By Chris Tremoglie
Vice President Nelson Rockefeller once said, “I think of the 1.5 million Americans of Italian descent who made up ten percent of the armed might of the United States in World War II, and many of these men you have met in years still well remembered.”
May 8th – VE Day (Victory in Europe) – is the anniversary of the surrender of Nazi Germany to the Allied forces, ending World War II in Europe. Approximately 3% of the world’s population perished in combat during the world’s deadliest war. In the United States, Italian Americans played a pivotal role in fighting the Axis Powers – many of them sacrificing their lives. Often honored as the “Greatest Generation,” let us honor some of the brave Italian-Americans who served as we commemorate the 75th Anniversary of VE Day.
John Basilone is arguably the most well-known Italian American to serve in World War II. In fact, Basilone’s story was one of the main plots of the HBO miniseries, The Pacific. Basilone was a United States Marine Gunnery Sergeant and fought in the Pacific Ocean theater of World War II. Remarkably, he also served in the United States Army three years before his service in the Marine Corps.
Basilone’s heroic feats during the Battle of Henderson Field in Guadalcanal are of mythical proportions and almost impossible to believe. His unit came under heavy fire from about 3000 Japanese soldiers. Basilone “was commanding two heavy .30-caliber machine gun sections from First Battalion, Seventh Marines, that were tasked with holding a narrow pass at the Tenaru River.” Basilone and his men were hammered with wave after wave of brutal Japanese attacks.
As his unit suffered significant casualties and ammunition was running critically low, Basilone’s heroism saved the day. He moved an extra gun into position and maintained continual fire against Japanese forces. Through all of this, he repaired a broken machine gun and went to replenish ammunition. During this sprint, Basilone: carried “about 90 pounds of weaponry and ammunition, ran a distance of 200 yards through enemy fire while fighting off Japanese soldiers along the route with his Colt .45 pistol. He continued running back and forth between gun pits, supplying ammunition to those desperately in need and clearing gun jams for his fellow Marines.” He also wound up burning his hands and arms while fending off an “entire wave of Japanese soldiers.”
By the time reinforcements had arrived, only Basilone and two other Marines were alive and Japanese forces opposite their section of the line had been virtually annihilated. For his actions during the battle, Basilone received the United States military’s highest award for valor, the Medal of Honor.
Afterwards, Private First Class Nash W. Phillips recalled:
“Basilone had a machine gun on the go for three days and nights without sleep, rest, or food. He was in a good emplacement, and causing the Japanese lots of trouble, not only firing his machine gun, but also using his pistol.”
Basilone would ultimately be killed in action in Iwo Jima protecting his fellow Marines from an enemy attack. He was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart and Navy Cross. Basilone was the only enlisted Marine “to be awarded both the Medal of Honor and the Navy Cross for his extraordinary heroism in both battles.”
Henry Mucci was a Colonel in the United States Army. Mucci was a West Point graduate who was assigned to Hawaii. Mucci is known for his heroism in liberating over 500 survivors (most American soldiers) “of the fall of Corregidor and the Bataan Death March from a Japanese prison camp in the Philippines.”
He survived the attack on Pearl Harbor and then joined the Army Rangers. He also had two brothers serve in the military during World War II. The 2005 film, The Great Raid, was about Mucci’s heroism.
The USO website highlights Mucci’s skill and bravery in executing the “Great Raid.” It states that “there were only 48 hours to plan the liberation and no time to practice the logistics. Mucci had just 121 Rangers with him and they were outnumbered at least two-to-one. They also had the hefty goal of rescuing more than 500 prisoners of war (POWs). Still, Mucci led his men behind Japanese lines, following their Filipino guerilla guides as they trekked through the jungle to prepare for their attack.”
Mucci was praised for the discipline of his unit in planning and executing the raid. In his obituary in the New York Times, his valor was highlighted. It was also noted that it was this discipline that enabled Mucci and his men to “penetrate 30 miles behind Japanese lines north of Manila” who were captured for three years “endured an excruciatingly brutal confinement in a camp named for the nearby town of Cabanatuan.”
Anthony P. Damato
Corporal Anthony P. Damato was an Italian American World War II hero who served as a Marine in both the Europe and Pacific Theaters.
Damato enlisted in the Marines about a month after Pearl Harbor. He was a participant in the Allied invasion of North Africa known as Operation Torch. Damato “helped seize the port of Arzeau, Algeria” and advanced in rank as a result of “his meritorious conduct.” His heroism involved “entering the port from seaward and assisted in boarding and seizing vessels in the harbor as well as the seizure of the port.”
His bravery continued when he saved the lives of two American soldiers while fighting in the Marshall Islands. Corporal Damato threw himself onto an enemy Japanese grenade that landed in his foxhole. He died instantly.
On April 9, 1945, Corporal Anthony P. Damato was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart and Medal of Honor by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Of Corporal Damato, President Roosevelt said: “Corporal Damato’s splendid initiative, fearless conduct and valiant sacrifice reflect great upon himself and the United States Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life for his comrades.”
Gino J. Merli
Sergeant Gino J. Merli was another Italian American who valiantly served in World War II and received the Medal of Honor. He served in the 2nd Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division. He was among those who landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day. He also fought in the Battle of the Bulge. His courageous efforts are also of epic proportions that resemble more of a Hollywood sequence than real events.
