War hero receives Silver Star 70 years late; he deserves Medal of Honor
By CHRIS ANDERSON | Sarasota (Fla.) Herald-Tribune | Published: March 18, 2021
War heroes don't have to be diplomatic. They can be whatever they want. If a man such as Salvatore Naimo accepts a medal thinking it should be something more, as he did on Wednesday, his 89th birthday, then he certainly has earned the right to be embittered.
How valiant must a Marine be to receive the Medal of Honor, the military's most prestigious decoration? What must he do? Naimo wouldn't mind knowing himself. He saved his brothers, killed his enemies and served his country during the Korean War in 1951, and now, seven decades later, they are still trying to tell him it was not enough.
Not that he wasn't appreciative of the Silver Star medal, which was presented to him during a ceremony at the Knights of Columbus in Sarasota on Wednesday. He proudly accepted the military's third-highest honor, but to give him the Silver Star was sort of like giving the 1980 United States hockey team the bronze medal after they beat the Russians in the Olympics.
"I know guys that did less than I did and got the Medal of Honor," Naimo said. "And I know guys who got the Silver Star and were never in combat so you figure it the hell out.
"I have no answer."
In 2017, Naimo gave a riveting account to the Herald-Tribune about what happened on Friday, Sept. 14, 1951. It was the first time even his wife Loretta had heard the story.
According to the H-T account, a Chinese mortar round landed on the bunker next to his, and Naimo ran to the aid of two fellow Marines who were screaming for help. Naimo didn't hesitate to reach them, braving enemy mortar, machine gun fire and artillery while in their pursuit.
The Marines were badly wounded, and Naimo knew he needed to transport them to an aid station. He took one Marine first, and after a mortar round landed just a little too close he jumped on top of the man and shielded him. That Naimo was wounded by shrapnel never fazed him.
He dropped the Marine at the station, returned for the second man, safely transported him, and then went back to his original fighting position, which he found to be destroyed. He then moved to the Marine's position, where he discovered a Browning Automatic Rifle, magazines and a box of grenades.
Hours later, according to the H-T story, Naimo's platoon leader, Lt. Walter "Joe" Sharpe, found 36 dead soldiers in front of that very bunker. They were members of the Chinese 65th Army from Mongolia.
Naimo said Sharpe told him he was going to recommend him for the Navy Cross, the country's second-highest award for valor. Two days later, however, Sharpe was killed in action. That same day, the commander of Naimo's rifle company, then-Lt. Bruce F. Meyers, was wounded, which prevented him from making an award recommendation as well, and for the next 60 years Naimo was never officially recognized.
In 2016, Naimo, a Sarasota resident of 20 years, flew to Seattle and reconnected with Meyers, who was in his 90s but remembered every detail of the battle. Meyers acquired supporting statements from other military personnel and sent a request for the medal to U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Longboat Key. Several years went by without a word until Naimo was finally led to believe he would receive the Navy Cross.
But something changed within the last two weeks, and Naimo has no idea what. All he knows is that his Navy Cross was downgraded to the Silver Star he was awarded on Wednesday.
The man who saved two fellow Marines and then risked his life to kill the enemy deserved better. He deserved the best. Isn't that what he gave? But then again, maybe he never needed a medal to validate his heroics anyway.
"I know what I did," he said.
Chris Anderson is a Sarasota Herald-Tribune columnist.