John Basilone was born in Buffalo, New York, as one of 10 children to parents of Italian heritage. The Basilone family moved to Raritan, New Jersey, when John was a child, and he did not attend high school, dropping out at 15 after completing middle school. As a teen, Basilone worked as a caddy at a local country club, and gained local attention as a rising light-heavyweight boxer.
Basilone enlisted in the Army at 17. Over three years of service, he was stationed at Fort Jay, New York, with the 16th Infantry and then in Manila, Philippines, with the 31st Infantry.
In Manila, Basilone earned the nickname “Manila John” while he continued a successful side career as a champion amateur boxer, and he grew particularly fond of the type of lifestyle he had acquired while stationed there. Basilone was honorably discharged from the Army in 1937 and returned state-side, working as a truck driver.
Military life remained appealing to Basilone, however, and in July 1940, he became a Marine, believing a career with the USMC could help him quickly return to Manila. When the US entered World War II, Basilone was sent Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. But in Aug. 1942, along with the rest of C Company, 1st Battalion, 7th Regiment, 1st Marine Division, Basilone arrived on the island of Guadalcanal, an island within the larger Solomon Islands chain located a few hundred miles northeast of Australia in the South Pacific.
The Guadalcanal Campaign was marred with bitter fighting and torrential summer rains. Key to winning the campaign was maintaining control of a landing strip constructed by the Japanese that American forces would eventually capture and name “Henderson Field.” On Oct. 24th, 1942, approximately 3,000 Japanese soldiers assaulted the Marines entrenched around the airfield and charged the men in waves. Basilone, in charge of two machine gun sections consisting of 16 Marines operating four heavy machine guns, held the line for three days without food or sleep. Basilone shifted his fields of fire, lugged around a 90-100 pound M1917 Browning machine gun, and used his pistol to stave off incoming Japanese soldiers. Ultimately, Basilone and two others were the only surviving Marines left holding the position. Henderson Field would remain in American hands, and by Dec. 1944, the Japanese abandoned reclaiming Guadalcanal. For his actions that October, Basilone would became the first American soldier to earn the Medal of Honor. He received it while on leave in Australia.
Basilone’s reputation grew, and he was sent back to the United States in July 1943 to participate in bond drives. His hometown of Raritan planned a massive homecoming parade in his honor. But despite the fame, praise, newsreel coverage, interviews, and even a spot in Life magazine, Basilone wished to return to the front lines. The USMC offered Basilone a commission and an assignment as an instructor, but he refused, again requesting to return to combat.
“I’m just a plain soldier and want to stay one. I ain’t no officer and I ain’t no museum piece. I belong back with my outfit,” he said.
Finally, on Dec. 27th, 1943, Basilone was sent to Camp Pendleton, CA, to train for the invasion of another Japanese-occupied island. Here, Basilone met and fell in love with Sergeant Lena Mae Riggi, herself an enlisted Marine. John married Lena on July 7th, 1944, in Oceanside, CA, and the two went on their honeymoon in Oregon. Around Christmas, 1944, Basilone was shipped off again.
On Feb. 19th, 1945, at 9:30 AM, Basilone landed at Iwo Jima. Initially, the Marines encountered no resistance and made landfall easily. However, once they had clustered on the beach in significant numbers, the Japanese opened fire. In the ensuing chaos, Basilone took command of some entrapped Marines, first leading them to and then clearing out a pillbox, then guiding a tank under fire out of a minefield. While in the midst of executing another attack, Basilone was struck by mortar fire. He would succumb to his wounds on the first day of the battle. Basilone was awarded the Navy Cross posthumously and is the only enlisted Marine to receive this recognition, as well as the Medal of Honor, during World War II.
Over 70 years later, John Basilone’s legacy still stands tall. In Raritan, New Jersey, an annual parade commemorates Basilone’s heroism and sacrifice. Basilone remains a legend in the USMC, and his service during World War II is chronicled in the HBO miniseries “The Pacific.” A destroyer, the USS Basilone, was named in his honor and was christened by his widower, Lena, who never remarried and was laid to rest when she passed away in 1999 still wearing the wedding band he gave her.
John Basilone was eventually brought home from Iwo Jima, and he rests at Arlington National Cemetery.
We honor his service.
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