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UNCLE MIKE AND THE COST OF WAR

From The Advocate, North Adams Notes, July 16, 2003

By Mark E. Rondeau

He was the best uncle a boy could have.

A genuine war hero with the Silver Stars to prove it, a barn full of tools a nephew could play with, and a love for children loosely concealed under a profane tough-guy manner, my mother’s oldest brother, Michael Francis Cirullo, died two years ago this month at age 88.

He never let me write about him when he was alive. After his death, I for a long time didn’t know what to write.

Drafted at age 29 in 1942, Uncle Mike was a machine gunner in the 117th Regiment of the U.S. Army’s 30th Infantry Division during World War II. Coming ashore in Normandy days after D-Day, he fought across Northern France, Belgium, Holland, and into Germany. Along the way his actions led him to be awarded two Silver Stars and two Bronze Stars.

He was one of the most highly decorated servicemen in Northern Berkshire during World War II, but he was always modest about it. Hence the admonition not to write about his war record. I didn’t. Uncle Mike was not a man one crossed lightly. And I loved him. Then came his rapid decline over the course of a year, and then he was gone.

He was a member of the “Greatest Generation,” which so richly deserves all of the praise it has received in recent years. At first I thought of writing a conventional tribute to him as a member of that generation, which answered the call of duty so well so long ago. But less than two months after he died came the attacks of Sept. 11. The need for military heroes became present and real, and what my uncle had done more than a half-century before seemed almost ancient history.

The war in Afghanistan — as just in my view as the war against Germany and Japan — has been followed by what I feel to be the completely unjustified war in Iraq, a war actually harmful to our national prestige and security. With our soldiers being killed regularly in Iraq, the American people finally may be waking up to the cost of this war.

But even a just war has its costs. And my war hero uncle paid them. In bits and pieces over the years he painted a word picture for me upon the backdrop of the pride he felt at serving well. And the picture wasn’t pretty.

I have copies of a couple of articles that ran in The Transcript about Uncle Mike during the war. One is headlined: “Honored Again...Tech. Sgt. Cirullo Honored for Gallantry.”

Though the article doesn’t specify it, I think the action he received this Silver Star for was the Battle of Mortain, a German counter-offensive in Northern France in August 1944 that ran smack into the 30th Infantry Division.

The medal citation reads as follows: “Sgt. Cirullo assumed command of his platoon when his platoon leader and sergeant became causalities. When the general withdrawal of the battalion was expedient he so skillfully directed his men that he was able to furnish covering fire for the rifle companies at all times during this movement. In subsequent actions Sgt. Cirullo directed mortar and artillery fire from hazardous positions breaking up several enemy reorganizations, and aided in evacuating the wounded under severe fire. At critical points during the fighting he maintained communications with adjacent units. Sgt. Cirullo’s gallantry and heroism greatly aided in finally repulsing the enemy.”

What the citation doesn’t record was that Uncle Mike was almost captured during this battle, and that at the time of it he was Private Cirullo. The decimation of his unit and his performance in this action led to his promotion to sergeant immediately afterward.

The other Transcript article’s headline notes that Sgt. Cirullo — later in the war in Germany — helped “Cut Off Company of Fleeing Nazis — 60 killed, 145 prisoners, 3 tanks taken.”

War is about killing, killing people my uncle was brought up to believe were fellow children of God. Uncle Mike could tell about the time he shook Ike or Churchill’s hand, or about the fellow soldier, from Lee, Mass., who never washed his socks, but the vast majority of his war stories told about violence, death, fear, and regret.

He told me about how big a hole a round from his machine gun made in an enemy soldier’s body, about being under shelling at night so intense that he saw Christ on the Cross in the sky in a hallucination, about seeing a dead pregnant woman with the baby cut out of her body, about shooting a prisoner he had just captured who made a sudden lunge toward the gun he had just dropped, about jumping up on a German tank, opening the hatch, and dropping in a grenade.

After this last story, he told me, his face twisted with regret: “I killed them. But what did they ever do to me?” Another time, after another violent story, he said: “Hero? Heel is more like it!” He expressed these types of regrets to me many times.

One day he told me about the nightmare he had the night before — 55 years after the fact — of fleeing the Germans through a drainage pipe between two hedgerows.

Offered the chance near the end of the war between a battlefield commission to lieutenant and the opportunity to come home, Sgt. Cirullo came home to North Veazie Street. But he was changed. If a truck went by at night he would wake up, yelling “tank attack!” He would pace the cellar at night, chain smoking. He couldn’t stand to work inside anymore, so he got a job in construction. He wouldn’t go to church — how could he when he had killed people?

But despite the memories — actually psychic wounds — that would haunt him the rest of his life, he readjusted to normal life, went back to church, got married. He would point to a picture of his mother, Elizabeth — my grandmother, an immigrant from Italy — and say to me “that woman prayed me home every night with her rosary.”

This last statement came back to me vividly a few days ago, when I saw on the news the mother of a soldier serving in Iraq. She is worried nearly sick over the safety of her son. The President’s recent remark of “Bring ’em on” pained her greatly, as if he were encouraging enemy guerillas to attack her son. I knew right then what I wanted to write about my uncle.

War has costs, even for the victors, even for those who like my uncle were never physically wounded. Long after the public forgets and the politicians write their memoirs, the wounds remain. America may now wake up to what most of the rest of the world knew before the war in Iraq started: that it was an unnecessary, reckless adventure, sold with lies, with basically no planning for the dangers of a lengthy occupation. And the violence and the killing will likely continue now that just pulling out of Iraq is neither a political nor a moral option.

But as our anger grows we must not take it out on our men and women in uniform. They just did — and will be doing — the will of their political leaders.

A few years ago before he died I made a donation in Uncle Mike’s name to the National World War II Memorial planned for Washington, D.C.

I have a suggestion for the President and his father. How about establishing and personally funding a national Gulf Wars Memorial?

Feature Articles



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Uncle Mike at about age 20, c. 1933.

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Uncle Mike in his Army uniform, c. 1943.

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Uncle Mike at the North Adams Downtown Celebration, 1997. He was 84 years old. Photo: Mark E. Rondeau

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