The Medal of Honor
The Medal of Honor is our nation’s highest military award. Presented by the President of the United States in the name of the U.S. Congress to members of the U.S. Armed Services, it has been bestowed upon 3,469 heroes to date.
The Medal is awarded for “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life, above and beyond the call of duty, in action, involving actual conflict with an opposing armed force.” Suspended by a ribbon, it is the only medal to be worn around the neck, and it is displayed above all other decorations.
Read any one of the panels in this exhibit, and you’ll instantly know that the level of heroism honored by the medal defies human imagination. Those awarded the Medal of Honor are known as “recipients,” not as winners. Often, the hero perishes while earning the medal, making “recipient” a more appropriate term.
The decoration is frequently referred to as the “Congressional Medal of Honor,” but the proper name is Medal of Honor. Although originally created specifically for the American Civil War, Congress made the Medal of Honor a permanent decoration in 1863.
Over the centuries, more than two dozen Italian Americans have earned this rare distinction.
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The Italian American Veterans Museum sheds a human light on major military conflicts by focusing on the brave men and women who served in defense of their country. Here are just a few of the stories spotlighted in our main exhibits:
James Orlando “Lon” Fornelli was a frequent volunteer at the Italian Cultural Center and a legendary dancer and singer. It wasn’t until his family read about him in “Shots Fired in Anger” by Lt. Col. John George that they learned “the rest of the story.” As it turns out, during World War II, Sergeant James Fornelli was one of the heroes of Guadalcanal. When his platoon came under repeated sniper attacks, he went out into the jungle alone, exposing himself to enemy fire to identify the location of the snipers, then eliminating the threat. All told, Fornelli felled 13 snipers. Lt. Col. George described him as “a throwback to the best of his ancient Roman ancestors.” Like other highly decorated heroes of World War II, he toured the country selling war bonds after he completed his tour of duty in the Pacific. His son Jerry describes him as a man whose strength of character was matched by his humility. “My dad wasn’t the kind of guy who talked about his war experiences,” Fornelli says. “But he was a hero to all of us.”
World War II Battle Front
To Hell and Back
When Mario “Motts” Tonelli entered the Armed Forces in World War II, he was a strapping young fullback for the Chicago Cardinals, having completed an All-American career with the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame. Four years later, when he returned from what was supposed to be a one-year tour of duty, he was emaciated beyond recognition, having survived one of the worst atrocities ever visited upon American troops. Tonelli and 23,000 other starving and fever-ridden soldiers were forced to slog 70 miles through dense jungle and stifling heat by Japanese captors who killed any prisoner who lagged behind or paused to help a fallen comrade. By the time the infamous Bataan Death March was over, 14,000 Americans were dead, and the remaining 9,000 were subjected to inhuman conditions and inconceivable brutality until the end of the war. Tonelli survived the ordeal thanks to a combination of physical and mental toughness that was rooted in his Italian upbringing. “I used to hear dago, wop, greaseball all the time, but my father told me to never mind it, ” he recalled. “Maybe that helped when the guards insulted us virtually every minute. I remembered my father always telling me that we had to do better because we were Italian.”
The Forgotten War
The veterans of the war in Korea often call it “The Forgotten War.” It was staged with little fanfare and for the longest time the government refused to even call it a war. They called it a United Nations Police Action, but it required the service of 1.7 million Americans between 1950 and 1953, claiming the lives of nearly 37,000 of them.
What we like about this exhibit is the glimpse that it offers of the many different jobs that make up a war effort. We’re not just talking about soldiers on the battlefield and generals in their offices, and we’re not just talking about the country in which the war is taking place. For example:
- Rich Morbidoni was a hospital corpsman who took X-rays and handled medical records. For example:
- Joe DiFranco was an anti-aircraft artillery instructor in Texas.
- Italo Bove was an infantryman who saw action in Korea and served as a cook afterward.
- Ralph Imbrogno was a combat engineer who built roads, bridges and drainage systems in Korea.
- And Ralph Imbrogno was a corporal in the Army during the Korean War.
- Geno Renda drove a supply truck in Germany.
Hell on Earth
The Vietnam War was different from any other war America had previously fought. A literal hell on earth, there were no front lines and it lasted longer than any other military conflict before it. It was fought in the jungle, where you had to constantly battle nature along with the enemy. And never before in our country’s history did the American people treat our veterans so shamefully when they came home. It’s no wonder that so many of our soldiers walked away as soon as they could, left everything behind, and never looked back. It’s no wonder that so many of our soldiers walked away as soon as they could, left everything behind, and never looked back. Still, we have several riveting stories to tell from that terrible conflict.
In the early morning hours of May 27, 1968, Private Larry Caravetta’s Army battalion came under intense rocket and mortar fire from a large North Vietnamese force. A cannoneer for the battalion, Caravetta was an inspiration to his comrades as he expertly shifted ammunition, prepared powder charges, and exposed himself to direct enemy fire to take out a recoilless rifle unit. Caravetta was mortally wounded later in the engagement, earning a Bronze Star, Purple Heart and Good Conduct Medal for his bravery. Per tradition, the family was given one of the spent shells from the 21-gun salute at his burial in Arlington National Cemetery. “That’s what really got to me,” his brother Rick says. “I can’t even watch a 21-gun salute on television anymore, it just breaks me up.”
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The Italian American Veterans Museum features a wealth of side exhibits that span World War I to the present and cover a wide range of military topics. Here is a small sample of our diverse offerings:
The Great War
Though there are no official figures regarding the national origins of the Americans who served during the First World War, according to George Creel, who was in charge of propaganda during the conflict, “The Italians in the United States are about 4 percent of the whole population, but the list of casualties show a full 10 percent of Italian names.” More than 400,000 served in the Army alone.
Many Italian immigrants to America at the time saw military service as a fast track to citizenship, choosing to risk life and limb to secure their status in their new homeland. Tito Basile was an artilleryman in the Italian army before coming to America, choosing to stay and fight with the Yanks when the war arose.
Women at War
The main venues for military service for women back then were the Women’s Army Corps (the WACs), Navy’s Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (the WAVEs), Army and Navy nurses, Women Marines and Women Coast Guards.
Mary LaMarte Del Giudice (left) served as a staff sergeant in the Women Marines, Madeline Palucci (center) served as a staff sergeant in the Women’s Army Corps, and Violet Savocchia (right) joined the Army Nurse Corps.
The Art of War
The steel sculpture was donated by Bill & Greg Frabotta. A Chicago-born Vietnam veteran who now lives in Oklahoma, Bill creates art to help heal the psychological and physical wounds of war. His work focuses on how something that comes from the earth and from God can cause both destruction and good.
“Much of my work for the National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum has revolved around steel as a source of death and destruction, but with this sculpture I said to my brother, ‘Let’s look at the more positive side of what comes out of the ground. Let’s make an artifact that inspires prayer and makes us think of something besides war.’”
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