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Flag of freedom: Veteran weaves story of flag into book

By MATT MILLER

Reprinted from Carlisle Patriot-News

Samuel Lombardo wasn't sure that he, his men, or their precious, handmade American flag were going to make it.

On the dark and dangerous night of March 10, 1945, Lombardo, an Army lieutenant, was leading his platoon of the 99th Infantry Division across the Remagen Bridge, which U.S. soldiers had just captured from the Germans.

His men carried not only their rifles and packs, but their half-finished flag and the material they had scrounged to make it.

The bridge was far from safe since the Germans, with only partial success, had tried to blow it up. They were still trying to blast it into the Rhine River with artillery shells.

"The time that I was most worried was when we were crossing the Remagen Bridge," said Lombardo, 82, of Carlisle PA.

"We crossed at 11 o'clock at night. At that time, one artillery shell was coming in every 20 seconds," he said. "In the middle of the bridge there were gaping holes. You could see the black water of the Rhine.

"We would walk and then hit the ground when a shell came in, then get up again. I was really worried about my men and the flag. The men were my primary concern, but we would have lost the flag, too."

His platoon made it without losing a man. And soon their flag, still finished on only one side, was flying on the east bank of the Rhine.

Lombardo has woven the story of that flag, and of himself, into "O'er the Land of the Free," a book he published last year.

His is not a typical tale.

Lombardo was born in Fascist Italy, and came to America in 1929 after his father raised enough money to bring his family across the Atlantic. He still remembers the fear everyone felt when the Black Shirts, the political enforcers for dictator Benito Mussolini, came to his Italian hometown.

Lombardo joined the Army before the United States entered World War II. By the time he and his men crossed the Rhine at Remagen, he had already seen action in the Battle of the Bulge and had led his men through a German minefield.

It was during the Battle of the Bulge, on a 20-mile trip to Liege, Belgium, for supplies, that he conceived the idea of making a flag.

"I didn't see one American flag the whole way. I felt really bad," Lombardo said. "I went back to my foxhole that evening and called my company commander about getting one."

He told me that front-line units weren't authorized to have flags.

"That made me mad," Lombardo said. "I decided, we'll make one."

He and his men started by liberating a white surrender flag draped from the window of a house in a German village. The stars and stripes were to come from drapes and pillow cases. Whenever they stopped in a town, one of the men who spoke German set off to find a sewing machine.

"We carried that material all around for two and a half months. We carried it all across Germany. Every time we had a break we worked on the flag," Lombardo said. "Everybody pitched in, cutting out stars and stripes, sewing.

"We finished it the night we reached the Danube River," he recalled. "Artillery was still coming in. The Germans were about 10 miles away."

"The flag couldn't help but raise the morale of everyone who saw it . . . It was America. It made me think, 'We must win,' just like we must win [the battle against terrorism] today."

Lombardo is still patriotic and his platoon's 48-star flag is still serving as an inspiration on display at the Infantry Museum at Fort Benning GA.

Lombardo stayed in the Army after the war, retiring as a lieutenant colonel in 1962. Along the way he became a Japanese language and intelligence specialist and almost died of disease after serving a tour in Vietnam in 1961.

The father of two and grandfather of one served as an industrial security inspector for the Defense Department and a stint as a small-scale wine maker in California.

He began writing his book in 1989 and, after 16 publishers rejected it, published the first 1,000 copies himself, giving half of them away.

Following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Lombardo had postcards printed with a 1945 photograph of his men with their handmade flag. It includes a brief story of the flag under the title, "American Patriotism."

He said he has sent postcards to President Bush and his Cabinet, every member of Congress and the Joint Chiefs of Staff and has given the Army War College enough for each student in the class of 2002.

His purpose with the cards and his book is simple.

"I want people to appreciate America for what it has to offer," Lombardo said. "So many Americans who were born here think everybody has what we have. They don't appreciate their freedoms."

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