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Saturday, November 7, 1998
Pottsville Republican/Evening Herald

Damato brothers live in memory
Tony, Neil died heroes; one won nation's highest honor
Community Edition Editor

Photo courtesy of the Damatos' sister, Mary, Shenandoah
Two Shenandoah brothers Marine Cpl. Anthony P. Damato, right, the Congressional Medal of Honor winner, and Air Corps Capt. Neil J. gave their lives in World War II

It was a brilliant recent October midday, the sun's rays magnifying the bright reds, yellows and browns on the south side of Locust Mountain. In Shenandoah's northwestern section, an envigorating breeze served as a reminder that winter's chill was just around the corner. Sixty-some years ago such a day would surely have been enough to tempt Tony Damato and his older brother Neil Damato to play hooky from the Lincoln School for a game of baseball with some pals, or perhaps a hike into the hills around Raven Run or Ringtown for a bit of hunting or fishing. The two sons of Italian immigrants John and Frances Damato were part of a close-knit family of eight children: four boys and four girls. (While everyone called her Frances, the mother's first name was actually ``Speranza'' hope.) Tony had a quiet manner; Neil, an outgoing personality, according to their sister, Mary, 83, who still lives in the family homestead at Penn and Vine streets. The other siblings included brothers Harry and Marty and sisters Rose, Josephine and Jennie. Tony and Neil both were hard-working and industrious. Tony delivered the Evening Herald and later drove a truck for coal dealer Dominick Ritzo. Neil joined the Civilian Conservation Corps and later the National Guard. Interested in forestry, he went on to study at the Colorado State College at Greeley, then to the University of Alabama. As World War II approached, no one could have known the Damato name was about to become as revered in Shenandoah as Roosevelt, Eisenhower and MacArthur were elsewhere.

Treasured Mementos
It's difficult for Mary Damato to get around now, but she manages with the use of a cane and helpful neighbors. Even after more than 54 years, remembering brothers Tony and Neil still can easily bring tears. Nevertheless, mementoes of the two are evident in the living room that faces narrow West Penn Street. On the wall are two Purple Hearts one for each of the boys and Neil's Air Medal with Oak Leaf Clusters. A framed letter praising Cpl. Anthony P. Damato, sent by his commanding officer, Marine Lt. Col. Richard M. Pfuhl, hangs on a wall at one side of the opening between the living room and dining area. On the floor to the right of the living room window is a hamper-like wooden box that holds yellowed newspaper clippings, glossy photos, banners, a netted shattered champagne bottle and other memorabilia. ``I keep this here because when people come for the Feast'' the annual Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, a homecoming when the Blessed Mother is paraded through the neighborhood ``they like to remember,'' Mary said. To the left of the living room window, another medal hangs, the highest award that can be bestowed for valor in military action by the United States the Congressional Medal of Honor, one of only 3,429 ever awarded.

Off to WWII
When the war came, Neil was immediately called up for active duty in the Army Air Corps. Tony had tried to enlist in the Marines previously, but had been turned down due to bad teeth, according to his sister. ``Let them try to keep me out now,'' he said upon hearing of the attack on Pearl Harbor. He enlisted in the Marines in January 1942, trained for five months in the U.S., then went to Ireland for more training. He volunteered for duty with the invasion force that spearheaded landings in North Africa, earning a promotion to corporal and honors for meritorious conduct in action.

In North Africa, Tony saw further action in Algeria, returned home for a short furlough in March 1943, then reported to California for more overseas duty. Neil, meanwhile, was promoted to lieutenant, then captain, in the Air Corps as he participated in 24 bombing missions over German-held territory in Europe as a bombardier aboard the Flying Fortress ``Liberty Ship.'' The ``Liberty Ship,'' with Neil aboard, bombed a German Messerschmitt factory at Regensburg, then flew on to North Africa in August 1943, in one of the toughest air battles of the war to that point. But in November of that year Neil's luck ran out. His plane was hit over Germany and subsequently went down over water, likely the North Sea. He was listed as missing in action. Neil and Tony, who shared a close bond growing up in Shenandoah, never met up during their years in the service. Neil's body was never found, and Tony was bound for a small Pacific island that most people probably never heard of before the war. Neil was 25 and Tony, 22.

Night on Enjebi
With the 22nd Marines, an amphibious unit trained for landings, Tony, an assistant squad leader, was to be part of the American effort to wrestle the Marshall Islands from Japanese control. He was bound for the chain's Eniwetok Atoll and the small island of Enjebi, a Japanese strongpoint. Following a furious naval bombardment of the island, the Marines hit the beaches. With shots and explosions all around them, Tony's battalion advanced about a mile inland before digging in for what would be a fateful night of torment by fanatical Japanese troops, Feb. 19-20, 1944. Tony was in a foxhole with two buddies, Pfc. John Gayle of New York and Cpl. Herman Dohms, listed as from the midwest. They were at one of the most advanced positions, and had the assignment of repulsing counter-attacks by bands of roving Japanese snipers. They huddled together and waited.

