NAPLES, Fla. — Army Staff Sgt. Frank Mustari heard the enemy mortar fire and jumped into the shell hole with three soldiers during World War II.
But all were hit — and 20-year-old Mustari felt a searing pain on his right thigh.
“Like a hot poker,” Mustari, 90, of East Naples, recalled Wednesday. “It was hot and painful ”
Seventy years after he was shot in Germany, just as he turned 90 last month, the retired Chicago pipe fitter finally received his Purple Heart, the Bronze Star Medal and Presidential Unit Certificate.
“I think I was deserving of them and I’m proud of it,” Mustari said as he sat in his Naples Estates mobile home with his 76-year-old wife, Rosie. “I don’t feel good about any of it. The injury was bad enough. There were men that were killed.”
His name will be displayed at the National Purple Heart Hall of Honor in New York. But Mustari won’t be hanging his Purple Heart, given to those who are wounded in combat, and other awards in his home.
“I think I’ll display them when I’m dead, God forbid. That’s enough,” Mustari said of his funeral, adding that he lost four friends during the war. “I’m trying to forget that war, really.”
Eight days after his 18th birthday on March 8, 1943, Mustari enlisted in the Army. It was a month before the draft. “I wanted to serve my country,” he explained.
He lived in Chicago with his parents, four brothers and two sisters, Rose and Violet. Two brothers, Bennie, a paratrooper, and Nick, an Air Force pilot, enlisted before he did. Two brothers followed: Carmen joined the Navy and Artie enlisted in the U.S. Marines.
“All survived combat and came home,” said Mustari, a sharpshooter in the 311th Infantry, 78th Lightning Division.
He fought during the Battle of the Bulge, a major German offensive that began Dec. 16, 1944, in a dense forest area in Belgium, France and Luxembourg. The surprise attack caught Allied forces off-guard, making it the costliest in terms of U.S. casualties, more than 100,000; it ended Jan. 25, 1945.
“It was a very cold and cruel battle ... sometimes 25 below. How do you keep warm?” he asked, adding that he’d take off his socks, rub his frozen feet and warm his socks under his arms.
His high school sweetheart, Catherine Mary Hubert, received his letters at home in Chicago. Her letters kept him going, but mail was sporadic: He’d get three or four letters at once.
He crossed over into Linz am Rhein, Germany, on his 20th birthday. He was injured two days later, on March 10, 1945.
“We were attacking the enemy and we were under German mortar fire,” Mustari said of the battle that occurred two months before Adolf Hitler killed himself and 800,000 German soldiers surrendered.
The four soldiers jumped into a hole just created by the mortar fire. Medics helped the injured Mustari walk to a bridge head and he was rushed to a hospital. He lay in a coma for 30 days.
The others suffered arm, back and elbow injuries. Mustari had two operations before spending 10 months recovering in hospitals in Germany, France and the United States. He still has a large scar and suffers muscle spasms.
After he recovered, Army officials asked if he wanted to continue.
“The injury alone was enough for me,” he recounted. “I said, ‘No thanks. I’ll take the discharge.’ I just wanted to get back. I didn’t think I’d come back, really.”
His service ended Jan. 23, 1946. He returned to Chicago, married Hubert and they had a son, Louis. The veteran became a pipe fitter with Local 597, Chicago. “We were married 43 years and she passed away,” he said.
Years earlier, Rosie McGrath, a licensed practical nurse, met him at a Chicago hospital, where he’d visit her patient, his mother. “He’d come in with his wife,” she said.
She was helping a nurse with a patient 16 years later, when she saw him in the hospital room. His black hair had turned gray, but he looked familiar. He told her his name and she remembered.
“He was such a wonderful son to his mother,” she said.
It was his sister, the patient, who asked for her number. She was a widow, but it was a bad marriage and she wasn’t interested in men. Mustari called her twice before she relented.
“We went out to dinner and that was it. We never parted after that,” she said.
When he told her he was moving to Florida, she didn’t want to leave. But she knew it would be hard to find a man like Mustari, “a saint” who “treats her like a queen.”
They married in Naples nearly 20 years ago, she said, adding, “It was the best thing in my life. We’re never apart.”
It was she who urged him to again apply for his Purple Heart. He still suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, is nervous and his hands have always been shaky.
“I said if he passes away, I would like to see that on him,” she said, her eyes welling with tears. “ I’m very proud. It breaks my heart, knowing what he went through. Men went through so much to protect us and give us freedom.”
She urged him to ask Eddie Hartnack, Collier County’s Veteran Services Officer, for help. They’d met 17 years earlier, when Hartnack spotted the distinctive, erect stance of the soldier at a flea market and gave him his card. They became friends as Hartnack helped gradually increase his disability benefits over the years, from 20 percent to 100 percent.
Veterans often are deterred by the “immense amount of paperwork” involved in getting their medals, Hartnack said, adding, “I say, ‘Listen, this is yours, you’ve earned it. You should have it.’ ”
Paperwork showed Mustari received the Purple Heart, the Overseas Service Bar, the American Campaign Medal, European-African-Middle Eastern Theater Ribbon with two Bronze Battle Stars, the Good Conduct Medal, the World War II Victory Medal and a Combat Infantry Badge.
Hartnack applied for his Purple Heart and determined Mustari also was eligible for the other awards due to heroism in combat. Army review boards sent Mustari a letter in January, saying his record was corrected to add the three awards, which arrived two months later.
“I’ve been doing this 18 years, so I’ve helped thousands of veterans in Collier County,” Hartnack said, adding that he worked hard to verify Mustari’s details. “ ... All it takes is someone knowledgeable about how to do the paperwork. ... It took a year — but he waited 70 years to get them.”