Medal of Honor winner dies

Published 9:49 am Tuesday, January 3, 2012

DULUTH — Mike Colalillo, the last Medal of Honor recipient in Minnesota, has died. He was 86.

Colalillo died Friday at a Duluth nursing home, the funeral home confirmed Monday.

He received the nation’s highest military honor for bravery in combat for killing or wounding 25 Germans and helping a seriously wounded comrade to safety during a fierce firefight near Untergriesheim, Germany, on April 7, 1945, toward the end of World War II.

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Forty-six Minnesotans, including Colalillo, have received the Medal of Honor, according to the Minnesota Military Museum at Camp Ripley in Little Falls. According to the Medal of Honor Society, Colalillo’s death leaves 84 recipients still living across the U.S.

According to the official citation, the private first class was pinned down with other members of his company. The rifleman stood up amid heavy artillery, mortar and machine-gun fire, shouted to the company to follow, and ran forward while firing his machine pistol.

“Inspired by his example, his comrades advanced in the face of savage enemy fire,” the citation read.

When his pistol was disabled by shrapnel, Colalillo climbed onto a friendly tank and manned its machine gun. And, as “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.”

After that gun jammed, he borrowed a submachine gun from the tank crew and continued the attack on foot. When his company was ordered to withdraw, Colalillo remained behind to help a wounded soldier cross “several hundred yards of open terrain rocked by an intense enemy artillery and mortar barrage,” the citation said.

Colalillo was later sent to Washington, where President Harry S. Truman presented him with the medal on Dec. 18, 1945.

In a 1949 news interview, Colalillo said: “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.”

Colalillo never called attention to his heroics, his daughter said.

“He was not really explicit on a lot of the stuff that he did,” said his daughter, Michelle Schneeberger, of Meadowlands. “What he told us was that it happened so fast that he didn’t realize what he was doing. He just did it because it had to be done.”

After the war, he worked as a laborer for an iron company and as a longshoreman. Duluth honored him with Mike Colalillo Drive, which winds past Mike Colalillo Medal of Honor Park. A bust of Colalillo is displayed at City Hall.

“Duluthians have always been proud to call Mr. Colalillo one of our own,” Mayor Don Ness said.

Colalillo’s wife, Lina, died in 2007. A daughter, Joan Colalillo, died in 2001. He is survived by Schneeberger, and his son, Al Colalillo, of Hayward, Wis.

His funeral is scheduled for 11 a.m. Saturday at St. James Catholic Church in Duluth. Burial will follow at Forest Hill Cemetery with full military honors by the Minnesota Army National Guard Honor Guard.