Gino Merli: The Healing Hero
Gino Merli: The Healing Hero is a 40-minute WVIA docudrama that recounts the World War II exploits of Congressional Medal of Honor recipient and lifelong northeastern Pennsylvania resident Gino Merli, and how his extraordinary heroism at age 20 resonated throughout the remainder of his life. Cinematically adapted for high-definition television from a one-man regional stage production, the docudrama intercuts World War II archival motion picture footage and photographs within four dramatic scenes that span the last afternoon of Merli’s life. It reveals how the human experience of healing oneself can inspire the desire to heal others.
More than 100 German soldiers marched toward Gino Merli’s foxhole as darkness fell on the Belgian countryside on September 4, 1944. Merli watched as much of his company was killed or captured in the ensuing firefight, and the remainder retreated to safety under his cover fire, leaving him alone.
The Germans overran Merli’s position several times that night. After one assault, they began bayoneting any American body they could find. Merli’s dead assistant gunner lay over him in the foxhole, but a Nazi bayonet found Merli anyway. Four times a German soldier stabbed him. Four times Gino Merli remained motionless. After each assault the Germans would move cautiously forward, and Merli would rise with his machine gun and kill anything that was walking. By dawn the next day, his company mounted a counterattack. The Americans found Merli alive, and more than fifty German soldiers lying dead around his machine gun. He fired more than 2,000 rounds.
Gino Merli asked his sergeant to take him to the church located in the nearby village. He wanted to pray for the dead, American and German. Then he marched with his company into the Battle of the Bulge, where he was further wounded. Interestingly, her survived the initial landing at Omaha Beach on D-Day without a scratch.
When Gino Merli came home to northeastern Pennsylvania, he immediately returned to high school to complete his education. He would become an administrator at a Veteran’s Medical Center, and spend more than three decades helping veterans heal from war and reenter American society. A pious man, he went to church and received communion every single day, meditating on how he would explain to his maker his actions of that night in Belgium.
Gino Merli’s hometown would name a main street after him. A 200-bed veteran’s nursing home in the region would also come to bear his name. Parks and memorials in northeastern Pennsylvania honor him. Tom Brokaw emphasizes Merli as the inspiration to write his best-selling book The Greatest Generation. But Gino Merli remained relentlessly reserved about discussing the events that led to his award, and how that night shaped life after the war.
The Healing Hero originally was produced as a one-man theatrical performance stages as a journalist’s interview with Gino Merli on what would be the last afternoon of Merli’s life. WVIA has visually adapted that proscenium-inspired conceit for HD television, cinematically pacing the powerful insights portrayed in the 16-page stage script using narrative scene changes, crosscutting with dramatic World War II archival motion picture and still images, and evocative art direction, sound design and underscore, camera movement, composition and lighting. These elements accentuate Merli’s powerful memories and insights to uniquely render the reality of war, and man’s capacity to heal.
Commenting on the 1984 NBC documentary that commemorated the 40th anniversary of D-Day, Tom Brokaw said:
“And on the first day of filming, I walked down to the beach, with two men from Big Red One, one of whom went on to earn the Medal of Honor later… And as I looked at them, I realized that Harry Garton and Gino Merli were the kinds of people that I had known all my life. They were my schoolteachers and ministers, the businessmen for whom I worked.”
The stories of the men and women who have been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor transcend historical era and personal conviction to represent rare and universally inspiring character. The Healing Hero uniquely reminds all of us this often underappreciated aspect of American heritage. As a regional complement and promotion for Ken Burns’ The War, the docudrama brings the audience beyond the “hero” façade to reveal how the experience of healing can inspire the desire to touch others in a healing way.