Remembering Mike Colalillo, Medal of Honor recipient from Duluth

Sgt. Mike Colalillo of Duluth phones relatives in December 1945 with news that he’ll be meeting with President Truman later that month to receive the Medal of Honor. (News-Tribune file photo)

Mike Colalillo, a World War veteran and Medal of Honor recipient from Duluth, died Friday at age 86.

Here is the citation which accompanied his medal:

“He was pinned down with other members of his company during an attack against strong enemy positions in the vicinity of Untergriesheim, Germany. Heavy artillery, mortar, and machine-gun fire made any move hazardous when he stood up, shouted to the company to follow, and ran forward in the wake of a supporting tank, firing his machine pistol. Inspired by his example, his comrades advanced in the face of savage enemy fire. When his weapon was struck by shrapnel and rendered useless, he climbed to the deck of a friendly tank, manned an exposed machine gun on the turret of the vehicle, and, while bullets rattled about him, fired at an enemy emplacement with such devastating accuracy that he killed or wounded at least 10 hostile soldiers and destroyed their machine gun. Maintaining his extremely dangerous post as the tank forged ahead, he blasted 3 more positions, destroyed another machine gun emplacement and silenced all resistance in his area, killing at least 3 and wounding an undetermined number of riflemen as they fled. His machine gun eventually jammed; so he secured a sub-machine gun from the tank crew to continue his attack on foot. When our armored forces exhausted their ammunition and the order to withdraw was given, he remained behind to help a seriously wounded comrade over several hundred yards of open terrain rocked by an intense enemy artillery and mortar barrage. 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.”

Here are some photos of Colalillo from the News Tribune files, along with an article from when he received the medal.

It’s not like packing barracks bags, Sgt. Mike Colalillo learns from his sister, Mrs. Anthony Sisto, who shows him how civilians pack in this photo from December 1945. Mike is getting set for a ceremony in Washington in which he’ll receive the Medal of Honor from President Truman. Lending moral support in the preparations are Mike’s father, Carlo, and his niece, Diane, 7. (News-Tribune file photo)

This article ran in the News-Tribune on Dec. 18, 1945, the morning he received the medal from President Truman:

Mike is calmest of Colalillos

Eager family awaits CMH presentation today

By Gustaf A. Nordin, News-Tribune staff writer

WASHINGTON — Sgt. Mike Colalillo came to the world’s busiest capital Monday with his family and was the calmest of the Colalillos as they prepared for presentation of the Congressional Medal of Honor by the President of the United States today.

“What did you do to earn the Congressional Medal, Mike?” he was asked as an informal press conference.

“Oh, they’ve got a citation around here on it someplace” was the answer. Mike looked tough enough to be a sergeant, but his outward calm belied the fireball his friends say he was earlier this year on a battlefield near Untergriesheim, Germany. He certainly didn’t act the part of a Yankee infantryman who had blasted 25 Germans out of his path as he and his buddies went rushing in on what he calls “a pretty big battle, I guess.”

The proudest Colalillo in Washington this week is Carlo, the hero’s father. He complained of a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach. He has had it for two months, but doesn’t attribute it to excitement over his son’s return from the European war one of the country’s top heroes. Mike returned two months ago.

The rest of the Colalillos from Duluth were not to be left behind. Patrick, a brother; Mrs. Patrick Sisto and Mrs. Anthony Sisto, sisters; and Mrs. Lorraine Colalillo, sister-in-law, were on hand for the biggest event in their lives.

The women battled Washington’s Christmas shopping mob Monday afternoon. Mike, along with three other Congressional Medal recipients who will be honored by the country at 12:30 p.m. today, were in the hands of war department personnel. The sergeant was issued a new uniform for the occasion. He went to Capitol Hill for a brief visit.

President Truman presents the Medal of Honor to Sgt. Mike Colalillo of Duluth in Washington on Dec. 18, 1945. (News Tribune file photo)

The 20-year-old lad who went to West Junior high school in Duluth and turned to earning his own living early in life is considering the GI Bill of Rights to further his education. But he doesn’t know yet what he will study.

