Sunday, January 15, 2006

A Marin Luther King Day Tribute: A Day When The Dream Came True

If you want to know how I come by my libertarian streak, you would have to know my uncle Mario. He was a founder of the NYS Conservative Party. He was a cop and a hero airman in WWII. In the days when I first became interested in politics, he was my mentor. Though he didn't know how it happened, he is probably most responsible for my wanting to become a criminal defense lawyer. (Always be careful what you say around children.)

Back in a day when to be Conservative also meant to be against equal rights for minorities, my Uncle Mario stood out. He was for equal pay and equal treatment. He honored the right to vote and stood for most of the things that Martin Luther King spoke about in front of the Lincoln Memorial on the day he gave his "I Have a Dream" Speech. He passed those ideas on to me and to many of my cousins, and to other conservatives too.

Today is Martin Luther King's Birthday. In memory of him and the equality between the races that he stood for, and in memory of my uncle Mario V. Colleluori, I want to pass down to all of you, my dear readers, a family story that I heard told many times, but that has been beautifully memorialized by my cousin Thomas Ward Colleluori. I have linked you to the Congressional record wherein the original of this story lies. It has been almost 9 years since Tommy wrote this, but every year, I remember it and I want to share it all with you. Here it is, in his own words:

"My name is Thomas Ward Colleluori. I am very proud to be the grandson of two WWII veterans. My Grandpa Mario Colleluori was a Radioman/Waist Gunner on B-24 heavy bombers with the 15th Air Force and my Grandpa Frank Ward was an Infantryman with Patton's 3rd Army. Grandpa Frank passed away in 1991 and Grandpa Mario passed away in February of this year.

As I got ready to write this essay, I thought about the many stories my grandfathers told me about the war. As a little boy, I always enjoyed these stories. Now, at the age of fifteen, I wanted to remember everything they had told me. More importantly, I want to apply the lessons they taught to what I do in my own lifetime.

Both my grandpas volunteered for the war at the age of 17. Grandpa Frank grew up in Brooklyn and volunteered for the Air Force but was sent to the Infantry because he was color blind. My Grandpa Mario grew up in Queens. He started out in the Infantry where he became an instructor at the Officer Candidate School but he wanted to see combat. He tried to transfer to the Rangers and Paratroopers but O.C.S. wouldn't let him go. His persistence finally paid off. He went to the Air Force when he found out that O.C.S. could not block that transfer.

My Grandpa Frank entered combat during the Battle of the Bulge. He was assigned to carry the Browning Automatic Rifle but was later given a regular rifle and a satchel charge when his unit went through the Ziegfried Line. Finally, towards the very end of the war, when attacks were expected by German tanks, my Grandpa was made part of a Bazooka team. I remember my father joking that his sergeant must not have liked him very much because he kept giving my grandpa the heaviest weapons and the most dangerous jobs. Grandpa Frank said his sergeant gave him those responsibilities because he trusted him.

My Grandpa Mario began flying combat missions over Austria, Poland and Germany in January of 1945. He flew 23 missions and had to crash land several times when his B-24 was badly damaged by flack. His commanding officer was a future U.S. Senator and vice-presidential Candidate named Lloyd Bensten!

My grandfathers won a lot of medals and ribbons. My Grandpa Frank even won the Purple Heart, but neither one ever bragged or told stories about how brave they were. Sometimes they would even say how scared they were and then they would usually make a joke.

I think my favorite story concerned my Grandpa Mario returning from a mission in a badly damaged plane. German fighters began to attack his helpless B-24. My grandpa called into his radio, `Angels, Angels we need you!'

His call to American escort fighters was answered by a P-38 `Lightning' and a P-51 `Mustang'. The two American fighters chased off the Germans and the `Mustang' pilot escorted the limping bomber all the way home.

My Grandpa was impressed by the courage of those two American fighter pilots. He always said that he admired the sense of duty that they displayed in attacking a larger German force in defense of one B-24. I remember him saying that he was amazed at the way the P-51 pilot flew with his wing tip `almost touching the waist gun' of the wounded bomber as he escorted the B-24 to a safe landing. My Grandpa would end the story the same way every time. He'd tell how the Mustang flew so close that he could see the pilot's black face and that it was an African-American who saved him from being shot down that day!

In later years we learned that one of those brave fighter pilots was a `Tuskegee Airman'! If not for that individual American's character and determination to overcome prejudice, my Grandfather might not have survived the war.

After the War, both my grandfathers continued their service to their country. My Grandpa Frank became a New York City Fireman and Grandpa Mario became a New York City Motorcycle Policeman. Later Grandpa Mario became a School Board Member.

I have learned a lot of lessons from the stories my grandfathers have told me about WWII. I will never judge anyone by their color or religion. We are all Americans and we must all help to keep our country great. Another lesson is that it is important to take responsibility seriously. If somebody is depending on you, you have to do your best.

I think the biggest lesson I have learned, what can be called my Grandpas' legacy, is that as an American I have a duty to my country and my community and that when there are really big problems, doing that duty is more important than anything else.

My grandfathers emphasized the importance of setting goals. This past year, their example inspired me to dedicate myself to two major goals.

My first goal is to attend the United States Naval Academy and to play Football at Annapolis. The second goal is to become an officer with the United States Navy S.E.A.L.s.

Many people have said that I will never be able to achieve these goals but I am convinced that by following my grandfathers' example of perseverance, courage and responsibility I will be able to carry on their legacy of service to my country.

I am privileged to live in a country that was made great by the sacrifices of countless Americans who, like my grandfathers and that anonymous `Tuskegee Airman', chose to do their duty.

When I visited West Point two years ago I learned that the motto of the cadets is `Duty Honor, Country'. That made me think of my grandpas and I felt proud!"
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