Netflix series features Beverly war hero

A new Netflix series features the story of Medal of Honor recipient Cpl. Joseph Vittori of Beverly.

BEVERLY — Joseph Vittori has long been known in his hometown of Beverly as the Korean War hero who sacrificed his life to save his fellow Marines, earning him the country's highest military honor.

Now his story is reaching a much bigger audience. Vittori's heroism is the subject of an entire episode of a new Netflix documentary series called "Medal of Honor."

The series, which debuted on Nov. 9, focuses on eight recipients of the Medal of Honor, which has just been presented to fewer than 3,600 Americans since Abraham Lincoln signed it into law in 1861. The episodes include dramatic recreations, archival photos, and interviews with family members, historians and military leaders.

In Vittori's case, the 47-minute episode features interviews with two Marines who were with him on the night of Sept. 15-16, 1951, when the 22-year-old U.S. Marine Corps Reserve corporal was killed while defending "Hill 749" in Korea.

It also includes interviews with Vittori's relatives and Beverly military veterans, and scenic footage of Beverly, which the narrator describes as "a small town that's American to its bones." The series is produced by Oscar-winning filmmaker James Moll.

Matthew Crisafi, a third cousin of Vittori's who was interviewed in the documentary, said he is thrilled that Vittori's bravery will now be known beyond family and hometown lore.

"I've waited my whole life for Joe's story to be shared with the world," Crisafi said. "I've felt a connection to him all my life."

The documentary tells the story of how Vittori, who grew up on his family's vegetable farm on Brimbal Avenue, single-handedly fought off a night-time attack after all of his fellow Marines had been killed or injured.

In a dramatic recreation, the film shows Vittori, played by Vampire Diaries actor Steven McQueen, running from one machine gun nest to another and firing away, giving the enemy the impression that several Marines were still fighting.

Nexflix producers tracked down the only man still alive who was on the front line with Vittori that day, 88-year-old Lyle Conaway of Minnesota. Conaway had been seriously injured in the battle and could only throw grenades with his left hand. 

"Joe was the one who stopped them," Conaway said in the documentary. "He was the bravest man I ever ...," he added, his voice choking with emotion.

Vittori kept fighting after getting shot, and was eventually killed. The battle had lasted two hours. His Medal of Honor citation, issued by President Harry Truman, described his actions this way:

"Mortally wounded by enemy machine-gun and rifle bullets while persisting in his magnificent defense of the sector where approximately 200 enemy dead were found the following morning, Corporal Vittori, by his fortitude, stouthearted courage and great personal valor, had kept the point position intact despite the tremendous odds and undoubtedly prevented the entire battalion position from collapsing."

The documentary includes a reunion, set up by Netflix producers, between Conaway and Tom Zayas, who was in the rear on Hill 749 that day and also knew Vittori.

Netflix also brought Zayas to Beverly, where he met members of Vittori's family at the Vittori-Rocci Post, the veterans hall that bears Joe Vittori's name. Zayas placed flowers at Vittori's grave in St. Mary's Cemetery, further down Brimbal Avenue, adjacent to where the Vittori family farm once was.

Dorothy Perkins, Vittori's niece, said in the documentary that it was comforting to know her uncle did not die alone.

"For years we thought he was alone on that hill, and for years Nana (Vittori's mother) thought he died alone," Perkins said. "And I found out he had friends with him and they loved him. It would have been good for her to hear that."

Crisafi, who lives in Hampton, N.H., said the documentary will ensure that Vittori's story does not get lost for future generations.

"Growing up in Beverly, I had such a great sense of family pride that my elders instilled in us, and I passed that along to my children," Crisafi said. "I thank (Netflix) for keeping his memory alive."

Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2675 or pleighton@salemnews.com