A scrappy kid from Scranton, Pennsylvania, Gino Merli was born to a coal mining family in 1924. Coming of age just in time for service, Merli enlisted in the United States Army in July 1943, leaving high school early to play his part in the war.
He was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division. For Merli, the war came quickly as within a year he was storming ashore at Omaha Beach during the D-Day invasion. Pushing into France with the rest of the 1st Division, Merli was again thrust into the fray at the Battle of the Bulge.
Actors have often said they find it difficult to stay in character during stressful moments, but if they need a teacher, they need to look no further than Private First Class Gino Merli.
Into the Fight
However, it was in a small skirmish near Sars-la-Bruyere, Belgium that Merli found his way into the spotlight. On the evening of September 4, 1944, Merli was a machine gunner for a section of his platoon. Entrenched into his fighting position, Merli and his A-gunner peered into the night looking for the enemy. Without warning, a large and numerically superior German force hit Merli and the rest of his platoon with overwhelming force.
Casualties quickly began to mount, as the assault from the experienced German troops proved too accurate and coordinated to withstand. The order to retreat was given. However, rather than retreat the scrappy kid remained with his A-gunner in his fighting hole to cover the withdrawal of his fellow soldiers. This gallant action began a long and surreal evening behind enemy lines.
Still in the Fight
After the withdrawal, Merli was surrounded by Germans with only his A-gunner by his side. The rest of Merli’s section was forced to surrender leaving enemy fire concentrated on Merli’s position in an attempt to neutralize it. At some point during the fighting, Merli’s A-gunner was killed leaving him alone and isolated in his fighting hole, cut off from the rest of his section.
When the Germans approached in the cover of night to investigate and take prisoners, Merli slumped into his fighting hole beside his fallen A-gunner to feign death. The Germans prodded him in the buttocks with their bayonets, causing flesh wounds.
Convinced they were dead, the Germans withdrew, and Merli saw his opportunity. He leaped into action and gunned down the withdrawing Germans with his machine gun. Throughout the evening, he continued to man his machine gun.
At approximately 4:00 AM the firing stopped. Again the Germans moved in to investigate the outcome. Unaware of what had occurred previously they found two dead Americans in a fighting hole. Again, they tested the bodies with the bayonet treatment. Then when they were withdrawing, Merli opened fire killing as many Germans as he could.
Welcome Back to the Fight
An American counter-attack the next morning hit the beleaguered Germans forcing them to surrender. When the US troops advanced to negotiate the surrender they found Gino Merli still in his fighting hole, manning his machine gun, and ready for more action.
Fifty-two dead Germans lay in the wasteland in front of his fighting hole, nineteen lying in the direct path of his machine gun. After the battle, Merli asked for permission to visit a local church in the village so he might pray both for his fallen comrades and those he had killed.
For his actions that day, Gino Merli received the Medal of Honor. In fitting fashion for a man who did not know how to give up, Merli returned to high school and graduated after earning his nation’s highest military honor.
Merli died in 2002, and the Veteran’s Center in his hometown was appropriately named for the scrappy kid from Scranton.