John Basilone is a Marine Corps legend. During the fighting on Guadalcanal in October 1942, Basilone’s actions would result in him being awarded the Medal of Honor. He was sent home to sell War Bonds but asked to be returned to the war. He was killed in action on Iwo Jima on February 19, 1945. Basilone was the only enlisted Marine during WWII to be awarded the Medal of Honor, the Navy Cross, and the Purple Heart.
Basilone was born in his parents’ home in Buffalo, NY on November 4, 1916, the sixth of 10 children. He was just two years old the family moved to Raritan, NJ. He dropped out of high school to go to work during the Depression.
Basilone joined the Army in July 1934 serving in the Philippines where he was a champion boxer. After his three-year hitch was up, he returned to the United States and was a truck driver in Maryland. But he itched to return to the Philippines and thought he could get there quicker by joining the Marines rather than the Army. Although he joined the Marines in 1940, unfortunately for him, he’d never get back to the Philippines.
After his recruit training at Parris Island, Basilone trained at Quantico, VA, and New River, NC before shipping out to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. After the U.S.’s entry into World War II, Basilone went to Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands, as a member of “D” Company, 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, 1st Marine Division.
On October 24, 1942, during the Battle of Henderson Field, Basilone commanded two machine-gun sections that were tasked with holding a narrow pass at the Tenaru River. The heavily outnumbered Marines were attacked by a regiment of the Japanese Sendai Division with 3,000 men.
The Japanese attacked at night while hitting the Marines with concentrated mortar fire and grenades as they tried to swarm over the machine gun positions. One of the heavy water-cooled .30 caliber machineguns was knocked out of action after taking on several waves of Japanese attacks. With complete disregard for his own safety, Basilone ran 200 yards through enemy fire, carrying almost 90 pounds of equipment and ammunition to the knocked out machine gun position. Encountering Japanese soldiers that had broken through the Marine lines, Basilone killed them with his .45 pistol.
During the pitched battle that ensued, Basilone continued to display his awe-inspiring valor by constantly braving fire, carrying ammunition back and forth to the gun positions, and clearing a gun jam during the nearly suicidal Japanese infantry attacks.
“The noise was terrific, and I could see the Japs leaping as they were smacked by our bullets. Screaming, yelling, and dying all at the same time. Still, they came only to fall back, twisting and going through all sorts of motions as we dispatched them to their honorable ancestors,” Basilone recalled later.
In the midst of the fighting, Basilone’s asbestos glove, which is used to switch out the red hot barrels, was lost. When it appeared that the Japanese were poised for a breakthrough, Basilone once again didn’t hesitate. He grabbed the red hot barrel of the machine gun, searing his hand and forearm with third-degree burns. He mowed down a large number of Japanese soldiers right in front of the Marines’ position. So many Japanese soldiers went down in front of Basilone’s position that they were stacked high in the air blocking his field of fire. Basilone then did the unthinkable. He crawled out in the midst of the Japanese bodies and knocked them down so that his machinegun would once again have a clear field of fire.
The Japanese regiment was smashed in the face of Basilone’s guns. On the morning after two straight days of fighting, ammunition for the Marines was quickly running out. Basilone had his .45 and machete and he cut down the remainder of the Japanese that attacked his position. The Japanese regiment was virtually annihilated.
By the time Marine reinforcements arrived, only Basilone and one other Marine were standing. It was later established that Basilone had killed at least 38 Japanese by himself. But in reality, the number was no doubt much higher. Colonel Lewis “Chesty” Puller, Basilone’s commanding officer, later said that there were 900 bodies in the sector.
Puller was making the rounds that morning talking to the surviving soldiers. When he saw John, he said “I heard you came back for ammunition, good work.” Later it would be Puller who would recommend Basilone for the Medal of Honor.
Marine Private Nash W. Phillips of Fayetteville, NC, who lost a hand during the battle, recalled Basilone’s heroism.
“Basilone had a machine gun on the go for three days and nights without sleep, rest, or food. He was in a good emplacement, and causing the Japanese lots of trouble, not only firing his machine gun, but also using his pistol,” said Phillips adding that Basilone came to check on him, despite his own wounds.
“He was barefooted and his eyes were red as fire,” he remembered. “His face was dirty black from gunfire and lack of sleep. His shirt sleeves were rolled up to his shoulders. He had a .45 tucked into the waistband of his trousers. He’d just dropped by to see how I was making out; me and the others in the section. I’ll never forget him. He’ll never be dead in my mind.”
Basilone was awarded the Medal of Honor and was sent home to take part in a War Bond tour. He was given a parade in his hometown and toured the country selling bonds. The highly-publicized tour was covered by Life magazine and Fox Movietone News. As much as he appreciated the crowds’ adulation he was uncomfortable in the spotlight and wanted to be back with the Marines. He asked to be released from this duty and return to the fleet. “Negative” was the reply.
Basilone was too valuable to the war effort selling bonds and he spent nearly the entire second half of 1943 on the War Bond tour. He appeared with Hollywood starlet Virginia Grey and it was rumored that the two had a brief affair. He was offered a commission and a training assignment. He turned those down as well.
In December 1943, he again asked to return to the fleet and this time his request was accepted. He was sent to Camp Pendleton, CA to train up the 5th Marine Division. While there, he met a female Marine, Lena Mae Riggi. They quickly became inseparable and were married in July 1944.
Basilone was assigned to C Company, 1st Battalion, 27th Marine Regiment, 5th Marine Division. On February 19, 1945, the first day of the invasion of Iwo Jima, he was once again serving as a machine gun section leader on Red Beach II.
The Japanese had built excellent defenses and numerous heavily fortified blockhouses with interlocking fields of fire. With his unit pinned down, Basilone made his way directly on top of one blockhouse. Using hand grenades and demolitions, he single-handedly destroyed the strongpoint and wiped the entire unit inside.
With the Marines fighting toward Airfield Number 1, Basilone then aided a Marine tank that was trapped in an enemy minefield and under concentrated mortar and artillery barrages. He guided the tank to safety, despite heavy weapons fire from the Japanese.
But as he moved along the edge of the airfield, he was killed by Japanese mortar shrapnel. In helping his unit gett off the beach and for his heroism on that day in Iwo Jima, he was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross and the Purple Heart.
Such was the bravery displayed by the troops on Iwo Jima that it was said “Uncommon Valor was a Common Virtue.”
In December 1945, a Navy destroyer was launched named after Basilone. His wife, Lena, christened it in Boston Harbor.
Lena never remarried and when she died in 1999, she was buried wearing her wedding ring. After the war, Basilone’s body was re-interred in Arlington National Cemetery.
Basilone is portrayed in the 10-part HOB miniseries The Pacific. He is played by actor Jon Seda.
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