In September 1943, John Basilone returned from the Battle of Guadalcanal to his hometown of Raritan, New Jersey, to a hero’s welcome. Basilone was a United States Marine Corps sergeant who had recently been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions at Guadalcanal in October of 1942 and the people of Raritan were thrilled to honor their local war hero.
The U.S. Marine Corps had ordered Basilone back to the “home front” for a bond tour, but before the tour began he was sent to Raritan so his grateful town could throw a parade in his honor.
According to a piece written by a Raritan historian Bruce Doorly, more than 30,000 people — far more than Raritan’s population — attended the homecoming parade and subsequent rally. The parade was also covered by Life magazine and movie newsreels of the time. It was a true red carpet event.
Unfortunately for those close to John Basilone, however, that patriotic homecoming would be short-lived. Following his short bond tour, Basilone was placed on desk duty to honor his MOH actions, but he nevertheless asked to return to the war. Basilone was shipped to Iwo Jima and was killed during a direct-action combat assault mission on the invasion’s first day. For his gallantry on Iwo Jima, Basilone was awarded the Navy Cross, becoming the only Marine to have received both the Medal of Honor and the Navy Cross.
His Navy Cross citation reads:
“In the forefront of the assault at all times, [Basilone] pushed forward with dauntless courage and iron determination until, moving upon the edge of the airfield, he fell, instantly killed by a bursting mortar shell.”
Now, 78 years later, the quaint town of Raritan still chooses to honor Basilone’s incredible actions at Guadalcanal and his selfless sacrifice on Iwo Jima. On September 19, 2021, the town held its 40th annual parade in his honor. Thousands of people from the area flocked to participate. The ceremony included a military color guard, numerous local organizations and teams, and the Grand Marshal, a Korean War veteran named Fred Plushanski.
Plushanski’s job in the Marine Corps was to fire a bazooka, a particularly deadly occupation due to how close one has to be to a tank for an effective shot. Additionally, Plushanski’s Commanding Officer was Lewis “Chesty” Puller, a god in Marine folklore, and the general who commanded John Basilone at Guadalcanal. General Chesty Puller was also the man who would later recommend Basilone for his Medal of Honor for his actions at Guadalcanal.
John Basilone was a hero among men, a giant among giants; and this is his story.
John Basilone the Soldier
John Basilone was born on November 4, 1916, in Buffalo, New York. Basilone’s parents were Italian-Americans with roots in Benevento, Italy.
Although John, the sixth of 10 children, was born in Buffalo, his five older siblings were born in Raritan. Shortly after John’s birth, in 1918 the family would return to Raritan, where John would live the remainder of his childhood.
John Basilone attended St. Bernard Parochial school but dropped out after completing middle school. Prior to joining the military, Basilone worked as a golf caddy for a local New Jersey country club.
Many people aren’t aware that prior to his heroic tour in the Marine Corps, Basilone first enlisted into the U.S. Army in 1934. During his first tour in the Army, Basilone served in the Philippines, where he became a champion boxer. Basilone completed one tour in the Army and then was honorably discharged, for a day, before enlisting back into the Army’s 31st Infantry Battalion.
After Basilone’s second Army tour was complete, he returned home to a rather mundane life of driving trucks for a living. He itched to get back to Manila and into some action, and thought that the Marine Corps would get him there quicker than the Army. He was right.
One unique fact about switching services is that those who first enlist in the Marine Corps are exempt from the recruit training of all other branches if they decide to swap services after an enlistment. Other branches, however, are not able to enter the Marine Corps without attending Marine Corps boot camp. The reciprocity for the Marine Corps only goes one way.
John Basilone the Marine
So, with war in mind Basilone enlisted into the Marine Corps in 1940 and was quickly sent to recruit training at Parris Island, SC. Following his completion of boot camp and required training, Basilone was quickly sent to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and then to Guadalcanal with “D” Company, 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, 1stMarine Division.
By the time Basilone’s unit had arrived at Guadalcanal the island was already ablaze.
“We had every type of warfare known on Guadalcanal. Including tanks, flame throwers, submarines shelling us, also Jap battleships, bombing continuously during the day and night. We had to fight snipers everywhere among us. We had Jap land-based artillery shelling us as well as strafing from their Zero planes.”
The Battle of Guadalcanal was ferocious. This is what makes the actions of both Basilone and Cole so incredible. Despite overwhelming odds and extreme danger, both men rose to the occasion when it was time to fight.
Having the benefit of knowing the outcome, sometimes I wonder whether men who acted with such heroism knew that they were going to do something special. I wonder whether Basilone knew that such violence was needed against the Japanese and that he was just the man to do it, or was it that he simply rose to the occasion at the time. Either way, when it was time to put self-preservation behind him and put action into practice, Basilone was ready.
Nearly 1,000 Dead Japanese
Basilone’s time for heroism at Guadalcanal came on October 24, 1942.
On October 24, 1942, John Basilone was supporting the war effort in the Lunga Area. Though the battle was fierce and the Marines’ defensive positions were being barraged, Sgt. Basilone fought off the enemy attack. His Medal of Honor citation speaks perfectly of his actions. It reads,
“With the Japanese blasting his guns with grenades and mortar fire, one of Sgt. Basilone’s sections, with its guncrews, was put out of action, leaving only [two] men able to carry on. Moving an extra gun into position, he placed it in action, then, under continual fire, repaired another and personally manned it, gallantly holding his line until replacements arrived. A little later, with ammunition critically low and the supply lines cut off, Sgt. Basilone, at great risk of his life and in the face of continued enemy attack, battled his way through hostile lines with urgently needed shells for his gunners, thereby contributing in large measure to the virtual annihilation of a Japanese regiment.”
“…On the way over we ran smack into a party of Japs — about eight of them. We let them have it, and continued on our way.
We went through to the other gun position… The Japs kept charging. The rain had stopped and the moon was just coming out and we could see them when they got up to the wire in front of our position — about 30 feet away. We could hear them, too, every time they started to charge. They’d scream. That night they sure hollered ‘Marines, you die!’ But they died. Then Crumpton got wounded, so I put one of the Marines on the right flank and the other on the left flank and I fired both machine guns. I’d fire one and then roll over and fire the other.
Every now and then someone would yell, ‘Look Out!’ so I’d grab my automatic pistol — which I kept on the deck beside me — and use it. Jesus, they were all around us. We kept on fighting. Then when the battle was just about over, I’d say about five o’clock in the morning, the Army came up to give us a hand.
Then Colonel Lewis B. Puller, our Commanding Officer, came over and said ‘nice work’ — and that was that. Colonel Puller told us the next day that there were nearly 1,000 Japs — dead Japs — out in front, and several hundred also dead, between our lines and the wires. They said there were about 38 of them stacked up around the two machine guns on the right flank of our section.”
The phrase “uncommon valor was a common virtue” seems to not only fit Basilone but also Cole, Puller, and most other military personnel of that generation. They truly were our greatest generation.
Who Will Be Next?
It has been decades since John Basilone performed bravely in Guadalcanal and served selflessly until his death on Iwo Jima, but his country hasn’t forgotten him.
We see Raritan’s parade, the pictures of Marines marching in his honor, and the hometown kids enjoying the day and we wonder which one of them is next? Not, which one is next to die, but which one is next to live and die heroically? Which boy from Raritan will be the next to step up to fill Basilone’s legacy?
As we remember John Basilone, let us never forget the sacrifices of all servicemembers.
Thank you for your sacrifice, Mr. Basilone. It truly was an honor to wear the same uniform that you wore and died in.