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A One-Man Army: The Legend of John Basilone


Eight months to the day after the devastating attack at Pearl Harbor, America took a major step forward in the fight against the Japanese Empire. On August 7, 1942, the 18,700-strong Marine Corps 1st Division under Major General Alexander A. Vandegrift conducted the first American amphibious landing of World War II, storming the islands of Guadalcanal, Tulagi, and Florida, which were parts of the Solomon Island chain in the South Pacific. Tulagi and Florida fell quickly to the Marines, but the fight for Guadalcanal descended into a bitter six-month struggle of relentless fighting on land, at sea, and in the air. Both sides poured in reinforcements throughout the campaign, and despite dogged Japanese determination to expel the Americans, U.S. forces stood tall and held on, finally securing Guadalcanal in February 1943. The first major U.S. ground offensive in the Pacific theatre of WWII ended in victory, proving to the Americans that the Imperial Japanese Army was not an unstoppable fighting force. Many Americans distinguished themselves through their incredible valor at Guadalcanal. One of those heroes became and immortal legend. His name was John Basilone.

Born in 1916 to parents of Italian heritage, Basilone was one of ten children and grew up in Raritan, New Jersey. Before the outbreak of the Second World War, he had served in the U.S. Army. While stationed in the Philippine capital of Manilla, Basilone earned his nickname, "Manilla John." In addition to being an infantryman, he also became a champion amateur boxer. Honorably discharged from the Army in 1937, Basilone returned home. Hungry for more adventure and hoping for a chance to return to Manilla, he joined up with the Marines in July 1940.

John Basilone. (Photo Credit: John Basilone Digital Archives)

On August 8, 1942, the Marines captured a runway that the Japanese had been trying to establish on Guadalcanal. Renamed Henderson Field by the Americans, this airstrip became a major focus of the battle. The Japanese applied maximum pressure in their attacks against Henderson Field, bombarding the target by day and night and sending assault waves to vanquish its defenders. Sergeant John Basilone found himself in the midst of this intense struggle.

On the night of October 24, 1942, Basilone led a crucial defense at the Tenaru River, commanding two sections of four heavy .30-caliber machine guns and protecting a narrow pass to Henderson Field. Attacked by a Japanese regiment numbering around 3,000 troops and hit hard with grenades and mortar fire, Basilone and his 16 Marines faced the fight of their lives.

In his own words, Basilone reported that one of the machine guns on his right flank “was demolished” and the second was damaged and put “out of action.” The sergeant rushed to meet the crisis head-on, grabbing another gun and mount, which weighed about 90 pounds. Braving a barrage of enemy bullets, Basilone and two other men fought their way to the position. The new machine gun was setup and began pouring out fire and Basilone went to work in the dark to repair the damaged weapon.

The fanatical Japanese kept coming in waves, but Basilone did not waver. Not only did he man the heavy weapons, but he also dashed back and forth between his flanks to keep his men supplied with ammunition and to help them clear gun jams. Even though he had lost his special gloves designed to protect his hands when handling the scorching hot barrels of the machine guns, Basilone held his ground with Spartan toughness. Writing for the Marine Corps Times, retired Devil Dog J.D. Simkins adds, “During the height of the battle, Basilone barehanded the searing barrel of his machine gun without hesitation and continued putting rounds downrange, killing an entire wave of Japanese soldiers and burning his hands in the process.” As Basilone reflected, “we ran out of ammunition for the machine guns -- I don’t know what time it was -- but it seemed like we’d fired all night, without any water in the guns. I know they were red hot.”

A memorial statue of John Basilone in his hometown of Raritan, New Jersey. The bronze statue depicts Basilone cradling his water cooled .30 caliber machine gun, just like he did on the night of October 24, 1942. (Photo Credit: Jerry McCrea/NJ.com)

Risking his life once again, the sergeant fought his way through Japanese lines to secure more ammunition for his gunners. As Basilone described, “I guess I went about 150 yards to get the ammunition, and when I got back we kept on firing all night.”

