Doing what he had to do . . . and a little more
Sam Stanovich, born in Farrell in 1922, has always loved sports, particularly baseball. One of his best memories is taking his mother, siblings, and some friends to see Joe DiMaggio play in Cleveland.
“I was talking about him all the time,” Sam said, “so my mother said the next time he plays I’d like to go see him. We took her. First time up, DiMaggio hits a home run. Second time up he hits a home run. Third time he hits another home run. Fourth time up he hit a single to left field. She said, ‘What happened that time? How come he didn’t hit it over the fence?’”
But Joe DiMaggio was never Sam’s hero. Nor was any other sports figure. “I’m a big sports fan, but baseball players, football players, basketball players, aren’t my heroes. My heroes are all the kids that died in the wars.”
Sam and two of his brothers served in World War II, and his two other brothers served in the Korean War. Fortunately, they all came back without even being wounded. According to Sam’s definition, therefore, none of them were heroes.
“They never made a soldier out of me,” Sam said. “I never considered myself a soldier. I didn’t like military life, but I did what I had to do.”
Actually, he did a little more than he had to do. He volunteered for a mission that earned him a Bronze Star and a Russian medal, and got his name in a couple of books about World War II.
Sam was drafted in 1942, two years after graduating from the new Farrell High School. He went to basic training and radio school at Fort Hood, Texas. Then he took some tests for the Army Specialized Training Program, which sent selected soldiers to study at universities, supposedly for 18 months. They were to become officers designated to help restore civilian governments in Europe after the war. Unfortunately, the program was terminated after about six months when the army started preparing for the invasion of Europe.
“They sent us to beef up the divisions that were in the process of going overseas,” Sam said.
Sam’s unit, the 104th Reconnaissance Troop, landed in Cherbourg, France, on September 7, 1944, exactly three months after the Normandy invasion. The Allies needed the port of Antwerp to transport supplies from England to a big supply depot in Belgium. The 104th Infantry Division was joined with the First Canadian Army to capture it.
That supply depot was a principal German objective during the last great German offensive of the war, the Battle of the Bulge, in December, 1944.
“We were just north of the Battle of the Bulge. The Germans threw everything they had into that. When they made their first attack, some of their paratroopers landed around us.”
The combined Allied armies, including the 104th Infantry Division, pushed the Germans back into Germany. There Sam personally witnessed the horrors of the Nazi regime. In early April, Sam’s unit arrived in Nordhausen, an auxiliary facility of the Buchenwald Concentration Camp.
“Out of the 6,000 prisoners left there, 5,000 were dead. Our commander, General Allen, made us go in. Underneath the stairways bodies were stacked like cordwood. In the double-decker bunks there were dead people lying right beside the living. Later people started saying the Holocaust never happened. In another 20 years, all the guys who witnessed it will be gone, and they’ll be another drive to push this lie that it never happened.”
By the end of April, the Allied armies were nearing Berlin from the West, while the Russians were reaching the Elbe River from the East. The mission to accomplish the first contact between the two armies is described in Timberwolf Tracks, the History of the 104th Infantry Division:
“On the evening of April 23 Lieutenant Harlan W. Shank, Sergeant Jack Adler, Corporal Bob Gilfillan, and Corporal Sam Stanovich of the 104th Reconnaissance Troop, plus a liberated Russian officer, crossed the Mulde, headed for Torgau on the Elbe.”
Sam had volunteered for the mission.
“Two of my best buddies were going, and they needed another guy with radio experience in case we made a contact and we had to do some radio work. I had been to radio school, so I volunteered.”
It was a mission filled with uncertainty. All alone, without any support, the five had to cross territory occupied by many German troops, about 30 miles from Berlin. Although they were surrounded by the enemy, they took the bold step of mounting an American flag on their jeep.
“That saved the day. The Germans were afraid to death of being captured by the Russians. The Germans had killed a lot of civilians in Russia, so they knew they would get more humane treatment with the Americans. Our army is probably the most humane army in the history of the world.”
Along the way, the four Americans encountered a German colonel who was in command of 1,200 troops.
“The four of us surrounded them and they surrendered,” Sam jokes. “Actually, the colonel was ready to surrender, but said he couldn’t without orders from higher command. He said to stop again on our way back through.”
Corporal Bob Gilfillan is quoted in Timberwolf Tracks about meeting up with the Russians: “Greeting the general was quite an honor, for I got the feeling that I myself was tying a bond that signified the end.”
On their way back to the American front, the patrol met up again with the 1,200 German troops.
“The Colonel wasn’t there,” Sam said, “but there was another officer. They had their guns all piled up, and our lieutenant told them exactly where to go to surrender.”
The end Gilfillan anticipated came just 10 days later. Germany surrendered officially on May 8, 1945.
Unfortunately, the war with Japan continued. Many American soldiers, including Sam, were sent to California to train for an invasion of Japan. Many were expecting a 90 percent casualty rate in that attack, but the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought about Japan’s surrender before their training even began.
After getting out of the army in October, Sam returned to Farrell and started working in the General American mills.
“Then I took a test for the Post Office. I started as a sub. Eventually I started carrying on a regular route along Spearman, Lee, Market, Darr Avenue, and later along Hamilton and Wallis. The people on my route were good people. I got along well with them.”
During many of his 30 years delivering mail, there were two neighborhood dogs that followed Sam around on his route.
“They lived a couple of blocks up the street. Every morning when I came down they were at the post office, they would be sitting outside waiting on me to come out. If they missed a day of work, it was because the lady didn’t let them out of the house yet.”
Sam’s passion during 15 of those years was coaching Little League baseball.
“We went to the state finals in 1965,” Sam said. “That was the first year they decided to move the state finals around. Until then they had always been played in Williamsport. So where did they move it? To Sharon, and that’s where we played. There were four teams in the finals. We lost our first game, then we won the consolation game.”
Sam was an excellent coach who earned the respect of his players and fellow coaches.
“Today when they see me, they still call me Mr. Stanovich. I tell them they can call me Sam now, but they say no, you’ll always be Mr. Stanovich.”
With Little League Baseball, as with all things, Sam’s family always provided support and solidarity.
“Even Mother used to go to the games,” said Sam’s sister Martha. “We had to finish the dishes quickly and go down to watch the games.”
“My father died when I was ten,” said Sam’s brother Lou. “My mother raised all eight of us – five boys and three girls – by herself. She did a great job. She made sure all eight of us graduated from high school.”
Obviously, none of his family members fits his description of a hero, but just as obviously his admiration for his mother and his siblings is unbounded. Others outside the family noticed how they all supported each other.
“When one of us was in the hospital,” Lou said, “they would see four or five of us there. They couldn’t get over how we stayed together like that.”
“Our oldest brother Pete,” Sam said, “he’s the one I’m proud of. His wife’s brother had six children, five boys and one girl. When the mother died, Pete took the five boys in and he raised those kids with his one son. You show me someone who would take five boys in. His backyard was filled with little league uniforms. When the father was going to get married, my brother said I hope he doesn’t think he’s going to take those kids off of me now. That’s the kind of brother we had.”
And, apparently, that’s the kind of brother, soldier, mailman, and coach Sam himself was.
“When he was coaching little league,” Martha said, “he was really great with those children. When he was a mailman he was the same. And he has always been a very considerate brother.”
Sam was born on October 5, 1922 and passed away on Monday, May 2, 2011.
Story excerpted from Lives of Quiet Inspiration, Volume Two, by Joe Zentis. Hermitage, PA: Green Street Press, 2008