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Gunnery Sergeant John Basilone: One-Man Army

By Leonard Solimine

A U.S. Navy destroyer is named after him, as well as a bridge, football field, and two sections of highways. The U.S. Postal Service honored him with a stamp. His home town erected a magnificent life-size bronze statue and each September they host a parade in his honor. Locally, a plaque bears his name at the U.S. Navy Memorial. Called a “a one-man army” by General Douglas MacArthur, he remains the only Marine in World War II to earn the Purple Heart, the Navy Cross and the Congressional Medal of Honor.

He was a war hero, and he was an Italian American. He was Gunnery Sergeant John Basilone. Born on November 4, 1916, in Buffalo, John Basilone was one of ten children in the Salvatore and Dora Basilone family. His father, a tailor, and mother came from Italy as immigrants. Soon after his birth, the Basilone family John Basilonemoved to Raritan, N.J. Early on, John gained local attention as a talented light-heavyweight boxer. In 1933, at age 18, he enlisted in the U.S. Army and served in the Philippines, where he acquired his nickname, “Manila John.”

Honorably discharged in 1937, John retuned to the United States and began working as truck driver in Reistertown, Md. Anticipating World War II, he re-enlisted in 1940 in Baltimore, but this time with the U.S. Marine Corps. After a short stint at various U.S. bases, he shipped off to the Solomon Islands and, eventually, Guadalcanal.

On October 24-25, 1942, as American forces went on the offensive, Basilone was on Guadalcanal helping to preserve a thin U.S. defensive perimeter around Henderson Field. In charge of two sections of heavy machine guns, Basilone and his fellow soldiers did not realize that the Japanese had massed troops and intended to overwhelm the vastly outnumbered Americans. The first wave of Japanese soldiers knocked out the machine guns on Basilone’s left. After lifting a machine gun and its tripod (over 90 pounds), he raced 200 yards, through a barrage of enemy mortars and grenades, to the silenced gun pit and started firing. As enemy bodies grew in front of his position, he turned in time to see attackers from the rear. Unable to bring his machine gun to bear, Basilone defended himself with his Colt .45 pistol.

Low on ammunition, Basilone dashed back to an ammo dump. Returning with more shells, he fired flares to illuminate the Japanese attackers in the dark October night. Basilone fired until heat blistered his hands, stopping only to clear bodies from the front of his position. At dawn, U.S. reinforcements finally arrived. By that time, an entire Japanese regiment of 3,000 men had been repelled by Basilone and his fellow GIs. It was a significant victory for the U.S., and it helped turn the tide in the Pacific theater of operations.

Rightfully hailed as a hero, Basilone was awarded the Medal of Honor, and sent back to the U.S. on a war-bond pledge tour. The Marine Corps offered to make him an officer, to which Basilone responded, “I ain’t no officer, and I ain’t no museum piece. I belong back with my outfit.” Before returning to battle, and while being temporarily stationed at Camp Pendleton, he met and married Lena Riggi, a fellow USMC Sergeant. Yet safety and shelter did not appeal to John Basilone and by Christmas 1944, he kissed Lena goodbye and shipped out.

As the Marines launched their attack on Iwo Jima, Basilone was back in action. Storming the beaches in the early morning, the Marines met little resistance. As more troops came ashore, the Japanese counterattacked the crowded beachhead. Marines hid in the soft black volcanic sand as heavy artillery and gunfire smashed into their position.

After almost single-handedly taking out an enemy blockhouse and guiding a tank through a minefield, he urged the men to go forward and off the exposed and deadly beach. As he returned to the beach to lead more men, a Japanese mortar round exploded nearby and mortally wounded Basilone; he died an hour and a half later. For his courage and bravery under severe circumstances, John Basilone was posthumously awarded both the Navy Cross and Purple Heart.

On his arm, Basilone had a tattoo that embodied his belief: “Death before Dishonor!” Basilone remains the lone Medal of Honor recipient to return to and die in combat. His body lies in rest at Arlington National Cemetery. John Basilone was a great soldier, a great American, and a great Italian-American. •

(Reprinted from Voce Italiana, Washhngton, DC)


UPDATE: Author Leo Solimine has just published a book on Custer's Bugler: The Life of John Martin (Giovanni Martino)


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