He will drive a truck for his brother, Patrick, a mechanic shop operator in Duluth, “until something better might turn up.”

The Colalillos plan to leave here Wednesday, returning to Duluth.

Papa Colalillo works at the Zenith Furnace Co. in Duluth when he is well, and is amember of the AFL Coke and Gas Workers’ union.

Mike was asked, “Aren’t you a bit excited about meeting the President?”

“I guess so,” he answered. But you wouldn’t believe it. His superior officers commented on the side later that he wasn’t as calm when he rescued a buddy and knocked more than a score of Germans out of action during a second push on a major objective.

A captain with the group took me aside after the conference with Sergeant Colalillo. Very simply, with a genuine feeling of affection in his voice, the captain said of the sergeant:

“There goes one swell fella.”

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Minnesota Gov. Rudy Perpich shakes the hand of Medal of Honor recipient Mike Colalillo of Duluth during a ceremony at the Duluth City Hall on May 25, 1978. (News-Tribune file photo)

Mike Colalillo stands next to a bust of himself after it was unveiled at Duluth City Hall on May 25, 1978. (News-Tribune file photo)

Colalillo returned to Duluth after receiving the Medal of Honor, and worked for some time at the Port Terminal. In May 1978, with Minnesota Gov. Rudy Perpich and Vice President Walter Mondale on hand, a bust of Colalillo was unveiled at Duluth City Hall.

In 1995, near the 50th anniversary of the act of heroism that earned Colalillo the Medal of Honor, the News Tribune’s Mark Stodghill visited with Colalillo, and wrote this column….

Mike Colalillo of Duluth, pictured here in May 1995, was presented with special license plates in recognition of receiving the Medal of Honor. (Bob King / News-Tribune)

Medal of Honor recipient a down-to-earth hero

By Mark Stodghill, News-Tribune

Maybe it was Mike Colalillo’s melodic Italian surname.

His quiet dignity.

His surprising shyness.

His touch of greatness.

As I sat across the table from Colalillo in his rural Duluth home, I was reminded of American sports legend Joe DiMaggio. Both men share all the aforementioned qualities.

I interviewed the great DiMaggio once and have read a lot about him. Ernest Hemingway thought enough of DiMaggio’s fame to mention the Hall of Fame baseball player in “The Old Man and the Sea.”

Colalillo is mentioned in a book, too. It’s titled “America’s Medal of Honor Recipients.”

While DiMaggio is a sophisticated legend known across America, Colalillo is something more — a down-to-earth hero, but he isn’t widely known in his hometown.

The 69-year-old native Duluthian is uncomfortable being labeled a hero, but after a long hesitation said, “I suppose I am.”

You bet he is.

Fifty years ago, Colalillo risked his life to save his Army company during an attack against enemy positions near Untergriesheim, Germany. His actions resulted in him receiving the Medal of Honor, the highest military award for bravery that can be given to an American serviceman.

In this undated photo, probably taken in fall 1945, then-Pfc. Mike Colalillo of Duluth, stationed with the U.S. Army 100th Division’s 398th Infantry in Germany, writes home to his dad with news that he has been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. (U.S. Army photo / News-Tribune files)

Yesterday, on Armed Forces Day, a plaque honoring the World War II veteran was scheduled to be dedicated on Mike Colalillo Drive on West Duluth.

Colalillo appreciates his latest honor, but wasn’t looking forward to having to make a speech.

“I’ll have to thank the dignitaries who are there to speak and thank the people who came out to wish me a good fortune, but it’s going to be short and sweet,” he said on Monday.

I wondered how Colalillo’s life would be different had he not received the medal.

“I have no idea, but it didn’t change me,” he said. “I’m still a shy guy who doesn’t like to talk about himself.”

Colalillo treats fame like perfume. It’s great to be around and wonderful to smell, but he wouldn’t want to swallow it.

Fame came to him in December 1945 when he and members of his family entered the Oval Office of the White House and watched President Harry Truman put the Medal of Honor around Colalillo’s neck.

