(Mark Sauer/The Mesabi Daily News via AP)

Netflix series features Minnesota veteran

November 12, 2018 - 10:19 am

VIRGINIA, Minn. (AP) — Eighty-eight-year old Lyle Conaway pauses — halted with emotion as he talks during the trailer for a new Netflix eight-part anthology series of his courageous buddy, Cpl. Joseph Vittori.

“He was a good guy. He was the bravest man I’ve.”

As the trailer clip continues, Conaway resumes with his dialogue about the bravest man he’s ever known. “I remember his last words.”

The Korean War veteran finishes that sentence on a recent day at his Virginia home.

″.his last words: ‘You go. I’ll cover you.’”

Conaway was 21 years old when he watched his comrade and fellow member of Company F, 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines, 1st Marine Division (Reinforced), Joe Vittori, conduct a “valiant stand” against the enemy in Korea.

Vittori’s courage and sacrifice would earn the automatic-rifleman the highest and most prestigious personal military decoration in the United States — the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Pfc. Conaway, wounded in the battle, would receive the Navy Cross for his gallantry.

Conaway would live to tell about it — that nightmarish night in 1951 that claimed his buddy’s life.

The story of Hill 749.

In April 2017, Conaway relayed the story during interviews in California to producers of “Medal of Honor,” which will be released this month on the streaming service Netflix.

The series — the work of Academy Award-winning Executive Producer Robert Zemeckis (“Forest Gump”) and Academy-Award winning Director James Moll (“The Last Days”) — portrays the stories of eight recipients of the Medal of Honor.

It is part documentary with eyewitness interviews; part action footage with recreations of the events. In the series, actor Matt O’Leary portrays Conaway; Vittori is played by Steven R. McQueen, grandson of actor Steve McQueen.

In the trailer interviewees comment on the Medal of Honor distinction: “It’s the ultimate form of recognition for courage on the battlefield. Anyone who receives it is immediately held as a hero like none other,” ″It represents the worst day of your life,” and “They have earned it, and earned it the hard way.”

Conaway sits in his garage workshop where the aviator who rebuilt seven planes in his lifetime — including five Stearman biplanes — now creates handmade ribbon-winning model airplanes.

Photos of him by the planes in which he flew aerobatics are pinned on the wall above bottles of paint and glue and woodworking tools.

The G.I. Bill contributed to his opportunity to learn how to fly, said Conaway, a father of eight, grandfather to 14 and a great-grandfather of 10.

Photos from his military days are also tacked up around the workshop.

Conaway enlisted in the service when he was not quite 16 years old and is technically a veteran of World War II, although “combat had ended” by that time, he explaind.

The minimum age to enlist then was 16 with parental consent, and Conaway said he would have signed up earlier if he knew he could have gotten away with it.

His pride in the Marine Corps is obvious in his surroundings, and when he speaks of his service his passion is equally evident.

As he recounts his harrowing experience on Hill 749, he is frequently overcome with emotion. At times he also lets up because, “I’m getting ahead of myself.”

Although Conaway participated in the “Medal of Honor” series, he makes it clear he is no fan of the limelight.

But his story is part of American history, and when a representative with the Medal of Honor Society approached him to share his memories, Conaway obliged.

Besides, his fellow Marine — who gave of his life to service of his country at age 22 and was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously — deserves the recognition.

Hill 749, near Songnea-dong, Korea, was named for its height in meters.

The Korean People’s Army had established several entrenched positions on Hill 749, and on Sept. 15-16, 1951, Conaway and Vittori volunteered to move forward to defend a heavy machine gun located on the extreme point of the northern flank.

Vittori, from Massachusetts, already decorated with two Purple Hearts after being wounded in action, “was supposed to go home. But he volunteered to stay,” Conaway said.

“I knew there would be fighting, but I didn’t know it would be that bad,” he remembers.

Conaway and Vittori spent the night protecting the unit’s machine guns, Conaway with an M1 semi-automatic rifle, Thompson submachine gun and hand grenades; Vittori with a Browning Automatic Rifle.

He remembers a corporal with the Second Platoon yelling, “Joe, what are you doing up here?”

Vittori responded: “You know the Second Platoon always needs help.”

“Are you looking for a Purple Heart?” the corporal continued.

“I got one already. But I’d like to have the Congressional Medal of Honor,” Vittori answered.

