Saturday, May 26, 2018

Veteran's medal is decades overdue

SARASOTA — When a Chinese mortar round landed on the bunker next to his — a direct hit — and the two Marines inside began screaming for a corpsman, Marine Cpl. Salvatore Naimo didn't hesitate.

Naimo ran to their aid, exposing himself to withering enemy mortar, artillery and machine gun fire sweeping his company's position: Hill 1052, near what would be called "The Punchbowl," north of the 38th Parallel.

It was Friday, Sept. 14, 1951.

Naimo saw that the two Marines were severely wounded. They needed far more care than he could offer. Their only chance would be if he could get them to an aid station on the reverse slope of Hill 1052.

He scooped up one of the men and ran. Mortar rounds landed along his route. When one got too close, Naimo threw the man to the ground and jumped on top of him, shielding him with his body. The Marine wasn't hit, but Naimo received several shrapnel wounds.

He dropped the Marine at the aid station and returned for the second wounded man — again braving intense mortar and artillery fire.

After dropping the second Marine off, Naimo told the corpsmen he was returning to his own fighting position.

They tried to talk him out of it, but after his shrapnel wounds were bandaged, Naimo returned to the fight.

"As I was going back to my bunker, it was taken out by a direct hit. It killed the kid that was in it with me. If I'd been in there, I'd be dead, too," Naimo said.

His position a shambles, Naimo sought cover in the bunker where he'd rescued the two Marines.

"It was then I heard the bugles and a loud bunch of enemy forces screaming," Naimo said. "The bugles . . ."

Thankfully, the Marines' positions had been prepped for a Chinese wave attack — having machine guns, ammo and more.

The two Marines had left a Browning Automatic Rifle, magazines and a box of grenades.

"I used their BAR, all their magazines and almost all the ammo I had for my M1. I watched them drop one after another, but they kept coming and coming. I starting throwing grenades — pulling pins as fast as I could and throwing grenades," Naimo said. "They were shooting those burp-guns — blazing away. As they got about 15 yards from me, I was almost out of ammo. As I was putting that damn bayonet on my M1, for some reason they started to retreat. I got out to look and saw the Chinese were running down the hill. Other Marines got out of their holes and they said, '… You did one hell of a job!' The Chinese had my foxhole picked out to overrun our position, but I stopped them."

Hours later, Naimo's platoon leader, Lt. Walter "Joe" Sharpe, would find 36 dead soldiers splayed out in front of the bunker, members of the Chinese 65th Army from Mongolia.

Unrecognized valor

The Navy Cross is the nation's second-highest award for valor, awarded to sailors or Marines who distinguish themselves by "extraordinary heroism in combat not justifying the Medal of Honor."

Sharpe, Naimo's platoon leader, told him he was recommending him for the medal.

But two days later, Sharpe was killed in action.

For 65 years, no official action was taken to recognize Naimo's gallantry.

"I never asked for anything, although sometimes I think they just forgot about me," he said.

Naimo enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1951 to "avoid being drafted by the Army."

He'd only arrived on the peninsula a few days before the battle on Hill 1052. He was sent as a replacement to H Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division.

A New Jersey native, Naimo and Loretta, his wife of 45 years, have lived in Sarasota for more than 20 years.

This isn't the first time he's waited for a medal.

In 2000, Marine Corps Gen. Anthony Zinni, the former commander of the U.S. Central Command in Tampa, presented him with a Purple Heart.

"He apologized it had taken so long," Naimo said.

Legendary Marine

After his platoon leader was killed, the commander of Naimo's rifle company, then-Lt. Bruce F. Meyers, could have recommended an award, but Meyers was wounded on the same day as Naimo.

Meyers is a veteran of three wars — World War II, Korea and Vietnam — and a legend in the Corps.

In 1957, Meyers formed the First Force Reconnaissance Company, and served as its first commanding officer.

In Vietnam, Meyers commanded the Marine base at Khe Sanh during the Tet Offensive.

Naimo hadn't seen his former company commander until they reconnected last year.

Meyers flew his former rifleman to his home in Washington state.

"We sat. We discussed the battle. He remembered everything up to the minute," Naimo said. "Then he told me he was submitting me for the Navy Cross."

Meyers assembled statements from a Marine rifleman, a Navy corpsman, Naimo and himself. He delivered the request for the medal to Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Longboat Key, in November, Naimo said, and followed up with a second letter in February.

Asked about the status of the request, Buchanan spokeswoman Sally Dionne said the congressman's office is "in contact with the Marine Corps, and the Marine Corps is in contact with the records center to secure the documents." Dionne disputed Naimo's timetable, saying in an email the congressional office didn't receive all the documents until March. She said questions about the delay would be better answered by the Marine Corps, but added that the request involves "documents that are frail and need to be handled delicately."

"Vern makes it a high priority to fight for our veterans and we have had a lot of success over the years obtaining medals for them," Dionne said in her follow-up emails. "Mr. Naimo is a hero and we will stay on this until he gets the recognition he deserves."

Meyers, 91, was moved to a hospice two weeks ago.

Cancer is consuming the old warrior.

"He's led a full life. He's a proud man," said his son, Bruce "Boots" Meyers. "This isn't the first time dad has helped with a medal. This slipped through the cracks and dad stepped up to the plate. This has to happen. It's very important for dad to help Sal out."

Naimo, now 85, hopes the medal can be presented while Meyers is still alive.

"It's important for both of us."

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