At around 5 a.m., Basilone recalled that Army reinforcements arrived “to give us a hand.” The position held, but Basilone and two other Marines were the only survivors from the two machine gun sections. According to Basilone, his commanding officer, another legend of the Marine Corps, Colonel Lewis B. Puller, reported there was nearly 1,000 of the enemy dead strewn “out in front, and several hundred dead, between our lines and the wires.” Basilone is credited with singlehandedly bringing down at least 38 of the enemy.

As Basilone wrote, “Part of the time I confess I didn’t know what the score was. I thought maybe the Japs had taken the field. They were all around us.” Because of the efforts of the sergeant and his men, Henderson Field remained in American hands. For his actions on October 24 and 25, 1942, Basilone was awarded the United States military’s highest decoration for valor under fire, the Medal of Honor. “Only part of this medal belongs to me,” he humbly said. “Pieces of it belong to the boys who are still on Guadalcanal.”

John Basilone receiving the Medal of Honor. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

After his actions on Guadalcanal, Basilone became one of the major faces of the U.S. government’s war bond effort, appearing in parades, newsreels, and using other platforms to help generate support for the Americans fighting for their country all around the world. Although he was offered a commission and a job safely behind a desk in Washington, Basilone knew where he belonged. “I ain’t no officer, and I ain’t no museum piece,” he said. “I belong back with my outfit.”

In late December 1943, Basilone arrived at Camp Pendleton, California, where he diligently trained Marines for what would become the invasion of the island of Iwo Jima. While at Camp Pendleton, he met the love of his life, Marine Sergeant Lena Riggi. The two quickly married, and as one of Basilone's men, Chuck Tatum put it, "After our training, he could have stayed in the states. His enlistment was up." Rather than enjoying a peaceful existence at home with his beloved new wife, however, Basilone refused to abandon his men. "I'm staying with my boys," he vowed. Basilone did just that in December 1944 and shipped off to return to the Pacific Theater.

Basilone's widow, Sergeant Lena Mae Basilone, preparing to christen the USS Basilone in honor of her husband on December 21, 1945. She never remarried and went to her grave in 1999 wearing the wedding band John gave her. (Photo Credit: U.S. Navy/NJ.com)

On February 19, 1945, the Americans launched the invasion of Iwo Jima and Basilone led his men forward onto the volcanic island's black sands. As the Japanese pummeled the assaulting forces with fire after allowing them to concentrate ashore, the man Tatum considered his “hero” led Marines up and off the beach. In Tatum's eyes, "He was a one man army." Basilone and his men successfully cleared out an enemy pillbox and he guided a tank under fire out of a minefield. Leading the way forward until the very end, the 28-year-old Marine legend was struck by Japanese mortar fire and succumbed to his wounds some thirty minutes later.

For his actions on Iwo Jima, Basilone was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart and the Navy Cross, the second highest decoration in the U.S. military that can be awarded to a member of the Navy or the Marines. Like Tatum, the legendary General Douglas MacArthur also described Basilone as "a one-man army." According to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, he is the only enlisted Marine to receive the Navy Cross, “as well as the Medal of Honor, during World War II.”

Perhaps Chuck Tatum said it best when he wrote, “John Basilone knew that battles were won . . . by taking a stand." On Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima, Basilone truly did stand tallest when it mattered most, showing how one brave warrior can make all the difference on the battlefield. Whether through parades like the one held annually at his hometown of Raritan, New Jersey, books such as Tatum’s Red Blood, Black Sand: Fighting Alongside John Basilone from Boot Camp to Iwo Jima, and as depicted in the award-winning HBO miniseries The Pacific, Basilone’s memory remains very much alive to this day. His story and legacy will endure, always reminding the world what it means to be an American hero.

Sources

Congressional Medal of Honor Society: John Basilone Medal of Honor Citation.

Huffpost.com: What I learned from Sergeant John Basilone.

John Basilone Digital Archives: Basilone's Account of the Battle.

Marine Corps Times: Valor Friday: The legend of John Basilone.

Military.com: Marine Gunnery Sgt. John Basilone.

The Hall of Valor Project: John Basilone Navy Cross Citation.

The National WWII Museum: The Solomon Islands Campaign: Guadalcanal.

The Storm of War by Andrew Roberts.

The Washington Post: The savage fight for Guadalcanal: Jungle, crocodiles and snipers during World War II.

U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs: #VeteranOfTheDay Marine Corps Veteran John Basilone.

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