In his letter, Damato's commanding officer, Colonel Pfuhl, explained the unit had been placed in ``a very hazardous position'' at the air strip on Enjebi. ``Tony and his small group were in the most trying of locations. The harassment during the night was substantial, the Japanese being in amongst us.'' ``Suddenly, there was tenseness anew, as a well-aimed grenade arched through the air trailing sparks and landed with a dull thud in their foxhole,'' according to the Damato history, put together later by crew members of a destroyer that would be named in Tony's honor. ``For a brief moment, Tony Damato looked at John Gayle and they both looked at Herman Dohms. In the inky blackness they could hardly determine each other's features, yet they saw that intense light of comradeship and faith shine through the darkness and uncertainty.'' They all fell to their knees and then bellies to grope for the grenade. In the desperate search, they clasped and unclasped each other's hands, knowing it had to be found. ``Then a cry split the night a cry that did not hold fear, a cry born of courage,'' the unidentified historians wrote. Tony Damato found the grenade, threw himself on it and shouted to his two buddies, ``Get out!'' ``It was his way,'' Pfuhl wrote, ``thinking of others. He died that night, but he lives forever.'' Damato saved his comrades' lives at the cost of his own, earning himself the nation's highest award, and immortality in his home town as a true hero of World War II.

A Revered Medal
The Congressional Medal of Honor is the highest award for valor in action against an enemy force that can be bestowed on a member of the armed forces of the United States. Usually it's presented by the President in Congress' name, according to information placed on the World Wide Web by the Congressional Medal of Honor Society. Its origin goes back to the Civil War. Before that, it was thought that medals and decorations were too like titles and awards given in England, that fighting for one's country was considered a duty. But it became clear there were some like Tony Damato who went above and beyond the call of that duty. The Medal of Honor was born in 1861, when President Abraham Lincoln, with the support of Navy Secretary Gideon Wells, approved the idea of Sen. James W. Grimes, chairman of the Senate Naval Committee. President Lincoln provided for preparation of 200 medals ``to be awarded upon such petty officers, seamen, landsmen and Marines as shall most distinguish themselves by their gallantry in action.'' There are three types of Medals of Honor today: The Navy's the original one, covering the Navy, Marines and Coast Guard; the Army's, which came in 1904, and the Air Force version, adopted in 1965. As of Aug. 1, 1998, 2,363 medals had been awarded in the Army, 745 in the Navy, 16 in the Air Force, one in the Coast Guard and nine to unknowns. Cpl. Anthony P. Damato is one of only 295 Marines to have received the honor.

A Hero Honored
John Damato never knew that two of his sons gave their lives for his adopted nation. He passed away in 1941. He never read the words about Tony sent by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in a memoriam that Mary Damato keeps in a yellowed folder: ``He stands in the unbroken line of patriots who have dared to die that freedom might live, and grow, and increase its blessings. Freedom lives, and through it, he lives in a way that humbles the undertakings of most men.'' Tony, who was still home when his father died, was given the father's gold signet ring. The ring was fastened to the chain that held Tony's identification tags the night he was killed on Enjebi. Because of health concerns, his mother was unable to go to Washington to accept the Medal of Honor from the president himself. On Roosevelt's behalf, Marine Brig. Gen. Maurice C. Gregory came to Tony's old Lincoln school at Lloyd and West streets to present the medal to Tony's mother. On April 9, 1945, thousands turned out, led by the Shenandoah and West Mahanoy high school bands. Local factories had shut down for the day. According to news accounts, Frances Damato listened quietly inside a classroom as the official citation recounting her son's deed was read. She was accompanied by her two surviving sons and four daughters. The proceedings were broadcast via loudspeaker to the throng gathered outside. ``Every house in the city (borough) displayed a flag, and West Penn Street, where the neat green-shingled Damato home was located, was a mass of colors,'' according to Mary Damato's historical account. Shenandoah's American Legion Post No. 792 was subsequently named in honor of Anthony P. Damato. The description of the medal presentation as detailed in the history of U.S.S. Damato, a destroyer later named after Cpl. Damato, harked back to the hero's school days: ``It seemed only yesterday that a kid in kneepants played hooky from the school. A brilliant sun cast streams of light across the flags and flowers lining the front of the room.'

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