P. Michael Pezzella, a retired Baltimore public schools principal who was wounded in the Korean War and helped establish a war memorial in Canton, died Saturday at Maryland Shock Trauma Center after suffering a fall at his home.
The Forest Hill resident was 86.
Born in Baltimore and raised on North Avenue, he was the son of Angelo Pezzella, a painting decorator and drapery maker, and Carmelina Pezzella, who owned a beauty salon.
He was a 1948 City College graduate and enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserves as a senior in high school.
He was working at a Harford Road soda fountain when he was called up for military service in 1950. He was assigned to the 11th Engineer Battalion, which later was dubbed "Baltimore's Own."
"They were the most ordinary of Baltimore boys, 19 going on 20, when they mustered outside Fort McHenry on a steamy August morning," said a 1998 Baltimore Sun article. "A few months later, at Chosin Reservoir, they were among 20,000 American soldiers surrounded by 120,000 Chinese troops — the same Chinese that U.S. officials had believed would not enter the war. It was 30 degrees below zero, a temperature at which hands and feet froze and machine guns jammed."
In that article, Mr. Pezzella was quoted saying: "'It was the dumbest military tactic in history. ... They sent us into the mountains on a single supply line, and the Chinese cut it in 22 places. They sent us with weapons and equipment, even boots, that had never been tested in extreme cold."
In the article, Mr. Pezzella recalled being shot in the leg near a village called Hagaru-ri. He made his way to a makeshift field hospital and, while waiting outside for medical care, fired at the approaching Chinese. He received a Purple Heart.
"Mike was a fine young man," said a fellow Marine, Edward King, who lives in Glen Burnie. "He loved life. I recall we had been in Camp Pendleton [in Southern California] before we shipped out to Korea. He talked me into hitchhiking into Los Angeles for the day. And we hitchhiked home that night. He was like that."
After his military service, Mr. Pezzella returned to Baltimore and earned an associate's degree at the old Baltimore Junior College, where he was later inducted into the school's athletic hall of fame.
He then earned a bachelor's degree from what is now McDaniel College.
He taught social studies, first in Montgomery County and then in Baltimore City schools. He became principal of Cherry Hill Elementary School and vice principal of Patterson High School, where he often filled in for Principal Frank C. Robey Jr. — who served in the Maryland House of Delegates.
Mr. Pezzella later became an Army cost analyst at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Harford County.
"He was a funny guy, but he had a shy side," said his wife, Christine Brown Pezzella. "He didn't like to talk about himself, but he could be talkable after he got to know people."
She said her husband rarely missed an opportunity to join in Memorial Day and Veterans Day ceremonies.
In 1993, on the site of the Maryland Korean War Memorial in Canton, Mr. Pezzella assisted in the establishment and dedication of a separate monument to the memory of the 11th Engineer Battalion, Marine Corps Reserve.
He was a loyal member of the Harford County Lodge of the Order Sons of Italy, where he held leadership posts.
His wife said Mr. Pezzella was proud of his Sicilian heritage and his military service. He took trips to Italy and the United Kingdom, where he attended reunions of Royal Marines who served at Chosin Reservoir.
"Mike had very strong opinions," said a friend, Chester Thurlow of Bel Air. "He proclaimed, 'I am a Sicilian.'"
Services will be held at 10 a.m. Thursday at the Schimunek Funeral Home of Bel Air, 610 W. MacPhail Road.
In addition to his wife of two years, a retired worker in Johns Hopkins medical education, survivors include two sons, Martin Pezzella and Robert Pezzella, both of Bel Air; two daughters, Michele Brady of The Villages, Fla., and Kathleen Novak of Chesterfield, Va.; two stepsons, Robert Brown and Thomas Brown, both of Baltimore; a stepdaughter, Jennifer Brown of Dover, Del.; and seven grandchildren. His first wife, A. Patricia McCarthy, died in 2001.