Duty and Greatness, some additional thoughts on Mike Colalillo
In his work on the Korean War, military historian T.R. Fehrenbach once noted that "you may fly over a land forever; you may bomb it, atomize it, pulverize it and wipe it clean of life - but if you desire to defend it, protect it, and keep it for civilization, you must do this on the ground, the way the Roman legions did, by putting your young men into the mud.'' On the 7th of April, 1945, Mike Colalillo was that man in the mud, defending civilization in a town named Untergriesheim in Germany.
Born on the first of December, 1925, Mike grew up in West Duluth Minnesota to Italian immigrant parents, one of nine siblings. When his mother died in 1941, Mike dropped out of school and worked at a bakery to support his family. According to the Washington Post, Mike said that he “did everything from cleaning pans to putting jelly in the Bismarcks,” a type of pastry. But when the war broke out, Mike enlisted to do his part for the cause of freedom. He went over to Duluth and would later be assigned to the 398th Infantry of the Army’s 100th Infantry Division. From there, he would head on to Germany.
Shakespeare once discussed greatness in his classic work, the Twelfth Night, noting that all great men (and presumably women) come to greatness by three routes: “some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them.” While a truism, which was Mike I wonder? For his part, he ascribed his actions to the third, telling the the St. Paul Pioneer Press in 2004 that “It was a rough time, and I was scared, but I had to do what I had to do.” And what he did was the stuff from which legends are made.
On that April day, Mike and his unit found themselves pinned down during an attack against strong enemy positions. Exposed to heavy artillery, mortar and machinegun fire, Mike stood, shouted to the men to follow, and began engaging the enemy with his machine pistol. The men followed, as all great men will do. When his pistol was rendered inoperable by shrapnel, Mike climbed upon on a nearby tank and began firing the machinegun, even though doing so exposed him to German firing. Undaunted, Mike would destroy three enemy positions, another machinegun emplacement, and rout those facing this God of War. When the machinegun jammed, he grabbed another submachine gun, and soldiered on. When ammunition was depleted and the order to withdraw came through, Mike refused to leave the battle, remaining behind instead to ensure that all the wounded men could be evacuated. Even in the face of intense enemy artillery and mortar attacks, Mike would help the wounded traverse several hundred yards of open terrain to ensure that other men were brought to safety. As his Medal of Honor citation would later relate, “By his intrepidity and inspiring courage Pfc. Colalillo gave tremendous impetus to his company's attack, killed or wounded 25 of the enemy in bitter fighting, and assisted a wounded soldier in reaching the American lines at great risk of his own life.”
His friends back in Minnesota hadn’t apparently seen the greatness in Mike, asking him “How could a little twerp like you get the Medal of Honor?”
I like to think that men and women like Mike are born with greatness, but it is only through free will and circumstance that others are able to see that greatness come to complete fruition. On my barracks wall at The Citadel there is a plaque that has stuck in my mind’s eye, even 20 years removed from my graduating the school, mainly because it was grammatically flawed, and didn’t suffer from that deficiency. It was a quote from Robert E. Lee that stated that “Duty is the sublimest word in the English language.” “Sublimest” isn’t a word, but it ought to be. In duty we find our salvation in choosing the hard right over the easy wrong. It would have been easier for Mike, and presumably the family left behind if he had remained behind the tank that sheltered him, and waited for the fire to abate before going to check on his wounded brothers. But, greatness doesn’t allow that, and so he did his duty.
But Duty doesn’t miraculously appear only in times of conflict, when physical courage is required; it’s something we must carry with us. Mike did what he had to do, what his conscience and upbringing taught him was the appropriate (if possibly foolhardy) thing to do.
I bring this up, because as veterans, as supporters, as advocates, we must apply those lessons to ourselves, and measure our successes and accomplishments by the same yardstick. We support our men and woman overseas and at home with all that we are capable of, because in doing that we touch upon that virtue, duty, and will not find ourselves lacking. Just as Mike left school to support his family, and braved enemy fire to bring his comrades home, so must we ensure that we do all we can to not only ensure that those men and women on the front lines know we care about them, and love them, but also to ensure that memories of men like Mike are not lost to our collective consciousness.
Mike passed away on December 30th, and I hope today you will take some time to think of him, his family, and all our men and women fighting the good fight as we enter this New Year. Send a letter or card to someone serving, mail a package, visit a VA, but do something in memory of Mike and those like him who soldiered their way into greatness.