On Dec. 19, 1944, Staff Sgt. Edmund J. Sternot and the 101st Airborne Division rushed into the Ardennes Forest to stop the surprise German advance through Belgium.
Sgt. Sternot’s unit assumed a defensive positive, facing a series of uncoordinated but relentless German strikes, part of the 101st Airborne’s famous defense around the city of Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge.
Attacks persisted, driving friendly units into retreat while Sgt. Sternot’s remained. Under his command, the unit stood against the enemy, alone and isolated but never disheartened. For his courage and leadership, Sgt. Sternot was recommended for a Silver Star, the third-highest award for bravery in combat given by the United States military.
A Silver Star he never received.
Weeks into the Battle of the Bulge, Sgt. Sternot’s unit faced German tanks while fighting in a dense fog. On Jan. 13, 1945, Sgt. Sternot stepped out to throw a hand grenade, exposing himself just long enough to be sighted by a German tank.
Sgt. Sternot was killed instantly. A month later, he was awarded the Silver Star, but no one stood up when they called his name.
Almost 75 years later, Sgt. Sternot’s cousin, Goleta resident Delores Sternot, received the honor on his behalf at an intimate ceremony on Sunday. Veterans, current members of the 101st Airborne, and loved ones gathered at the Pierre Claeyssens Veterans Museum to commemorate a moment long overdue.
“We must always remember, honor and serve,” said retired Maj. Gen. Edward Dorman. “Eddie won’t be forgotten for what he stood for, and for what this great nation stands for.”
The belated recognition resulted from a long string of circumstances.
Sgt. Sternot left his mark in those woods. In his pocket he carried a prayer book that eventually found its way into the hands of Army Lt. Col. William D. Linn.
In 2001, Lt. Col. Linn traveled to Germany for an assignment, taking a detour in Belgium to meet a 101st Airborne veteran who also fought in the Battle of the Bulge all those years ago. While attending Mass, a young woman approached Lt. Col. Linn.
“I wore my service uniform, so I had my boots on and everything, and this Belgian woman recognized I was an American paratrooper,” said Lt. Col. Linn. “In her hands was a book.”
Her father was a woodcutter during World War II, working in the same woods where Sgt. Sternot had lost his life. In 1947, her father found a prayer book. When he looked inside, he found Edmund J. Sternot etched in pencil. He preserved the book so one day it may find its way back to that name. With Lt. Col. Linn’s help, that suddenly became possible.
As the vice president of Heritage Arsenal, an organization that helps military museums process artifacts and build exhibits, Lt. Col. Linn was immediately hooked. Through research and many calls, he came across 89-year-old John Sternot, who was raised with Sgt. Sternot on a small farm in Wisconsin but since moved to Goleta.
“Over the phone, I explained to John that a Belgian woman approached me with a book two weeks ago, and he stopped me mid-conversation,” said Lt. Col. Linn. “He said, ‘Is the book an inch-and-a-half by an inch-in-a-half? Is it black?’ Turns out, he had one of his own.”
Sgt. Sternot did not have a wife or children and was raised by his grandparents, where he was treated as their son. All the young men in the family received a prayer book like Sgt. Sternot’s at their First Communion, including John.
“After I returned the book, they sent me a picture with this little 8-year-old boy looking at you, holding that book,” said Lt. Col. Linn. “It’s like Eddie orchestrated this from the grave.”
That same picture stood blown up at Sunday’s ceremony, alongside medals and plaques laid out in his honor.
For years, Lt. Col. Linn and the Sternots stayed in contact, sending Christmas cards and well wishes but never meeting in person. Eventually, John and his wife passed away, leaving their daughter, Delores, as Sgt. Sternot’s last living relative.
Last January, on the anniversary of Sgt. Sternot’s death, Lt. Col. Linn wanted to speak with the Sternots. Upon reconnecting, Ms. Sternot expressed concern over what would happen to her cousin’s possessions and claimed she heard rumors of a Silver Star.
Together, they secured the artifacts in the Heritage Arsenal and discovered Sgt. Sternot’s long forgotten award, setting a plan of commemoration in motion. Soon, veterans across Santa Barbara, including the Pierre Claeyssens Veterans Foundation, became involved. Having just come back from Iraq, the active 101st Airborne Division dropped everything to be at the ceremony.
“It took me all of five minutes to convince each individual that they needed to be part of it,” said Lt. Col. Linn. “Eddie brings people together. You have a strong veteran community out here that you should be quite proud of because of what I saw at this gathering today.”
With this support, Ms. Sternot was presented the Silver Star, Bronze Star and Purple Heart on behalf of her cousin. She looked down at the medals then to the crowd. Holding back tears, she mouthed “Thank you.”
“I’m very happy, but yet, you know very sad,” said Ms. Sternot. “You’re sad because you don’t get to see him. You’re sad because he did not get to receive the medals that he deserves, but I’m glad I got to be able to accept it for him.”
While just 5 years old when Sgt. Sternot was killed in action, Ms. Sternot remembered him as an uncle. Sgt. Sternot wrote her and her parents more than a hundred letters, so his memory lingered long after he left.
“They just talked about him all the time,” said Ms. Sternot. “I could tell you the whole story and even though I was just a little girl, I knew so much of him.”
Although knowing him through pictures, Ms. Sternot recalled seeing Sgt. Sternot only once.
“He came home from furlough, picked me up and threw me in the air,” said Ms. Sternot. “He said, “Oh lord, you’re so gorgeous,’ and he caught me.”
That was the last time Ms. Sternot saw her cousin. After the furlough he went back to the war, never to return, leaving a legacy behind but his family in the dark.
Years later, Ms. Sternot re-lived those memories, honoring her cousin for the hero he is. Still, the moment was bittersweet. While appreciative of the celebration, Ms. Sternot couldn’t help but question who else is being forgotten.
“I wonder how many other veterans there are that never received all the medals that they deserved,” said Ms. Sternot.