The Life and Legacy of John Basilone

Resting place of Gunnery Sergeant John Basilone at Iwo Jima. He was reinterred at Arlington National Cemetery in 1948.

In Marine Corps heritage, the name “John Basilone” is immortal. He was a true Marine: first to fight and devoted to his brothers in arms. As a man who had already done his part at Guadalcanal, he volunteered to return to combat. In an act of utter selflessness, he exposed himself to enemy fire and helped rescue comrades on the black sand beach at Iwo Jima. He lived selflessly and died selflessly.

Born in Buffalo, New York in 1916, and raised in Raritan, New Jersey, John Basilone was always determined to serve his country. He first enlisted in the Army in 1934. During a deployment to the Philippines, John became an undefeated Army boxing champion and earned the nickname “Manila John.” He separated from the Army in 1937.

After he separated from the military, John struggled with finding his footing as a civilian, he was misfit as a civilian. He became a trucker, but this new life lacked the purpose the military had given him. He defined his life by the service and camaraderie that is created in the ranks of the military.

So in 1940, he returned to the recruitment office. But this time, he bypassed the Army and found the Leathernecks instead. John wanted to return to the Philippines and thought the US Marine Corps offered the best opportunity to get there. After boot camp at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, South Carolina, he spent time at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, before transferring to join 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, 1/7.

Gunnery Sergeant John Basilone wears his Congressional Medal of Honor
One of the most famous images of Gunnery Sergeant John Basilone, wearing the Medal of Honor

Just as John Basilone is a legend among Marines, so is 1/7. Marines bear the unofficial motto “first to fight” for a reason, and 1/7 is no exception to it. When the US led the invasion of Guadalcanal in August, 1942, the Marines of the 1st Division were the first to hit the beaches. Guadalcanal was a brutal campaign. While the Marines ashore fought to hold Henderson airfield, they suffered with a poor supply chain as the US Navy struggled against the Japanese Navy.

The Guadalcanal Campaign

The Guadalcanal campaign echoes in US military history for the hard-fought victory over six months: Ironbottom Sound, the Black Sheep Squadron and the Cactus Air Force, Edson’s Ridge, and the Battle of Henderson Field and Lunga Point.

Sergeant John Basilone was a machine gunner, operating the Browning M1917 30 caliber machine gun. 1/7 was tasked with guarding a section of Lunga Ridge on the night of October 24, 1942. With his loader, Private First Class Nash Phillips, SGT Basilone saw a force of over 3,000 Japanese soldiers commence their assault.

When a mortar killed the Marines operating a gun nearby, he took it over, put it back in action, and manned both guns. SGT Basilone’s gun emplacement devastated the Japanese attack, killing nearly the entire 9th Company, 3rd Battalion during their attempt to overwhelm the Marines.

While holding off the initial assault, the Japanese forces kept pressing their attack to break the American perimeter. This assault came along with a massive naval battle just a few miles away, and attacks on the Marines’ perimeter around Henderson Field. As the Marines of 1/7 began to run low on supplies, SGT Basilone took it upon himself to move his gun emplacement and break another Japanese assault to bring supplies to his fellow Marines.

PFC Nash reported that for three days straight, John Basilone used every weapon available to him, down to his sidearm to fend off the Japanese soldiers. He did not eat or sleep. Operating on adrenaline, John Basilone was critical to holding the American line. When all was said and done, stories of SGT Basilone’s valor in combat made their way to Lieutenant Colonel Lewis “Chesty” Puller and on through the Marine Corps leadership.

John Basilone’s Medal of Honor and War Bonds Tours

In September, 1943, John Basilone was sent stateside to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions during the Battle of Henderson Field. Americans welcomed him home as the hero he was. He was reassigned to a war bond tour across the United States, hobnobbing with celebrities to help raise funds for the war. During this time, John met and married his wife, Marine SGT Lena Mae Riggi.

But as the war continued, John once again struggled with his new life in the states. Throughout 1943 and 1944, his brothers of 1/7 had fought and died in New Guinea and Peleliu. But he was living the good life, leading war bond campaigns with Hollywood actors and celebrities. He had had enough. At his request, now Gunnery Sergeant Basilone was reassigned to 1st Battalion, 27th Marine Regiment as they prepared the invasion of Iwo Jima. During the battle on Iwo Jima, GYSGT Basilone was at the landings on Red Beach.

Unlike Guadalcanal, the Japanese had heavily fortified the beaches, with thousands of defensive positions, bunkers, and machine gun emplacements interconnected by tunnels. In classic fashion, he single-handedly destroyed a Japanese bunker. But seeing a tank that had been trapped in a crater, left his defended position to help guide it out. Exposed once more to enemy fire, he was killed by a mortar round on Red Beach, February 19, 1945. For his valor there, he was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross.

Legacy of John Basilone

He was originally buried at the cemetery on Iwo Jima, but reinterred in 1948. Today, John Basilone rests at Arlington National Cemetery, Section 12, Grave 384. Lena Mae joined him there in 1999.

A statue of John Basilone carrying his M1917 machine gun. The statue is at the John Basilone Memorial in his hometown, Raritan, New Jersey
Statue at the John Basilone Memorial in his hometown, Raritan, New Jersey

Two Navy destroyers have borne the name USS John Basilone in his honor: DD-834, and DDG-122, which is currently under construction at Bath Iron works in Maine. Piazza Basilone in Little Italy, San Diego; and the section of I-5 along Camp Pendleton California was officially named the Gunnery Sergeant John Basilone Memorial Highway. Other civic, military, and government sites across the country bear the name “Basilone” in his honor.

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Featured photo: Resting place of Gunnery Sergeant John Basilone at Iwo Jima. He was reinterred at Arlington National Cemetery in 1948.

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