WILKES-BARRE — With a dead buddy on top of him and enemy soldiers jabbing him with bayonets to see if he, too, was dead, young Gino Merli steeled himself not to move or make a sound.
The trick worked. Merli played possum — twice — then got up and returned to his machine gun, firing at the Germans during a long night that turned Sept. 4, 1944 into Sept. 5 outside of Sars La Bruyere, Belgium.
Merli also took part in the Invasion of Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge, but it was his heroism on that long September night that led to the Scranton native receiving the Congressional Medal of Honor from President Harry S. Truman and, much later, a mention in Tom Brokaw’s tribute to World War II veterans, “The Greatest Generation.”
It also inspired playwright Tom Flannery of Archbald to write the script for a one-man play, “The Last Thoughts of Gino Merli” which has been making the rounds of regional schools, playing before some 36,000 students in recent years.
Scranton actor Bob Shlesinger, taking on the persona of Gino Merli, will present that show this week to students at Dallas and Pittston Area high schools.
The public is invited to free, shows at 7:30 p.m. (doors open at 7 p.m.) Nov. 9 at Pittston Area High School in Yatesville and 7 p.m. Nov. 10 at the Performing Arts Center at Dallas High School. If you prefer a day-time presentation, the Dietrich Theater in Tunkhannock will host “The Last Thoughts of Gino Merli” at 3 p.m. Nov. 8.
“I don’t know that I’ve ever come across anybody as extraordinary as Gino Merli,” playwright Flannery said in a telephone interview, explaining he “learned as much as I could about Gino” by interviewing his widow, Mary. “With a lot of people, you hear about their greatness but then the more you learn about them as people, it can be disappointing. In this case, your admiration just grew, the more you learned about the man.”
Merli’s compassion, humility and, yes, his battlefield fears, come through in the play, said Shlesinger, who has collected comments about the ways the show impresses audiences, especially younger ones who may not know any World War II veterans personally.
“To keep an entire auditorium of high school students mesmerized by a one-man play in today’s world of technology is an amazing feat,” principal Jim Tallarico of Montrose Area High School praised the show.
“I saw several students crying as the play was concluding,” Veterans Day Coordinator Evelyn Burke of Lakeland School District wrote.
“He never thought what he did was anything special,” Shlesinger said of Merli. “He said there were other guys, 10 times braver than he was, who died and nobody knows their stories. In a lot of ways, he represents the best attributes of this area.”
Merli was afraid during the war, Flannery said, but “bravery isn’t about not being afraid; bravery is about being able to handle your fear. This was a guy was who plucked out of his high school school class (to go to war). What does he do when he gets back? He goes back to high school.”
The play should be regarded as a tribute to all veterans, Shlesinger said, not only those from World War II.