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Gino Merli, 78; Medal of Honor Winner in WWII


Gino J. Merli, who was awarded a Medal of Honor in World War II for continuing to man his machine gun through a long night in Belgium in which his position was overrun by Germans, has died. He was 78.

Merli, who twice feigned death only to continue firing at the enemy, died June 12 at his home in Peckville, Pa. He had been battling heart and kidney problems and Parkinson's disease.

A private first class and machine gunner with the 18th Infantry of the 1st Infantry Division, Merli was part of a 14-man roadblock set up near Belgian town of Sars-la-Bruyere on the night of Sept. 4, 1944.

About 8 p.m., an American patrol reported that at least 100 German soldiers were headed down the cobblestone road. When the Americans opened fire, the Germans scattered.

But the superior German numbers and firepower soon took their toll: Two GIs were killed, four were injured and many of the remaining Americans were taken prisoner.

The Germans came down the road four times to try to knock off his gun emplacement, Merli recalled in Tom Brokaw's book "The Greatest Generation Speaks."

The last time the Germans came, around 4 a.m., they found two seemingly lifeless bodies in their foxholes: Merli and his assistant gunner.

As soon as the German soldiers turned around to leave, thinking their job was done, Merli opened fire and killed several. But Merli's assistant gunner was killed in the return fire, leaving Merli alone.

"Another group came down later," recalled Merli, who again pretended to be dead. "They said something in German. I assume it was that nobody was there. So when they moved on, I opened fire by myself."

Merli stayed at his weapon throughout the night.

After daybreak, American troops launched an assault, and the remaining Germans surrendered. When the shooting ended, 52 enemy bodies were found, 19 of them directly in front of Merli's gun.

His Medal of Honor citation notes that Merli's "gallantry and courage, and the losses and confusion that he caused the enemy, contributed materially to our victory."

That morning Merli asked permission to visit a village church to pray for the dead--those on both sides. His sergeant and a couple of other squad members joined him.

"No matter how bitter you were against the enemy," Merli said, "you still had the heart to pray for him. Because he was in the same boat as you and I."

Merli, who had participated in the D-day invasion of Normandy, later fought in the Battle of the Bulge. He was wounded three times during the war, taking hits to his leg and wrists during the Battle of the Bulge and, on that road in Belgium, four wounds to his buttocks when German soldiers prodded him with their bayonets to see if he was dead.

The son of a coal miner, Merli was born in Scranton, Pa. After the war, he served as an administrator for the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Plains Township, Pa.

He is survived by his wife, Mary; sons Geno of Haddon Heights, N.J., and Phillip of Greenville, N.C.; a daughter, Maria Zeitz of San Antonio; a brother; a sister; and six grandchildren.

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