Santarsiero has received many medals for his bravery and sacrifice during his time served in the army in WWII.
The family of Thomas Santarsiero held a family reunion on Sunday at the Main Street Town Park Clubhouse to honor him for his service in the United States Army during World War II. The focus for the day was on the receiving of his newest medal, the French Legion of Honor Medal.
The French Legion of Honor Medal was awarded to Santarsiero on Jan. 29 and is comparable to the Medal of Honor given out in the United States. The medal has been given to WWII veterans that helped liberate France during the war.
The celebration on Sunday was a gathering of more than 40 family members put together by Santarsiero’s niece, Clarence resident Janet Vito. Vito said she wanted to help honor her uncle and recognize him for the number of medals he has received, including his most recent one.
Santarsiero was drafted into the army in 1943, when he was just 18 years old. He had his basic training in Fort McClelland, Alabama and was trained as an infantryman and wireman. His extra training is what kept him from missing D-Day by just three weeks.
He was a part of the 28th Infantry Division, which entered combat across France.
Santarsiero said during his first day of combat, his group was hit with a mortar, killing many of the men he had just met.
“That was my first day in combat,” he said. “If you lasted two days in combat, you were very fortunate.”
Santersiero considers himself one of the few who were fortunate, as he spent four months in combat.
His division fought through Aachen, Kommershiedt, Schmidt and Vossenack, going on to fight some of the bloodiest battles in the Huertgen Forest. He said more than 55,000 men were killed in the Huertgen Forest.
They went months without a shower or change of clothes but Santarsiero still had positive stories that he brought home with him.
He described a day when his division liberated a small town in France. A woman approached he and some of his men with a warm loaf of French bread, thanking them.
“That was like a steak meal to us,” he added.
Another time, they had to check a house to make sure it was safe. He and another soldier found a husband and wife living in the home. The husband had asked if either of them had an extra razor. Although Santarsiero only had one razor, he handed it over, as he had grown a beard and had no need for it.
The couple took the two soldiers to their wine cellar and gave them bottles of wine as a way of thanking them.
Nov. 9, 1944 was Santarsiero’s last day in combat, as he woke up with trench foot and was sent to the hospital.
“When I went to stand up, I couldn’t stand up. My feet were numb,” he said. “I took my left shoe off and my foot was purple. I took my right shoe off, we had to cut it off because I couldn’t get it off, and my foot was almost black.”
He was sent back home to the United States where he went through several months of rehabilitation to help strengthen the circulation to his feet and legs.
“I didn’t want to go back that way but I had no choice,” he added.
On Nov. 10, Santarsiero’s division was wiped out, killing about 15,000 men. He believes all the men he spent those months with, died the day after he left.
Santarsiero returned to civilian life after spending 22 months in the army. He was discharged in August of 1945, as a private, and returned home to Buffalo.
In 1948, he had all of his medals stolen from his uniform in his home and never contacted anyone to get them replaced.
After meeting his wife, Millie, he decided to buy property and build his own home on Shimerville Road, Clarence. They became Clarence residents in 1967, where they raised their four children.
In 1987, Santarsiero was able to retire. He and his wife retired to their current hometown of Gainesville, Florida. He said he wanted to move somewhere warm because the cold weather in Buffalo would freeze his feet, putting him through months of pain in the winter from lack of circulation.
Their son, Mark, didn’t like the fact that his father didn’t have any of his medals. So, after contacting several people and going to the Pentagon, he was able to have his father’s medals replaced. In the meantime, he also found that Santarsiero was entitled to additional medals as well. After gathering them, he surprised his father with a ceremony, presenting Santarsiero with all his medals.
He now has the French Legion of Honor Medal, the Bronze Star, Combat Infantry Badge, American Campaign Medal, European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, the WWII Victory Medal and the Army Good Conduct Medal.