By Danielle DeSimone
For many Italian Americans, World War II was a difficult era.
The U.S. had declared war on their ancestral home, many were perceived as a national security threat and domestic sentiment towards citizens with Italian heritage was skeptical, at best. Despite all these challenges, more than half a million Italian Americans joined and proudly served in the U.S. Armed Forces during WWII.
In honor of Italian American Heritage Month this October, here are five Italian Americans you should know who made WWII history.
Perhaps the most well-known Italian American to serve in World War II, John Basilone was a Marine Corps gunnery sergeant made famous for his actions during the Battle of Guadalcanal and the Battle of Iwo Jima.
Originally from New Jersey, Basilone served three years in the Army before enlisting in the Marine Corps. He was sent to Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands where, in October 1942, Basilone’s unit was attacked by the Japanese.
Sgt. Basilone commanded two sections of machine guns for two straight days until only he and two other Marines were left standing. Still, Basilone held his position and maintained steady fire against the approaching Japanese. As supplies ran low, Basilone fought through open ground, coming under enemy fire, to resupply the machine gunners with ammunition. By the end of the battle on the second day, Basilone was holding off the Japanese forces with nothing but his pistol and his machete.
Later, Basilone was present for the first day of the Battle of Iwo Jima. The Japanese, who were in a fortified blockhouse, fired on U.S. Marines as they landed on the island. Basilone’s unit was pinned down, so he headed out alone, making his way around the side of the Japanese position until he was directly on top of the blockhouse, which he single-handedly destroyed with grenades and demolitions. Then, he fought his way through open ground to safely guide a Marine tank through an enemy mine field, all while under fire. During this effort he was killed by Japanese mortar shrapnel.
Basilone became the only enlisted Marine to be awarded both the Medal of Honor and the Navy Cross for his extraordinary heroism in both battles, which secured the safety of his fellow Marines and the success of their mission.
Henry Mucci became a household name for his leadership during the rescue of the 513 survivors of the Bataan Death March.
A West Point graduate, Col. Mucci was serving in Hawaii and survived the attack on Pearl Harbor before joining the Army Rangers and eventually leading the liberation of the Cabanatuan Prison Camp.
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.
On the evening of January 30, 1945, Mucci and the Rangers crawled towards the camp on their stomachs under the cover of darkness. When a P-61 Black Widow plane roared overhead, momentarily distracting the Japanese guards, Mucci and the Rangers launched a raid on the camp.
The American and Filipino guerilla forces fired on the Japanese guards while rushing to pull the POWs from the prisoner huts. Although most were wounded, ill and weak, the POWs managed to make their way out of the camp. Only two Army Rangers were lost in the firefight, and not a single prisoner of war was left behind.
Mucci was credited with instilling the discipline in his Ranger battalion that was necessary for the successful raid. He was nominated for a Medal of Honor and received the Distinguished Service Cross from Gen. Douglas MacArthur himself.
In 1941, Yogi Berra was just starting his professional baseball career and was on his way to play for the New York Yankees. Then, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and everything changed.
Unlike most players who chose to play baseball for the military during the war, Berra, who was only 18 and supposedly “tired of sitting around,” put his career on hold and enlisted in the Navy as a gunner’s mate.
After training, Berra headed overseas and crossed the English Channel on the USS Bayfield before stepping into a rocket boat (also known as a landing craft) and sailing towards France on one of the most important days in world history: D-Day.
Berra’s six-man boat was one of many that approached German fortifications at Normandy’s beaches that day. During the invasion, Berra manned the machine gun and rocket-launcher, providing support for soldiers and Marines landing on the beaches. A few months after D-Day, Berra also participated in Operation Dragoon (the invasion of southern France).
During his time in the military, Berra earned a Purple Heart, a Distinguished Unit Citation, two battle stars, a European Theatre of Operations ribbon and the Navy’s Lone Sailor Award. He would also, of course, go on to have a legendary professional baseball career.
Anthony P. Damato
Anthony P. Damato demonstrated the true values of a Marine while serving in World War II.
Originally from the small town of Shenandoah, Pennsylvania, Damato enlisted in the Marine Corps exactly one month after the attack on Pearl Harbor. He took part in Operation Torch (the North Africa landings) and advanced in rank for his meritorious actions during the campaign.
Later in the war, Col. Damato headed to the Pacific Marshall Islands. While there, an enemy grenade was thrown into a foxhole where he and two other Marines were positioned. Without hesitation, Damato, who was only 21 years-old, immediately threw himself onto the enemy grenade, absorbing the explosion with his body. He died instantly and saved the lives of the other two Marines in the foxhole.
Damato was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor and the Purple Heart for his actions.
Gino J. Merli
Even though Gino J. Merli only served in the Army for two years during World War II, he saw plenty of action at D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge and – most famously – at a small Belgian town called Sars-la-Bruyere.
One evening in September 1944, Sgt. Merli’s company was patrolling a roadblock it had set up near Sars-la-Bruyere when they were suddenly attacked by approximately 100 German soldiers. Merli’s company was outnumbered in both men and firepower but continued to fight well into the night.
During the skirmish, the Germans repeatedly attempted to take out Merli’s gun emplacement. Thinking they’d succeeded, enemy soldiers approached Merli’s foxhole, finding what appeared to be the lifeless bodies of Merli and his assistant gunner. The Germans even stabbed Merli’s body a few times to ensure that he was actually dead, but Merli – who was very much alive – remained motionless through it all.
As soon as the Germans turned to leave, Merli leapt up and opened fire. He repeated this routine several times and even though his assistant gunner was eventually killed, Merli kept fighting all night. By daybreak, the Germans had asked for a truce. When American reinforcements found Merli, he was still at his gun with more than 50 enemy bodies in front of him.
Because he 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.
Merli would later become an outspoken advocate for veterans in Pennsylvania.
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