As a camera slowly pans, revealing the spectacular and meticulous design of a Medal of Honor, a voiceover states: “More than 40 million Americans have served in the United States armed forces. Of those, fewer than 3,600 have been awarded the military’s highest honor.”
This is the beginning of Netflix’s latest docuseries, “Medal of Honor.”
Through narration, dramatic re-enactment, and interviews with military leaders, historians, and fellow Medal of Honor recipients, each episode of this eight-part series profiles the remarkable men who have received the highest decoration awarded in the United States military – the Medal of Honor.
The first episode tells the story of Sgt. Sylvester Antolak, a farm boy from Ohio who enlisted in the Army in July 1941, well before the United States officially entered World War II. In May 1944, Antolak committed an extraordinary act of bravery and heroism of which few individuals are likely capable.
As U.S. armed forces entered Italy through the city of Anzio, “Sgt. Antolak was part of a large operation that was trying to break out of the beachhead, trying to penetrate the defensive lines of the Germans and finally open up [the] path to Rome,” according to former CIA Director David Petraeus.
Following a punishing battle in which there were numerous casualties, Antolak and his unit were ordered to help take back the town of Cisterna, Italy, from the Germans. This operation, if successful, would provide a critical path to Rome.
After taking cover near a railroad track, Antolak’s unit began to advance into an open field. Shortly thereafter, German forces opened fire from a machine gun nest.
According to retired Army Captain and fellow Medal of Honor recipient Florent Groberg:
Sgt. Antolak understands [that] the only way we support [the] first squad is by having a second squad get up and take out the enemy. But if we all get up and start running toward this machine gun, we’re gonna get killed.
Even with the knowledge that he would be the target of enemy fire, Antolak stepped out from behind cover, and ran toward the machine gun nest. As he ran, firing at the German forces, his men were able to advance and take cover.
“In combat, there might be a moment where you have to make a decision that will more than likely dictate whether or not you live or die,” says Groberg. “[Antolak] bottled up everything that he loved about life, all his experiences, and he gambled on that – that what I represent, not as an individual, but as a countryman, is stronger than what you represent.”
As Antolak rushed toward the nest, he was shot repeatedly. Yet each time Antolak was hit, he stood back up, and continued his charge forward.
The Congressional Medal of Honor Society writes:
With one shoulder deeply gashed and his right arm shattered, he continued to rush directly into the enemy fire concentration with his submachinegun wedged under his uninjured arm until within 15 yards of the enemy strong point, where he opened fire at deadly close range, killing 2 Germans and forcing the remaining 10 to surrender. He reorganized his men and, refusing to seek medical attention so badly needed, chose to lead the way toward another strong point 100 yards distant. Utterly disregarding the hail of bullets concentrated upon him, he had stormed ahead nearly three-fourths of the space between strong points when he was instantly killed by hostile enemy fire. Inspired by his example, his squad went on to overwhelm the enemy troops.
For his heroism, Sgt. Sylvester Antolak was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. The decoration was given to Antolak’s mother during a ceremony at Fort Hayes.
Antolak’s story is but one of eight featured in Netflix’s “Medal of Honor” docuseries, which I could not recommend more highly. Compelling re-enactments, insightful commentary, and a stirring score by Jasha Klebe come together to bring these tales of unbelievable courage to life.