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Jun 14, 2002

Gino Merli Remembered

Gino Merli didn't embrace fame or his role of war hero. Yet he accepted them as he lived his life, with a sense of duty. So the man who rarely talked about the event that earned him the Medal of Honor responded to every letter praising him for his heroic deeds.

Mr. Merli died Tuesday at his Peckville home. He was 78.

On the night of September 4, 1944, Army Private First Class Merli was manning a machine gun when German forces attacked near Sars la Bruyere, Belgium. The outnumbered U. S. forces began their retreat, but PFC Merli held his position, providing cover fire. Under attack with his fellow soldiers dying around him, he played possum.

When the Germans turned their attention to the retreating men, PFC Merli rose from the ground and fired, repeating the ploy again and again.

When he returned from World War II, his duty became serving other veterans. For 34 years, he was an adjudication officer at the VA Medical Center in Plains Township.

When veterans, unaware of Mr. Merli's record, talked about their war experiences, he never mentioned his own.

"He never put himself or his experiences against anyone else's," explained friend and Marine veteran Ike Refice. "You never saw him point to himself or say 'Look at me. I have this medal.'"

Not much changed in the time since he received a hero's welcome in Scranton in 1945 or walked the beaches of Normandy with Tom Brokaw in 1984.

In 1945, he told a cheering crowd of 500 people at the Hotel Casey that he'd "rather be on the battlefield any day than make a speech."

Yet, in a letter he sent to admirers, he wrote that he may have been motivated by "my dead buddies or my hatred of war."

NBC News anchor and author Tom Brokaw remembers Mr. Merli always talking of other soldiers, rather than himself.

"He was a reluctant warrior, full of modesty and humility," Mr. Brokaw said. "The fact that he went to a church and prayed for men he had killed through the night was typical of him."

Mr. Merli was an inspiration for Mr. Brokaw's book "The Greatest Generation." The two met often. When Mr. Brokaw began writing his book about ordinary people doing extraordinary things, he said he was thinking about Gino Merli.

"I came to love him," Mr. Brokaw said.

Mr. Merli helped change how local people defined "American."

During World War II, Italy's alignment with Axis countries stoked anti-Italian and anti-immigrant sentiments. Italian Americans often found their patriotism questioned.

Gino Merli's heroics helped many in Lackawanna County see beyond ethnicity, said his son, Gino Merli Jr.

"When people saw my father come home and heard what he did, it changed their perception about what it means to be American," he said. "People saw the first and second generation immigrants sacrificing life and limb for the United States and for freedom."

In 1994, Mr. Refice and Mr. Merli visited Europe to retrace their steps through Europe. Oddly, the rural area where Mr. Merli held back Nazi troops was unchanged.

They met a Belgian man who, at the age of 16, watched Mr. Merli confound the Nazis again and again. During their visit, the town put a monument in the village common thanking Mr. Merli.

In his final days, he still shied away from speeches. But he did like to stand before a crowd for one purpose, Mr. Refice said. He enjoyed leading a crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance.

Lately, Parkinson's disease and a heart ailment held him back.

As a final encore last Saturday, the History Channel showed Roger Mudd's special on the Big Red One, the first infantry division, which featured Mr. Merli.

In letter he sent to admirers, Mr. Merli wrote:

"Not everyone can be a Medal of Honor recipient. But everyone can take pride in himself, have pride in his heritage. We must always keep trying to better ourselves and our surrounding and we must never quit. Always remember America is you and me."

 

 

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