Conaway remembered a “flash on the hill above us.” The North Koreans had opened fire with a 76-mm gun. The shell hissed toward them, exploding in the treetops and showering them with shrapnel.

“I hunkered down in the hole.”

“Bang, bang, bang,” Conaway recounted. “Shrapnel flying.” A fourth round exploded near the first officer’s foxhole, and someone shouted, “He’s dead!”

“Things were happening too fast,” Conaway said.

A spotter plane flew over and called in artillery and then the firing stopped.

The Marines had barely slept in days, and Vittori told Conaway to “get some sleep.”

Conaway laid down in the fox hole. The next thing he remembers is Vittori shaking him awake. “Here they come! Here they come!”

“I just couldn’t wake up,” Conaway recalled. But “there was so much noise. So much sound.”

Everyone began firing. There were “flashes” everywhere. “I fired a couple rounds.”

Next thing he knew, Conaway had been hit in the head and face from a concussive blast. He stood up instinctively and caught a few slugs in the shoulder.

“I knew I was hit bad. I looked for Joe but I couldn’t see him. I thought, ‘I’m blind,’” Conaway recounted. He said he began to sob. “The tears washed the blood out of my eyes and I could see.”

Conaway remembered, “Joe kept firing.” But when he went to fire his own rifle, it was jammed. He remembered he had hand grenades and, despite his injuries, he began pulling the pins with his right hand and throwing with his left arm.

Conaway then recognized the sound of rifle fire hitting flesh and realized Vitorri had been hit in the chest. But Vitorri kept firing.

A machine gun hit by a grenade had ignited leaves and grass nearby. “There was so much fire,” Conaway said. “I looked back and could see bullets kicking up.”

Conaway recalls Vitorri firing right over his head and ducking as low as he could with the muzzle of the BAR only inches from his ears. Conaway said he then remembered he had his Thompson at the bottom of the hole and went after it.

Vittori went to another hole and was hit again.

Suddenly, “everything grew quiet,” Conaway said. He thought he had lost his hearing.

Vittori told Conaway, “We can’t hold ’em. We have to get back.” Conaway said his buddy told him to go since he thought Conaway was hurt more. “You go. I’ll cover you,” he told Conaway.

Conaway remembers “my leg quivered” as he tried to move. “I was scared.”

Vittori told him again: “You go. I’ll cover you.”

“I heard a crack. A swish. A splat.” Vittori’s head snapped back, Conaway said, squeezing his eyes shut tightly. He paused, then continued.

Conaway said he remembers stumbling down the hill and falling into a fox hole, yet bleeding from his wounds.

Eventually reinforcements arrived. Conaway told someone, “Joe’s dead.”

The 21-year-old Conaway was eventually shipped to a hospital in Japan, where he spent 30 days recovering before returning to home.

According to the book, “The Korean War: Uncertain Victory,” the 1st Marines finally secured Hill 749 at 6 p.m. Sept. 16, 1951. “It has cost them 90 dead and 714 wounded. Enemy losses were 771 known dead and 81 taken prisoner.”

A citation accompanying Cpl. Joseph Vittori’s posthumous presentation of the Medal of Honor reads in part: “Corporal Vittori, by his fortitude, stouthearted courage and great personal valor, had kept the point intact despite the tremendous odds and undoubtedly prevented the entire battalion position from collapsing.

“His extraordinary heroism throughout the furious night-long battle reflects the highest credit upon himself and the United States Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life for his country.”

In 1942, an act of Congress placed the Navy Cross just beneath the Medal of Honor and limited its award to combat-only recognition.

The citation presented with Pfc. Lyle Conaway’s Navy Cross medal reads in part: “Although sustaining serious wounds, Private First Class Conaway steadfastly refused to be evacuated and continued his valiant stand against the enemy until he was too weak to fight any longer.

“By his indomitable spirit and great personal valor in the face of tremendous odds, he contributed immeasurably to the repulse of the hostile force. His inspiring actions were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.”

Conaway remembered looking up at the night sky during one point after stumbling away from Hill 749.

“I could see the stars. I thought, ‘Those are the same stars we see at home.’”

Tears flowed that night, he said, as he “thought about all the brave men I met.”

The former Marine, always a Marine at heart, continues to think about those brave heroes, particularly his buddy Joe Vittori.

“What a rugged path it was,” he said.


Information from: Mesabi Daily News, http://www.virginiamn.com