At a small Belgian town known as Sars-la-Bruyere, Sergeant Merli’s company faced a vigorous attack from 100 German soldiers. His position was overrun with German soliders and the men in his company began a retreat. Merli stayed behind and provided machine gun cover for his men. Ultimately, German soldiers overran his position, he faked his death as German soldiers “prodded him with bayonets” to make sure he was dead.
As the German soldiers were moving on from his alleged dead body, Merli “leapt up and opened fire.” He repeated his ruse several times in a heroic gambit to stay alive and fight off the Germans all night. As reinforcements emerged the next morning, the Germans asked for a truce. Merli was found with bodies of fifty German soldiers in front of him.
Merli “single-handedly caused significant damage to the enemy and put himself at great risk, he was awarded the Medal of Honor from President Truman. He also received two Purple Hearts, the Bronze Star and the Battle of the Bulge Medal.”
Vito R. Bertoldo
Master Sergeant Vito Bertoldo’s heroism almost did not happen. Because of poor vision, Bertoldo was ineligible for the World War II draft. He enlisted in the Army anyway. He talked “his way into training as an infantryman and was assigned as a cook.”
Bertoldo fought in a battle near Hatten, France. As German troops were shelling the town, Bertoldo volunteered to “provide rearguard defense” to help other American troops move to an alternate location. While under fire, Betoldo “mounted a machine gun at the CP’s entrance, enabling him to cover the main approach. He held his fire as German tanks shelled the building, then fired at the advancing infantry that followed.”
He continued his bravery the next day. He continued to defend against the relentless German shelling. He “exposed himself to enemy fire to throw hand grenades at the advancing Germans.” Later, the Germans fired a “self-propelled 88-millimeter gun directly into the room from which Bertoldo was shooting, the concussion from the third round knocked him across the room and left him dazed.” After ensuring the safety of his assistant gunner, Bertoldo “returned to his machine gun and continued the fight. He continued to fight as the battalion staff withdrew from the alternate command post and did not withdraw himself until everyone else had moved to safety.”
Bertoldo was awarded the Medal of Honor, Combat Infantryman Badge, Bronze Star Medal with oak leaf cluster, Purple Heart, and French Croix de Guerre.
His Medal of Honor citation can be found here.
Major Ralph Cheli served in the United States Army Air Forces during World War II. Initially a student at Lehigh University, Cheli left before graduating to enlist in the Army Air Forces.
Cheli served as the commanding officer of the 405th Bombardment Squadron in the Fifth Air Force’s 38th Bombardment Group, based out of Duran Airfield, Port Moresby, New Guinea.
Cheli flew in over 40 combat missions. In the Battle of the Bismarck Sea, Cheli “led his squadron in the first masthead bombing attacks ever executed during daylight against enemy shipping in the Southwest Pacific.”
While flying a mission on the “heavily defended enemy airdrome of Dagua near Wewak, New Guinea, Cheli was shot down.” He was captured by the Japanese and sent to the POW camp at Rabaul. He was either executed by his captors or killed when the enemy ship he was being transported to Japan on was sunk.
His medal of honor citation can be read here.
William J. Guarnere
“Wild Bill” Guarnere was a United States Army soldier who fought in the 101st Airborne Division. He was a non-commissioned officer with Easy Company, 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment. He gained widespread recognition as a character in the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers.
Originally from South Philadelphia, Guarnere and his brother enlisted in the military shortly after Pearl Harbor. His brother, Henry, was killed in the Italian campaign at Monte Cassino.
Guarnere’s first combat jump was on D-Day. He became known as “Wild Bill” as a result of his hasty and reckless attitude towards the Germans. Guarnere’s killing of most of a German platoon near the village of Sainte-Marie-du-Mont was an example of this and portrayed in Band of Brothers.
Another example of his reckless attitude, but also endeared him to fans of the miniseries, was after he was wounded in battle, he tried to sneak out of the hospital he was in to rejoin his company. He was caught, demoted to private, court-martialed, and sent back to the hospital. He told officials at the hospital that he would continue to go AWOL “just to rejoin Easy Company.” He was later allowed to leave.
Guarnere fought in the Battle of the Bulge. While under a massive artillery shelling from the Germans, his friend and fellow soldier, Joe Toye was hit. Guarnere tried to drag him to safety but was also hit during his attempt. Both men lost their right leg.
Guarnere was awarded “the Silver Star for combat during the Brecourt Manor Assault on D-Day, and was later decorated with three Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts, making him one of only two Easy Company members (the other being Lynn Compton) to be awarded the Silver Star throughout the duration of the war while a member of Easy Company.”
Italian American Heroism in WW2
These are just some of the countless Italian Americans who served in World War II. Many gave their lives so that freedom would endure. My great-uncle, who I never met, Albert Tremoglie, was killed in the European Theater on D-Day. Many others, like my grandfather Joseph Tremoglie who fought in the Aleutian Islands against the Japanese, showed great courage and survived the war and returned home. All of them should be regarded as heroes.
Here is a list of other Italian-American soldiers who were awarded the Medal of Honor during World War II (as well as all the Italian American Medal of Honor recipients).
Chris Tremoglie is a senior at the University of Pennsylvania where he is pursuing a double major in Political Science and Russian and Eastern European Studies. @chris_tremoglie
Hero’s to be proud of! Grazie!
We have many Italian Americans Heroes in our own family . The Marsico, Fiorito, Bernardo, Rende,Tucci and Garisto families all have served our country and each have members of the greatest generation. We all live in the central Pennsylvania area.