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News From The Past


December 12, 1999

 

 

War Hero Seeks New Assignment In God's Army

By Bill Lohmann

Carl Sitter has seen hell. He likes the looks of heaven a lot better.

Forty-nine years ago, Sitter, a Marine captain, heroically led his troops through a fierce, two-day battle against the Chinese on a snow-covered Korean hill. He lost many of his men and he was wounded by bursting grenades in weather so cold it froze the water in the soldiers' canteens. But Sitter's unit persevered and beat back the enemy for the bloody hillside.

For his work, Sitter was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, the nation's highest award for valor in action against an enemy force. It goes nicely with his four Purple Hearts and Silver Star.

Sitter fought in World War II and the Korean War and was wounded in both and still has the nasty scars to prove it. He was still on active duty during Vietnam, although he was never sent there. After 30 years in the Marines he retired as a colonel.

He settled in the Richmond area and lives now in western Henrico County with his second wife, Ruth. A great-grandfather, he celebrated his 77th birthday earlier this month. There are still awards to pick up and speeches to make. Every week brings letters from kids seeking an autograph and a photo. When you're a certified war hero, it is impossible to fade away.

Nest fall, his hometown of Pueblo, Colo., will unveil a statue of him and Pueblo's three other Medal of Honor recipients.

But Sitter, one of only 150 living recipients of the Medal of Honor, is hardly coasting on history. In the years since the war he has become deeply religious. He has taught Sunday school and Bible classes. On occasion, he has even preached.

When it comes to religion, he knows his stuff. But he wanted to know more. So, he enrolled as a full-time student at Union Theological Seminary & Presbyterian School of Christian Education. If all goes well, he will graduate in May with a master's degree. Even though he is well past the retirement age for most clergy, he hopes to work in the ministry, perhaps with older adults.

Of course, many of them would be younger than he.

First though, there are classes to attend, papers to write and exams to take. In fact, first-semester exams will conclude this week. And this man who led so many of his men to safety and victory in horrible conditions against terrible odds, who shrugs off his deeds by saying he was just doing his job, who has seen and survived the absolute worst men can do to each other, is, shall we say, sweating bullets.

"I get very nervous over exams," he said. "I just want to do good."

Sitter's grandfather was a Presbyterian minister, and Sitter, an only child, grew up regularly attending Sunday school. He drifted away from the church during his teen years, but came back after joining the Marines and being commissioned as an officer. Having the lives of young soldiers placed under his command turned out to be a sobering responsibility and a spiritual awakening.

"That's when I started getting close to God," he said during a recent interview at his home.

 

Carl Sitter received his first Purple Heart after being wounded in the Marshall Islands during World War II.  (Lower Right)  Back home, Sitter's wife is notified by telegram that her husband has been wounded.

His faith was tested on numerous occasions, never more than during those frigid days on East Hill, near the Chosin Reservoir in Hagaru, Korea, in late November 1950.

The Chinese held the strategic hill. Sitter's mission was to break their hold.

Temperatures plummeted below zero. Frostbite became as vicious an enemy as the Chinese. The icy slopes turned to slime from the hundreds of men carrying ammunition up and the wounded and dead down. Troops were forced to dig foxholes in the concrete-like frozen earth; some of their tools weren't up to the task and snapped like brittle matchsticks.

While the conditions were brutal, the fighting was even worse.

Sitter's rifle company came under blistering fire. At times, the combat became hand-to-hand.

It is unimaginable for those who weren't there. It is unforgettable for those who were.

Sitter can't shake the memory of the Chinese assaults or the chilling screams that preceded them.

"Marine, you die! You die!"

At almost 28, Sitter was the old man in the group. Most of his troops weren't much more than kids. They were largely inexperienced and they were scared.

How scared?

"The answer is very," said Stephen G. Olmstead, who was an 18-year-old private under Sitter's command at the time. "You never knew whether the dawn was going to come or not."

There was fear, but there was also confidence, largely because of Sitter, Olmstead said.

"We all knew that no matter how tough the going got that Captain Sitter was going to be able to lead us in the right directions and accomplish whatever our goals were and take care of us.

"And he did."

For those two days, Sitter had to be part tough guy, part cheerleader and entirely optimistic. He went foxhole to foxhole, exposing himself to fire, settling down his soldiers, firing them up and giving them hope.

In an interview some years ago in "Leatherneck" magazine, he recalled replying to one of his troops who asked, "What are we going to do?"

"What are you gonna do?" Said Sitter. "You're gonna fight, damn it! You gotta fight or we aren't getting out of here. It gets that simple."

A few days ago, Sitter said, "I had no doubt we were going to get out of there. I didn't know if I personally would make it."

Olmstead escaped the battle unscathed. He decided, based in part on what he saw in Sitter and other officers, to make a career out of the Marines. He retired more than 40 years later as a lieutenant general.

As he was in 1950 in Korea with one of his troops.  Sitter is on the right in the photo.

"Carl Sitter was just one hell of an inspiration to us at a time when we were really in big trouble," Olmstead said in a phone interview from his home in Annadale. "His skills, his leadership and his inspiration are the reasons that a lot of us are still alive today."

In the room that serves as his office at home, Sitter is surrounded by mementos of his life. On one wall, there are framed awards from his work as a Mason. The back of the door is covered with ball caps he has picked up from a variety of organizations. Another wall is covered with his military honors and photographs. Here's one of Sitter receiving the Medal of Honor from President Truman. Here are others with Sitter and John Kennedy, Sitter and Richard Nixon, Sitter and George bush. Amid all of the famous and important people from history, there is a photograph on the wall that stands out: an autographed picture from the Incredible Hulk.

