Days before Veterans Day, students at Wallenpaupack Area High School learned of Gino J. Merli, a World War II Veteran and Congressional Medal of Honor recipient from Pennsylvania. Based on Merli's service in the United States Army and heroic actions during the Battle of the Bulge, students watched, "The Last Thoughts of Gino Merli."
Presented by the Scranton Public Theatre, Michael Fallon was Merli in the one man-show, where he portrayed emotions and insight into the experiences Merli had when he returned from war. The tremors and nightmares Merli had, as he would be woken by thunder that was similar to the sounds he heard in war, were just a few of the scenes that were as realistic as anyone could imagine.
Although a book hasn't been written, in the performance, Merli reminisced about his experiences as he talked with a man who was writing a book about the veteran. In the play, he said, "No matter how many wars we fight, if you don't see it up close, you don't really know." The students were quiet throughout the show. "If you don't see the blood, hear the screams, smell the bodies….you don't know."
The story is written from material gathered through conversations had with Merli's family and friends. Bob Shlesinger from the Scranton Public Theatre said Merli was a humble man who "represented the uniform of the United States of America with humility and honesty and integrity." An interesting story, he said the play gives, "a lot of food for thought."
Although the props were few, the sound effects and Fallon's performance did keep the audience attentive. Aside from his nightmares, Merli also had Parkinson's disease. He said, "Look at me now; I can't stop moving or twitching. So help me if my life depended on it, couldn't do it. But I think that's God's way of saying what I did was okay."
Merli told the author that one Marine was questioning if he had what it took to fight and survive. A sergeant told the Marine that, 'you're going to learn one thing before you get out of here and that is that the most brutal thing in the world is your average 19 year old American boy.' The sergeant continued, 'When the situation is either kill or be killed, like General Patton was fond of saying, 'you'll know what to do.'
The students got a chuckle when Merli said he didn't think he would leave his hometown. But while in the military, he traveled the world, "to England, Scotland, France, Belgium, Germany and Dickson City."
Scared, Merli said there is no shame in being afraid. Instead, every solider was scared. But, he admitted that he was most scared of running and deserting his buddies. He said, "To me, that's worse than dying because when you're dead, you're dead. If you run, you have to live with that for the rest of your life."
While on the battlefield, there was a point when Merli had to pretend that he was dead, because the Germans were walking along, jabbing the American soldiers with bayonets to make sure they were dead. Merli was stuck in the lower back. But, he said he didn't move. Instead, "I was thinking about the crucifix and the spear that was threshed into the side of Christ." Although wounded, when the coast was clear, Merli jumped up and killed 19 German soldiers. Killing wasn't a concern, he said, because his thoughts were about staying alive and making it back home. Rather than surrendering, Merli said he kept firing and there wasn't a chance he would have been taken alive.
Merli was told, that his squad saved many American lives that day, because the Germans needed the road he had blocked in order to continue. Soldiers, Merli said, didn't think about killing when they went off to war. Instead, they thought about doing what was right. With no honor in killing, he said the, "honor is being willing to die for the right things."
A humble man, when back in the United States, Merli received many invitations to speak. But, he didn't see himself as a hero because the real heroes were those who didn't come home.
Of being awarded the Medal of Honor, Merli said he happened to be in the right place at the right time, and the right persons heard about his story. Having known other soldiers who he felt did more, Merli said that he treats the medal as though it belonged to many soldiers.
June 8th, 2002 Merli died of a heart attack at his home in Peckville, Pennsylvania. At the age of 78, till the end, his experiences in the war stayed with him. The play ended with Fallon asking everyone to stand and recite the pledge of Allegiance as Merli was doing in a video taken years before, when he received an award.
Through the years, many facilities have been named after Merli, including the: Gino J. Merli Veteran's Center in Scranton, another veteran's hospital in Wilkesboro, Gino Merli Drive in Peckville and the Merli Sarnoski Park outside of Carbondale.
Shlesinger said the play was not just a tribute to Merli, but a tribute to every person who wears the uniform of the United States of America; "which is, by the way, the greatest country on the planet earth."