“He (Truman) said, ‘I’d rather have the medal than be president,’ ” Colalillo remembered. “I just said, ‘Thank you.’ ”

According to the citation accompanying the medal, here’s part of what the 19-year-old, 5-foot-11, 145-pound Colalillo did on April 7, 1945:

Under heavy enemy fire, he ran forward firing his machine pistol. When his weapon was struck by shrapnel and rendered useless, he climbed to the deck of a friendly tank, manned a machine gun and while bullets rattled about him, fired at an enemy emplacement killing or wounding at least 10 hostile soldiers and destroying their machine gun.

He destroyed another machine gun emplacement, killing at least three and wounding an undetermined number as they fled.He then helped a wounded comrade to safety over several hundred yards of open terrain, rocked by an intense enemy artillery and mortar barrage.

What does Colalillo remember about it?

“I don’t like to remember it to tell you the truth,” he said. “I was scared Very scared. The feeling I had was to shoot or they’d shoot me. It was something you had to do. I think of how your friends got killed alongside you. That comes back to you once in a while.”

To truly understand how Colalillo found the courage to do what he did on that day in Germany you probably had to be there.

We can be thankful he was.

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Here are a few more photos of Mike Colalillo from the News Tribune files:

Sgt. Mike Colalillo with his family in December 1945, shortly before leaving to receive the Medal of Honor from President Truman in Washington, D.C. (News-Tribune file photo)

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Sgt. Mike Colalillo of Duluth tinkers with his car a few days before leaving for Washington to receive the Medal of Honor from President Truman in December 1945. (News-Tribune file photo)

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Mike Colalillo of Duluth, pictured here in November 2001, shows the Medal of Honor he received for his heroism while serving in World War II. (Bob King / News-Tribune)

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The history of Kmart in Duluth

It was announced today the the Kmart in Duluth near the Miller Hill Mall is slated for closure. When it does close, it will mark the end of a more-than-36-year run for the store at its Mall Drive location.

Kmart opened at that site in a new building on May 7, 1975. Here’s an article and some photos from its opening:

The new Kmart near the Miller Hill Mall in Duluth, taken shortly before it opened in May 1975. (Duluth News-Tribune photo)

Kmart doors open Wednesday

Duluth Herald

Duluth’s hilltop commercial area welcomes another major occupant Wednesday with the opening of Kmart, the city’s fourth large discount department store.

Doors will be open to the public at 9 a.m. following a brief ribbon-cutting ceremony at the main entrance to the department store.

A number of Duluth city officials and civic leaders will participate in the ribbon-cutting at 8:30 a.m. Several executives of the parent S.S. Kresge Co., Troy, Mich., also are expected to take part.

The Duluth Kmart, the company’s 11th in Minnesota, occupies 84,120 square feet on a 12-acre site at the Village Mall just northwest of the Decker Road and just south of the Maple Grove Road west of the Miller Trunk Highway.

The complex, estimated to cost about $1.5 million, also will include a Super Valu supermarket operation which is scheduled to open in early June.

Kmart management said police have been asked to give special attention to traffic in the area during the first hours of the store’s opening because of the expected crowds. Space for about 800 vehicles is provided in a blacktopped parking lot in front of the store.

Thomas R. Hallett, formerly of Wood River, Ill., manager of the new store, pointed out the size of the complex is the largest the company is building at present.

“It reflects the company’s confidence in the long-term outlook and the economy of the area,” he said. “We are looking forward to a successful, permanent stay in Duluth.”

Except for a few key personnel, the majority of the 150 employees, mostly in sales capacities, were hired locally. …

Mrs. Diane Curd arranges some of the thousands of shoes on display at the new Duluth Kmart store in May 1975. Low-profile counters permit easy viewing of other areas. (Duluth Herald photo)

Hallett said the display counters contain more than 22,000 items in a wide variety of merchandise, including appliances, furniture, building tools, floor coverings, draperies, yard goods, sewing materials, women’s fashions, clothing for men, boys, girls and infants, bedding, jewelry, camera supplies, books and records, pets and pet supplies, and health and beauty aids.

