In April of 1945, US Army Private Mike Colalillo was removed from the German front lines by armed Military Police, and taken to Division Headquarters. He didn’t know why, but felt he must be in some kind of trouble. At headquarters, the Private was informed that he had been nominated for the Congressional Medal of Honor. The Hibbing, Minnesota native replied, “What the hell’s a Medal of Honor?”
A few days earlier, on April 7, 1945, the 100th Infantry Division came under heavy artillery, mortar, and machine gun attack near Untergrieshem, Germany. A rifleman, Colalillo was pinned down under sustained fire. “I could see our guys getting shot,” he would later recall. In the midst of the attack, incredibly, Colalillo stood and began running toward the enemy, firing his weapon, and calling out to the other men to do likewise. His Medal of Honor citation reads, “Inspired by his example, his comrades advanced in the face of savage enemy fire.” How many people reading these words would do that?
The Good Book tells us that, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” Those beautifully wrought words of the King James Version were put to action in the mud of battle where bullets tear through flesh and young men die. His own weapon disabled by shrapnel, Private Colalillo climbed up on a tank where he manned an exposed machine gun. A hail of bullets pinging all around him, he turned the machine gun on the enemy. “I could see the muzzle flashes of the Germans shooting at us, and I aimed at them,” he would later recall. When the dust settled, Colalillo was officially credited with killing or wounding 25 enemy soldiers.
How did this son of an immigrant iron mine worker, whose mother died when he was 16, who was drafted into military service when he was 18, describe the valor and actions that earned him our nation’s highest military honor? “I never wanted to kill anybody, and I never had any particular yen to be a hero. Heroes are a dime a dozen in my book.”
After the war, Mike Colalillo came back home to work as a coal dump laborer. An accident on the job left him with a paralyzed left arm, and he went to work as a longshoreman in Duluth, Minnesota until his retirement in 1987. Unassuming, hard working, courageous, and by any standard an extraordinary man, he reminds us that it isn’t the politician who saves the country.
He recalled President Truman presenting him with the medal and telling him, “I’m proud of you. I [would] rather have this than be president.” Who among our political class would make such a statement today, knowing that most people who earn the Medal of Honor receive it posthumously? It’s tempting to observe that heroes like Mike Colalillo are a thing of the past, but a look at the Medal of Honor recipients in recent years shows that when freedom courses through the veins of her defenders, valor runs strong.
Last Friday, while we were preparing to welcome a new year, Mike Colalillo passed away at the age of 86, in Duluth. One of 46 Minnesotans to have received the Medal of Honor, he will be laid to rest Saturday at 11AM (Central Standard Time), with full military honors. Perhaps you might join me in a moment of silence at that time, in recognition of a humble man of extraordinary courage, and in celebration of a nation that produces people of his caliber.