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Published in the Dunkirk Evening Observer, Friday, August 18, 1944, Dunkirk, New York
By Jack Cuddy
U.P. Staff Correspondent
NEW YORK, Aug. 12 - Carve the name of Alex Santilli high on the plaque of All-American fighting heroes that sports have contributed to the war. He died while displaying the ultimate in team spirit.
Lt. Santilli of the Marines, former Fordham football tackle, was killed by a Japanese sniper while leading a charge in the bloody fighting at Saipan on July 8. He wasn't scheduled for action that day. He had been "benched" for shell shock.
But big Alex, star of Fordham's 1942 Sugar Bowl victory over Missouri, couldn't sit on the bench while his mates were battling down the Saipan field in rough going. The spirit impelled him to join the fray, and the rugged body he had developed on the gridiron permitted him to carry on heroically despite his shell-shock.
A letter from Saipan explains this. It was written by Ensign Gerald J. O'Brien, who was graduated from Fordham in 1943. It was received by the Rev. Ignatius W. Cox, J.J., professor of philosophy and religion at Fordham. An excerpt follows:
"A few days before the rough going was over, Al, who had charge of a machine gun outfit, was shell-shocked and one of his fellow officers carried him back behind the lines, a distance of about two miles. Well, they treated Al back there and the next day they (the medics) had planned to evacuate him.
"The next morning Al got up, dressed, and sneaked back to his outfit. He told them that he wouldn't let them go through all that fighting while he was taking it easy behind the lines. The officer who had carried Al back was injured that day, so Al took charge of his own outfit and also the injured officer's rifle platoon.
"Well, he led those men so gallantly that they found themselves treading where fools would normally fear to go. He accounted for many Japs and it was while leading his men in a charge that Al was shot. He was shot by a Jap who was hiding in a cavity in a coral sector of the ground over which Al was charging. Al had blocked his last kick."
"The men told me afterward that they saw many friends killed, but they somehow could lake it in stride; but when Al got his they brought lo tears,¬† It seems that Al was known and by all, even by men who were not In his platoon. They called him 'the saint'."
Ensign O'Brien's metaphor about Santilli blocking his last kick doubtless originated in recollection of his friend's biggest day in athletics. That was on Jan. 1, 1942, In the Sugar Bowl right punt that was converted into an automatic safety‚??the play that gave Fordham its 2-0 triumph over Missouri.
That game was played less a month after Pearl Harbor; but Santilli already was figuring on Joining, the marines; which he did Immediately after graduation that summer.. The star of the Sugar Bowl‚??the 24-year-old tackle from Everett, Mass. displayed his "team spirit" so heroically at Saipan that the name of Alex Santilli will be remembered with respect by fighting Marines throughout the world, and in the years to come, when football coaches try to engender team splrlt In their squads, they'll point to the shining symbol ‚??the man who wouldn't stay benched at Salpan.
With Dog Company:
Alexander Santilli, First Lieutenant of the Marine Corps Reserve, became the leader of the Third Machine Gun Platoon of Dog Company, 24th Marines. He led them through the battle of Namur, and back to Camp Maui where their company was disbanded.
With Charlie Company:
Santilli became the leader of Charlie Company's new machine gun platoon, combining most of his old platoon with half of Charlie's weapons platoon. As a leader, Santilli was well liked by fellow officers and respected by his men, particularly Sergeant William Buller.
On June 22, while fighting on Saipan, Able and Charlie companies were cut off from their regiment on the slopes of Hill 700. Their machine gunners took especially heavy losses before managing to extricate themselves; Santilli, though reeling from shell-shock, managed to bring his platoon out, winning a Silver Star in the process. He refused to be evacuated, going so far as to sneak out of the aid station the following morning and find his own way back to the company.
By July 8, Santilli was one of the few remaining officers left in the battalion. Lieutenant Frederic Stott, acting as temporary company commander, directed Santilli's platoon to support a section of the line where continual gunfire had been cracking throughout the morning. Santilli and Sergeant Buller began moving their men down towards Saipan's northern coast, when they began to see groups of civilians to their front. Gunner Glenn Buzzard reported what happened next:
We were out in the open in a cane field, and about twenty people came out of those trees. They were women and children and the men were holding up babies, just little babies. That was a distraction and the interpreter was trying to talk to them, you know, "comono wouna gay" crap. "Take it off," that's one of the Japanese phrases they taught us. You had to get them undressed because the men would have grenades stuck under their clothes.... Anyway, this was a cane field and they had piles of cane they were harvesting, like farmers do. All at once, one of the piles just opened up and there were men underneath it. They killed Santilli, and they killed Sgt. Buller. They were shot within seconds of each other.
- Glenn Buzzard, quoted in Gail Chatfield's "By Dammit, We're Marines!"
Alexander Santilli was buried in the Second Marine Division Cemetery; after the war, he was reburied in a private cemetery. He was posthumously included in Fordham University's Hall of Fame; in 2009, the Lieutenant Alexander Santilli Lodge was dedicated by the Everett branch of Sons of Italy in America.