disarmed 21 Germans in the course of one night. So much for the myth of a master race. The real representative of a higher humanity was dressed in U.S. fatigues. Sitrick treated his POWs according to the rules of the Geneva Convention, Army rules and Jewish custom.
“I didn’t view it as being courageous,” Sitrick said. “Something was happening. I wasn’t thinking of being heroic or anything. I would never shoot somebody when I was facing them. I undoubtedly would shoot in self-defense. I didn’t feel they were the reason we were in the war.
“I thought about (being outnumbered 21-1). It wasn’t a matter of bravery. It was just a matter of doing what I felt I had to do at the time.”
Sitrick was so even-keeled that he never pondered what the Germans would have thought if they knew a Jew was their captor.
When Sitrick rejoined his outfit after recovering from the frozen feet, he was told of the missed publicity opportunity.
“They all were saying, ‘You should have been here. We had correspondents and photographers from Time and Life. We told your story and they wanted to interview you.’ I wasn’t there to be interviewed and it wasn’t a story.”
By that time, he was used to the life of an infantry grunt.
“I don’t remember ever sleeping in a bed the whole time I was in the infantry,” he said of combat operations. “We dug foxholes. In Normandy we had frogs and mosquitoes the size of horseflies. We had snakes in other countries in the foxholes. We had a change of clothes about once every four weeks.”
Sitrick fell out of touch with his old unit until its 59th and 61st annual reunions. Eventually, a fellow veteran passed down Sitrick’s story, resulting in the Legion d’Honneur.
Once discharged, he met Marcia at a community center dance and proposed marriage the next day. She quickly accepted. “I knew I’d like to be a lifetime companion to Marcia,” he said. Going to Roosevelt University, he carried 21 hours a semester and worked 36 hours a week.
He has not stopped working ever since. Sitrick has no plans to retire. And why should he if he has met the kind of people and done the kind of things he has accomplished in a 70-year career?
After a stint at the old WCFL (AM 1000), Sitrick was local sales manager for WGN-Radio’s early seasons carrying the Cubs in the early 1960s. That remains his favorite job, where he became friends with the likes of Ernie Banks.
“Billy Williams was a good friend, too,” he said. “I really was close to Jack Brickhouse, Jack Quinlan and Lou Boudreau.”
Sitrick landed the household names at the time for WGN baseball spots, often read live by play-by-play man Quinlan and color analyst Boudreau. Walgreen’s sponsored a post-game “musical scoreboard.” Oak Park Federal Savings also was a stalwart sponsor.
Sitrick was responsible for the Wieboldt’s department store buy on the Cubs broadcasts. The Wieboldt’s deal featured one of the more famous commercials in Chicago broadcast history, in which the popular Quinlan and Boudreau cracked up trying to read scripts touting panty hose and “shadow panels” on women’s slips.
Sitrick suffered no repercussions from the slip-ups on slips. Quite the opposite. “I broke up from it, and it’s my guess the client enjoyed it as much as the rest of us,” he said.
Legendary WGN bossman Ward Quaal was surprised Sitrick announced his departure one day, and tried to lure him back. On behalf of broadcast entrepreneur Gordon McClendon, Sitrick went on to run WNUS, an AM signal at 1390, which preceded WBBM with an all-news format by 3 ½ years. Later, Sitrick managed the Jewish-owned WCIU-TV (Channel 26).
He left Chicago for a few years to run stations in Atlanta and Birmingham. Sitrick was considered a big enough deal as an Alabama executive to meet Gov. George Wallace.
“He invited me to his office and gave me his private number at the governor’s mansion,” Sitrick said of the three-time presidential candidate.
Returning to the Windy City, Brickhouse suggested Sitrick invest with him to start an all-sports format on a TV station they’d run. Brother Joe Sitrick was a leading broker of TV station deals. Herman Sitrick demurred, though: “I said, ‘Jack, there isn’t enough sports to program a station day and night.’ He said, ‘Don’t worry. There’s plenty. I can get it.’” The talk further cooled when Herman Sitrick said he was short on funds to help Brickhouse finance the deal. They were correct in concept, though. A few years later, in 1979, ESPN made its debut.
Once he began his own ad shop, Sitrick handled the Chicago Sting soccer team, run by Jewish commodities broker Lee Stern. Working for the Sting, Sitrick met young marketing executive McDonough. When the latter was hired by the Cubs in 1983, Sitrick was brought over.
McDonough quickly rose to Cubs marketing chief, then was team president in 2007 before leaving for the Hawks the next year. He and Sitrick enjoyed everything but a World Series championship on the North Side.
“He’s a hero to me,” McDonough said. He’s a mentor to me. He’s a role model to me. He’s had a huge impact on my life.”
He certainly had no objection to working with an 80-year-old ad man. McDonough believed he has figured out why Sitrick just kept rolling along.
“He’s very measured,” he said. “He doesn’t lose his temper. He’s pretty even. Look, he’s probably seen the most horrific scenes that mankind witnessed, so he probably said to himself, ‘Why would anything else upset me or bother me, or why would I get emotional over it?’ I’ve never seen him angry.”
Sitrick also kept himself physically fit into his 80s. He regularly worked out middays at the Morton Grove Park District fitness center. Sitrick genes also promote longevity. Joe Sitrick, who had been a Naval officer, is 96.
He obviously has made an impression by treating people fairly, starting with 21 German POWs.
“I love Herman,” McDonough said. “He’s the kind of (role model) of what the world is missing, the essence of kindness. There are not enough superlatives in my vocabulary to properly articulate what I feel about Herman.”
If the soft-spoken nonagenarian ad man could survive combat and one-on-21 odds, then apparently he can get through anything.
“I just feel G-d has looked out for me,” concluded Herman Sitrick, American and Jewish hero.