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Medal of Honor: Mike Colalillo

MohbookEvery weekday for 110 straight days we will feature a different living recipient of the Medal of Honor. These are the men who have received their nation's highest military honor. Brian is a board member of the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation. The words and photos are courtesy of Artisan Books, publishers of "Medal of Honor: Portraits of Valor Beyond the Call of Duty by Peter Collier with photographs by Nick Del Calzo.

Private First Class, U.S. Army  Company C, 398th Infantry, 100th Infantry Division

Mike Colalillo, one of nine children, was born shortly after his parents emigrated from Italy. He grew up in a tough neighborhood in Duluth, Minnesota, and left high school without graduating. Drafted in 1944, he was an eighteen-year-old private when he landed with the 100th Army Infantry Division at Marseille that October. His unit was engaged in constant combat over the next few months as it pushed up through central France and into Germany. Through the heartbreak of losing his comrades killed in the fighting, Colalillo hung on to memories of the rare funny moments as well: stealing chickens from a rundown farm, smoking cigars from a captured cigar factory.

The Germans had blown all the bridges leading into the Fatherland, so the Americans crossed the Rhine on pontoons. For his part in the bloody skirmishes that were almost daily occurrences, Colalillo was ultimately awarded the Silver Star and the Bronze Star.
On April 7, 1945, Colalillo's company was pinned down during an attack against enemy positions in the vicinity of Untergriesheim, Germany. Although enemy artillery and machine-gun fire made it dangerous even to raise one's head, when he saw an American tank unit moving through the lines toward the enemy position, Colalillo stood up and shouted at the other men to follow him. He ran forward, firing the grease gun he'd found on the battlefield and been carrying
for several weeks. When a random piece of shrapnel destroyed the weapon, Colalillo scrambled onto the turret of an American tank and, fully exposed to shelling from a German gun emplacement, began firing its machine gun. He killed or wounded ten enemy soldiers and destroyed the machine-gun nest. With bullets glancing off the tank's shell, he kept firing as the tank moved forward toward the German line. He took out another machine-gun emplacement, killing at least three more Germans.
When the machine gun jammed, Colalillo pounded on the hatch of the tank and had one of the men inside hand him up a tommy gun, then jumped down and continued the attack on foot. Even after the tanks had exhausted their ammunition and were ordered to withdraw, he stayed behind to help a wounded GI, carrying the man over several hundred yards of open terrain in the midst of a German artillery and mortar barrage.
Colalillo was fighting on the line a few weeks later when a pair of MPs appeared and told him that his commanding officer wanted to see him. Naturally, Colalillo wondered what he had done to get arrested, but when he arrived at company headquarters, his captain told him that he'd been recommended for the Medal of Honor. He was ordered to stay around division headquarters for the next few months so that nothing would happen to him before the presentation. He was sent home after the bombing of Hiroshima and honored by President Harry Truman at the White House on December 18, 1945.