More than 70 years after Anton Dietrich Jr. left his Richmond Hill home to fight in World War II — during which he was on a ship torpedoed by the Germans, spent 16 hours floating in the Mediterranean before being rescued, and was struck by a mortar shell in France — the veteran finally received his much-deserved Purple Heart last week.
U.S. Rep. Bob Turner (R-Queens, Brooklyn) presented the Purple Heart to Dietrich, a 93-year-old lifelong resident of Richmond Hill who once lived across the street from the Marx Brothers, at the St. Edward R. Miller VFW Post 7336 in Richmond Hill last Wednesday.
“Anton Dietrich has shown the type of bravery and resilience that every American should aspire to,” Turner said. “Neither a German torpedo that left him stranded in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, nor injuries he sustained from the shrapnel of a German mortar in Sedjenane, could break Mr. Dietrich’s will. His actions in battle are a testament to why he and all of the other heroes that fought during World War II are truly part of the Greatest Generation.”
Dietrich, who has also served on Community Board 9 since 1971, said he had spent years trying to convince the federal government that he was eligible for a Purple Heart, the military award given to those wounded or killed in battle and which was established by President George Washington when he was commander in chief of the Continental Army. Dietrich almost gave up, but turned to the congressman for help after the Richmond Hill man attended a ceremony Turner held for Rego Park native and fellow World War II veteran Arno Heller, who was awarded the Bronze Star.
“You’ve accomplished something that I could not do,” Dietrich told Turner. “Even with all the evidence I submitted — telegrams, newspaper articles, and other documents, I could not accomplish this on my own.”
As for receiving the Purple Heart, Dietrich said “it is an award that no one seeks, but an award I am proud to wear.”
Dietrich joined the Army in July 1941, believing he would likely be in the military for no more than a year. That quickly changed once Pearl Harbor was attacked on Dec. 7, 1941, and Dietrich ended up serving just short of six years.
Assigned to the 39th Regiment, 9th Infantry Division, Dietrich helped to invade Algeria as part of Operation Torch in November 1942. During that invasion, Dietrich’s ship was torpedoed by a German airplane, and he spent 16 hours in a landing craft in the Mediterranean Sea before being rescued by a British ship.
He fought the Germans at El Guetta and Sedjenane in Tunisia, and was wounded by shrapnel at Sedjenane. After resting for several days, he returned to battle and fought in the towns of Ferryville and Bizerte, which ended the war in North Africa.
In July 1943, Dietrich fought in the crucial battles for the capture of Nicosia, Troina and Randazzo in Sicily, for which he was awarded the Bronze Star.
After Sicily, he trained in England for the invasion of Normandy. Landing at Utah Beach, Dietrich fought his way up the coast and into Cherbourg, where he helped to take numerous prisoners, including high-ranking officers.
On July 12, 1944, Dietrich was seriously wounded by a mortal shell in his right arm, right foot and left knee, after which he spent 32 months in the hospital. He was discharged from Maryland’s Walter Reed Medical Center in 1947.
Alongside the Bronze Star and Purple Heart, he has received numerous awards for his service, including the Good Conduct, America Defense, American Theater, Europe-Africa-Middle East, and Victory medals. He also received a Presidential Unit citation, a Combat Infantry Badge and the French Legion of Honor.