Sitter smiled.

"The producer of the show was a friend's son," he said.

The Hulk excepted, Sitter is never far from reminders of his war days-whether it's a phone call from a Marine buddy, an invitation to deliver another speech about patriotism, or a black-and-white image on a wall. As a result, he said he thinks often of his soldiers. He has flashbacks of his experiences from time to time, but he never, ever forgets the people.

It helps keep him humble. Forty-eight years after standing in the White House Rose Garden and shaking hands with Truman, after all of the accolades and honors, and a year before he will see an eight-foot statue of himself go up in Pueblo, Sitter remains surprised that he has received so many honors. He is proud as he can be, but he still feels a little unworthy.

"The only thing I though I was doing was a job," he said. "The people who really deserve a statue are the ones who gave their all."

The ones who didn't come home.

****

At Union-PSCE, Sitter looks more like a professor than a student. And he doesn't advertise who he is or what he's done.

"That's putting it lightly," said James Brashler, dead on the education faculty who also teaches and has had Sitter in a couple of his Bible courses. "He's one of the most humble and self-effacing individuals I've ever met."

Sitter doesn't mind talking about his military experiences. Its just that people often treat him differently when they find out he's a war hero. They seem to feel awkward around him, he said. He'd rather be treated like everyone else.

Which is how he approached becoming a student again. But he can't help but stand out on campus. Union-PSCE's students cover a wide age range, but a 77-year-old student is unquestionably unusual. The transition back to the academic world-Sitter received his bachelor's degree while stationed in West Germany in the early 1960s-has been a challenge, he said.

But he's done his best to fit in. He participates fully in class and has been invited by other students to join their study groups. Brashler called Sitter an excellent student who "works very diligently and very hard."

Classmates said they appreciate Sitter's wit and friendly manner. He's grown particularly close to Stacie Pitts, Treva Lewis and Michelle Parsons, three students in their 20s who are close friends and whom Sitter has labeled "The Three Musketeers."

It's like having your grandfather as a study buddy.

"Or a great-uncle," laughed Pitts, who at 23 is one of the youngest students on campus.

The trio has shared class notes with Sitter when he's been absent to attend military functions and generally helped him find his way as a student again. Sitter said their kindness has been invaluable. Pitts said they consider it a privilege having Sitter as a friend.

"He looks at us as mentors, but I truly consider him to be one of mine," said Pitts. "He brings a lot of insight and wisdom to the classroom."

A favorite perspective provided by Sitter is that "we need to continue to look at the elderly and the older generation and that they have value in the church and the community," she said.

"He's a living example of that in pursuing his own calling."

That calling has grown louder over the years for Sitter, who has three children, six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. His first wife, Ellen Louise, died in 1976.

Ever since he was stationed in Europe, he has taught in whichever church he was attending. His church work continued when he moved to the Richmond area in the late 1960s to be stationed at the Defense General Supply Center. After retiring from the military, he settled here, taking a job as administrative assistant to the city of Richmond's director of public welfare. Later he went to work for the state. He retired again in 1985.

But it wasn't until joining Shady Grove United Methodist Church in Short Pump a few years ago that he began to think seriously about pursing his theological interest at a high level.

At Shady Grove, he has assisted and led worship services, as well as taught. Two trips to the Holy Land provided further inspiration, as did his frequent conversations with this pastor, the Rev. Burt Brooks.

Sitter credited Brooks with encouraging him to attend seminary-along with "the Lord who was back there pushing, too."

Brooks downplays his role, characterizing his encouragement as "gentle nudges when he showed some interest."

"It's something coming from inside him that really is his motivation," said Brooks. "What makes him so special is that he continues to challenge himself. I've not met anybody at his age who wanted to go through the rigorous study of seminary."

Sitter does not plan to become an ordained minister-that would require additional study-but he has not entirely ruled that out. He would like to work as an assistant pastor or on a church staff in some way. He's not really sure what the future holds.

"The good Lord will guide me to get me where he wants me to be," said Sitter.

Brooks, for one, is no longer particularly surprised by anything Sitter does.

He showed up at church one Sunday morning and asked Brooks if it would be all right to get a substitute to teach his Tuesday night Bible class. The White House had called and invited him to dinner.

"He said it in such a humble way, not presumptuous in any way," said Brooks. "I told him I thought it would be all right."

Much has changed in the world and with Sitter since he enlisted in the Marines almost 60 years ago as a gung-ho teen-ager. He remains gung-ho about patriotism; he is less so about war.

He believes war "doesn't accomplish what it sets out to do. What it does is destroy people on both sides, and it takes many years to get back what we destroyed. We don't really win anything by war."

He sounds almost like a pacifist.

Not so, he said.

"I'm a realist," he said. "I have a view of war as a last resort."

There was no one event, no specific moment of spiritual transformation when Sitter got religion, when he decided he wanted to be a shepherd and not just a member of the flock. But when you're a Marine for 30 years and you fight in two wars and witness another, you see a lot.

Maybe too much. It can't help but affect you.

That's what drove him deeper into religion, he said.

The horror. The suffering. The killing. The children.

"I guess that's why I'm going back to school," he said. "To learn more about the Lord and to use that knowledge to help all people."

After all, Sitter said, "God says we're to love everybody."

 

1999, by The Richmond Times
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