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)

Share your memories by posting a comment.

 

6 thoughts on “Remembering Mike Colalillo, Medal of Honor recipient from Duluth

  1. If more American men were like Mr.Colalillo , we would have a better country. I thank him for being a great courageous american at a dire time in our WW 2 history.

  2. Mike (and Lina) were the most wonderful neighbors anyone could’ve ever had. They were with us for 30 years & we shared many happy & sad times. We will miss them forever.

  3. Another of the Greatest American Generation slips away. However this time it’s not quietly thanks to the Duluth News Tribune.

  4. I remember when the family lived in Smithville, a small, modest house.
    No one in his immediate family made penny one out of his heroism……unless you count that license plate in the picture.
    His conduct after winning the medal should serve as an example of a great, modest man.

  5. Like all Duluthians, and especially West Duluthians, we are proud to have had a real live WW2 hero growing up with us. We all still carry the memories, Godspeed, Mike..

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