The legend of Gunnery Sgt. Basilone

5 Mar 2004 | Cpl. Clinton Firstbrook

For more than 60 years Marines have heard about the legendary acts of Gunnery Sgt. John "Manila" Basilone.

In the steaming jungles of Guadalcanal, two sections of heavy .30-caliber machine guns at the Tenaru River were in charge of defending a narrow pass to Henderson Airfield in the Solomon Islands. Suddenly, Japanese forces attacked their position. Vastly out numbered, the Marines held their ground and fought valiantly to check the savage and determined assault.

Suddenly one of the gun crews was knocked out. Disregarding his own life, a Marine lifted his 90 pounds of weaponry and raced 200 yards to the silenced gun pit and started firing. Enemy soldiers attacked to his rear. He cut them down with his Colt .45 pistol. Short of shells, he dashed 200 yards amid a stream of bullets to an ammunition dump and returned with an armload of ammo for his gunners. This Marine battled his way through hostile lines running back and forth between gun pits clearing jams and re-supplying the other Marines with ammo. Flares lit up more swarms of grenade-tossing attackers. The Marines' hands started blistering from the heat of his machine gun, but still he kept shooting.

At dawn, reinforcements found this Marine resting his head at the edge of his pit. The line had held. Nearly 100 sprawled enemy dead were around his cut-off outpost. At least 38 enemy dead were credited to this Marine, many killed at arms length. The day was Oct. 24, 1942 and his name was Gunnery Sgt. Basilone. For his actions he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Upon returning to the United States, this Raritan, N.J. native traveled across the country on a war bond tour that prompted $1.4 million in pledges. He met Hollywood starlets and his picture even made the cover of Life magazine.

The Marine Corps offered to make him an officer and let him spend the rest of the war in Washington, but he reportedly turned them down stating, "I'm a plain soldier, and I want to stay one."

After his war bond tour, Gunnery Sgt. Basilone requested to be reassigned to a gunner unit with the 27th Marines. He could have continued to sell war bonds or he could have even stayed back in the states. But this man instead chose to live his life as a Marine.

So he said farewell to his new wife, Lena Riggi, and joined the Fifth Division. Staying behind, he told buddies, would be "like being a museum piece." And it wouldn't seem right, he said, "if the Marines made a landing on the Manila waterfront and 'Manila John' wasn't among them."

On February 19, 1945, Basilone was again in action on the black sands of Iwo Jima on Red Beach II. Enemy gunfire pinned down his platoon. Everyone, that is, but Basilone, who walked straight up, kicking butts and yelling, "Get off the beach! Move out," he yelled at the gunners just behind, hunkered low and straining under the heavy loads of weapons and ammunition amid the blistering fire.  Minutes later an enemy artillery round exploded, killing Gunnery Sgt. Basilone and four other members from his platoon. Immediately before, he had single-handedly destroyed a Japanese blockhouse, allowing his unit to capture an airfield. On his outstretched left arm was a tattoo that read "Death before Dishonor." He was 27 years old.

After World War II, his body was reburied with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery and he was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross. A life-size bronze statue depicting him in battle dress and cradling a machine gun now watches over his hometown of Raritan.

Gunnery Sgt. Basilone, the man whom Gen. Douglas MacArthur called "a one-man army," became the only man in the history of the United States awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, the Navy Cross, and the Purple Heart.

John Basilone has been remembered in a variety of ways for his service and supreme sacrifice. In 1949 a destroyer, the USS Basilone was commissioned. The New Jersey Turnpike Bridge across the Raritan River is named in his honor, as are numerous American Legion and Marine Corps League Posts.  Interstate 5 outside of Camp Pendleton has been renamed the John Basilone Memorial Highway. A tribute to the war hero started in 1981 with "Basilone Day" and continues to be celebrated annually in Raritan, N.J. on the last weekend in September.

However, John Basilone never cared much for the fame that accompanied his Medal of Honor. The parades, the newsreel appearances, the starlets who hung on his arm; he would much rather, he insisted, be just a "plain Marine" like his buddies who were still out in the Pacific. He told his brother after joining the Marines that, "Without his Corps, his life meant nothing."
Headquarters Marine Corps