The lobby of U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse’s 11th floor Providence office was overflowing with people late Friday afternoon. One-by-one, men, women and children got off the elevator and were drawn to a well-dressed man in a suit and tie sitting patiently in a chair. They hugged, kissed and embraced the gray-haired man, who turned out to be longtime Cranston resident Mario Perri, a veteran who now lives in Johnston.
It was a special ceremony for a special man, as Perri received five Medals of Honor he never got following his discharge as a United States Marine Corps Staff Sergeant in 1945.
“America stands on the shoulders of people like Mario Perri, a member of the Greatest Generation; men and women who have done all that were asked of them, and often more. When we honor our nation’s veterans, we honor all that is best about this country,” Whitehouse said. “Thank you for joining me to honor Mario Perri for his service in World War II.”
Perri, who was born in Cranston on July 1, 1922 and now lives on Bishop Hill Road in Johnston, enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps in March of 1943. He served on the USS Essex, an aircraft carrier that saw extensive action in the Pacific Theater of Operations, including a direct hit by a Kamikaze pilot in 1944. Many of Perri’s friends and family attended the event, including his three daughters and four great-great grandchildren.
With his loved ones looking on, Whitehouse explained how Perri was part of the Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 213, which flew off the USS Essex and is credited with downing 1,167 enemy aircraft.
“Mario was an aircraft mechanic who worked on the unit’s F4U Corsair, a fighter plane made famous by Marine Major Gregory ‘Pappy’ Boyington and the ‘Black Sheep’ squadron,” Whitehouse continued. “He attained the rank of Staff Sergeant by the end of his term of service. For his service on the USS Essex, defending of our country against a determined enemy, I’m proud to present Mario with his long-overdue medals.”
Perri accepted a case that contained the World War II Victory Medal, the American Campaign Medal, the Asiatic Pacific Campaign Medal with three bronze stars, each star representing participated in a significant battle, the National Defense Service Medal and the Presidential Unit Citation Ribbon.
“Mario never received them upon his discharge in 1945, and it is my honor to present them to him today,” Whitehouse said.
Perri, in his humble way, thanked Whitehouse and his oldest grandson, 40-year-old David Robida, who convinced his grandfather to pursue his long overdue medals.
“He asked me if I had any medals,” Perri recalled of Robida’s query during a conversation about his days at war. “He was the one who actually pushed me to do this.”
Perri contacted Whitehouse, who researched those medals that led to last Friday’s special presentation. It was a ceremony that Perri said “brought back all those memories that at one time I wanted to forget.”
“I was really lucky,” Perri said of his days aboard the USS Essex that included the Philippines invasion and battles in Iwo Jima and Okinawa. “The day after I got off that ship we had a typhoon; it really did a lot of damage to the ship,” he said.
Perhaps the most important day in Perri’s service came when then-President Harry Truman dropped the bomb that ended World War II.
“When we left Okinawa, we went back to Pearl Harbor for convalescing,” Perri said. “We were getting ready to go into Tokyo. Truman then went against his staff that didn’t want him to drop the bomb on Japan. He ordered the bomb dropped and the war ended.”
“Truman saved my life,” he added.
It was a life that has lasted 90 years. It began at 5 Haven Avenue in Cranston and has two distinguished working careers and a retirement life that now finds Perri doing everything from daily exercise to landscaping his Johnston property, where he has an over-sized garage where he services his own automobile.
Perri, whose family later moved to 1640 Cranston Street, went to Cranston High School until the 12th grade when he transferred to the one-time Providence Trade School, where he learned to become a mechanic. He went to work at Genser Manufacturing, a machine shop on Waldo Street in Providence, where he worked until enlisted in the service.
“They got me a couple of deferments,” Perri said. “They couldn’t get any more, so I had to go into the service.”
His post-military life began at Hammel-Dahl, another machine shop that made automatic valves for oil companies. Perri worked there as a machinist and supervisor who “learned every machine in the company.” Perri retired from Hammel-Dahl at age 62, then went to work part time for Miracle Auto Sales on Reservoir Avenue in his native Cranston.
“I was the manager there for almost 20 years,” he recalled. “Then I retired; now I’m just taking it easy.”
Still, he’s doing well for his 90 years.
“Everybody tells me I don’t look 90. I can’t believe I’m still here after what I’ve been through,” he said.
He spoke of World War II and two other battles: one with colon cancer and another with having a kidney removed. He also told about his 55 years of marriage to his wife Anna Priganti Perri, who passed away nine years ago. Today, Perri spends time with his girlfriend, Julia Lanni, who he has known since his childhood days in Cranston.
“She keeps me alive, too,” Perri said. “She’s the same age but a couple of months older than me. She lives alone, too.”
Mario will never really be alone. His three daughters, Diane Pagliarini, Patricia Robida and Sandra Torti, six grandsons, nine great-grandchildren and his youngest grandson who has two sets of twins won’t let that happen.