Kmart also has a complete automotive center with a large auto music section featuring stereo tape players and tapes. Several bays will be available to expedite light maintenance and parts replacement service. …

The store also features a full-line sporting goods department and a self-serve grille with seating capacity for 72 persons. …

A major feature of the Duluth store’s interior is spaciousness and brightness resulting from light-colored floor and ceiling tile and extensive use of fluorescent lighting. Shoulder-high display counters permit unobstructed views of department signs on walls in farther areas of the store.

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Kmart on Mall Drive in Duluth, Dec. 20, 2000. (Bob King / News Tribune)

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Glen Nelson of Duluth scans the price of an automobile air filter Friday afternoon as he uses the automated check-out at Kmart, 1734 Mall Drive, for the first time. By using the new self-serve station, Nelson avoided lines while checking out. (Justin Hayworth / News Tribune)

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In other Kmart history in Duluth…

- the Kmart in West Duluth opened in October 1980 in the former Shoppers City building at 50th and Wadena; you can see it here.

It opened in its present location in the Spirit Valley shopping center in November 1991. The Shoppers City / Kmart building was gutted and expanded, and now houses Menards.

- The Miller Hill Kmart apparently was the first store in Duluth to introduce automated, self-serve checkouts, in fall 2001.

- the auto service center (it later was a Penske auto center) at the Miller Hill Kmart location closed in April 2002

- The Kmart parent company also operated Kresge and Jupiter stores. In 1980, there was a Jupiter store in downtown Duluth and a Kresge store in Superior.

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Here are a couple of photos of the Miller Hill / Mall Drive Kmart under construction:

Kmart under construction near Miller Hill Mall in Duluth, Jan. 19, 1975. (News-Tribune file photo)

Earth-moving equipment prepares the site of the new Kmart store at the Village Mall, near Miller Hill Mall in Duluth on May 28, 1974. (Duluth Herald file photo)

If you zoom in on that previous photo, you can see an A&W restaurent in the distance – does anyone know if this building still stands as some other business, or was it torn down?

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Old Denfeld sign at old Laura MacArthur school

There’s been a discussion over on Perfect Duluth Day the past couple days about whether or not an old, engraved Denfeld High School might exist on the 56th Avenue West facade of the now-former Laura MacArthur Elementary School.

That part of the old MacArthur (the new MacArthur opened this year) was Denfeld High School when it first opened; go to PDD for the full history. Over the course of the years, the building was remodeled and added to, covering up the old Denfeld sign.

But it did exist, as shown in these two pictures that ran in the News Tribune on April 13, 1994 (one was archived in color; the other had to be retrieved from microfilm):

These photos were taken by the DNT’s Charles Curtis when workers were preparing to add a new entrance, stairwell and elevator to the school. A sign that read “MacArthur-West” was removed from above the entrance, revealing – if only temporarily – the old (and damaged) Denfeld engraving.

Alas, there was no further word in that day’s paper about the fate of the sign. Was it removed? Saved by being encased within the addition? If you know more, post a comment here or over at the PDD discussion.

70th anniversary of Pearl Harbor attack

Today, Dec. 7, 2011, is the 70th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that launched the United States into World War II. It’s hard to believe that the youngest survivors of that fateful day are now in their late 80s, with most in their 90s.

Here is an image of the front page of the News-Tribune from the day after the attack – Dec. 8, 1941. Click on the image to access a large-size view on which you can read the text (you may need to click a second time to get the full-size view):

And one more interesting Pearl Harbor-related item…

This is an audio clip of an early NBC radio report on the attack, relayed from radio station KGU in Honolulu. I have seen some references to this being the first eyewitness media report of the attack to reach the mainland U.S., although I am not sure of that:

The news the reporter is dramatic on its own, of course. But what adds to it for me is the static-filled, cobbled-together transmission – and thinking how an entire nation was gathered around radios, waiting to hear that first live report from Hawaii that would change the course of history.

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