John Basilone was born on November 4th, 1916. He
grew up in the small town of Raritan, New Jersey. As a child, John
was restless and had a sense of adventure from the beginning. After
he graduated from 8th grade, John elected not to go to high school.
He told people he was looking for adventure. However, after a few
years, he had not yet found his adventure. So in 1934, he joined
The Army Years
served in the Philippines at the U.S. base in the city of Manila.
It was during his tenure in the Army where John discovered a mechanical
talent for guns, especially machine guns. He also learned to be
a leader of men - with the ability to motivate and lead other soldiers.
After his 3 year stint in the Army ended in 1937,
John returned home to Raritan, but after a couple years, he found
himself restless and again searching for adventure. He decided to
re-enlist in the service, but this time he would join the Marines.
In August of 1942, (10 months into World War II for
the U.S.) his group was sent to the island of Guadalcanal. The U.S.
and Japanese were battling for the island. The U.S. had secured
Henderson Field, an important airstrip which the Japanese were determined
to take. The Marines had only a fraction of the troops compared
to the Japanese. Only a single U.S. Battalion stood between the
readying Japanese Division and Henderson field. John Basilone was
in charge of 16 men. They set up a defensive position with 4 heavy
machine guns in front of Henderson Field.
On October 24th, the Japanese launched a massive
attack. John set the strategy for his unit. He told his men to let
the enemy get within 30 yards and then "let them have it."
They fired at the first group of attacking Japanese, successfully
wiping them out.
first charge was only the beginning of the overall enemy attack.
They charged several more times. Eventually this attack took it's
toll. John, while manning the left two machine guns, heard a loud
explosion come from the right setup of the machine guns. Moments
later, one soldier from the right side crawled over and informed
him that both right guns were knocked out and that the crew was
all dead or injured.
John knew he had to get to the knocked out guns to
see if he could get them working. The first gun was beyond repair,
but the second gun had a chance. There was no light to aid in examining
the damaged gun. John would have to troubleshoot the problem in
the dark, by feeling the parts to find out what was causing the
gun not to fire. John quickly had the gun working again. As soon
as it was back in action, the enemy charged. With the extra gun
now working, Basilone and his unit easily beat back the Japanese
The attacks kept coming. John told two of his remaining
soldiers to keep the heavy machine guns loaded. John would roll
to one machine gun and fire until it was empty, then roll over to
the other one that had been loaded while he was firing the first
one. At about 3 AM they were almost out of ammunition. The Marines
had stored ammunition about 100 yards away. However, this would
be a difficult 100 yards as there were enemy troops on both the
sides and behind their position.
John ran and crawled through the jungle. Bullets
flew off over his head and grenades exploded around him, but he
continued and made it to the ammo dump. John threw six heavy cartridge
belts over his soldier. As he started back to his men, bullets were
whizzing all around him again. But he made it back and soon he found
another challenge. One machine gun had been smashed. John took parts
from another knocked out gun and fixed it quickly. Later in the
night, the ammunition ran low again. John would need to go for more,
but this time it would be to another ammunition dump, 600 yards
away. Once again the Japanese threw everything at him, but he snaked
through the grass well enough so that the Japanese could not find
a clear target. John made it back with the much needed ammunition
which held off the enemy attacks. Finally the attacks ended around
daylight revealed a scene of utter carnage on the ground. Hundreds
of bodies lay dead in front of the American positions, In fact,
the entire Japanese regiment, around 3000 men, had been "annihilated".
On this night of October 24th, and 25th the U.S. had turned the
tide of the war and the previously undefeated Japanese were on their
way to defeat. For his heroics that night John was awarded The Congressional
Medal of Honor.
The Congressional Medal of Honor Winner
July of 1943, John was informed that he was being sent home, but
there was a catch to it. John would have to go on a "bond drive".
As John loaded up to go home, he told his buddies he would be back,
but they did not believe him. His men figured that with his medal,
he could get a safe assignment at home for the rest of the war.
His home town of Raritan planned a homecoming parade
in his honor. It was held on Sunday, September 19th, 1943. The people
of the small town of Raritan were amazed that such a big event came
to their town. There were 30,000 people, including many politicians,
numerous celebrities, and the national press. Life Magazine ran
a four page story on the parade. Even the Fox Movietone News video
taped the event, making a newsreel that was shown at movie theatres
throughout the country
a hero, John was worshipped and wined and dined. John said that
the admiration and attention was appreciated, but he was a soldier,
and that he had given his word to his men that he would be back.
John officially asked to go back to his men, but was initially denied.
He was told that they needed him more on the home front. He was
offered a commission (an officer's job), but he turned it down,
saying he was a plain soldier. He was offered a job as an gunnery
instructor. To John, these soft, easy assignments did not seem right.
He had a strong sense of purpose, and a safe easy job while there
was a war going on was not his idea of being a Marine.
Back to the War
After a few months he asked again to go back overseas
and this time he was granted his wish. For his assignment, Basilone
was to report to Camp Pendleton in California to train with a group
that was preparing to invade an island in the Pacific.
So on December 27th, 1943, John left the easy life of a hero on
the home front to return to the soldiers who would soon go back
overseas to engage the enemy.
While at Camp Pendleton John met a woman Marine Sergeant
Lena Mae Riggi, and love blossomed. After dating for several months,
they married on July 10th, 1944. Just one month later, on August
11th, 1944, orders were given for the Marines to ship out of Camp
Pendleton. John packed up and said good-bye to his new wife, boarded
his ship, and sailed with the rest of the Marines for Iwo Jima.
On February 19th, 1945 the Marines arrived at Iwo
Jima and were ready to attack. The Navy had bombarded the island
for 36 days. Some Marines hoped this intense bombing would allow
them to take the island with little resistance. However, there were
22,000 Japanese warriors who were well dug in, heavily armed, and
prepared to die.
The first U.S. invasion force landed on the beach
at 9:05 AM. John Basilone's group landed around 9:30 AM. They were
surprised to find little opposition. The Marines got up on the beach
and noticed that their feet could barely move in the soft black
volcanic sand of Iwo Jima. For one hour, the U.S. was able to get
their transports up to the beach and unload the men without major
resistance. Then, with the beach crowded with U.S. soldiers, the
Japanese began their counter attack. Suddenly the Japanese from
their hidden blockhouses began firing away at the exposed U.S. troops.
The Marines were getting annihilated. Survivors later wondered how
anyone survived the initial Japanese barrage. The U.S. forces were
on the beach, but they had little or no cover, were still disorganized,
and had not yet gotten enough heavy equipment ashore to defend against
this type of attack.
The troops had trained for years, but nothing could
prepare them for what was happening all around them. The soldiers
would later say how frustrated they were that they could not see
the enemy to fight back. The Japanese counterattack had stalled
the U.S. invasion. Most Marines were hiding in the sand. The beach
was littered with damaged vehicles, equipment, and dead soldiers.
The invasion was not moving. Brave men with leadership ability were
needed to rally the troops, and John Basilone rose to the occasion.
Many survivors of the battle recall that in the midst of the battle,
with everyone hunkered down in the sand, there was one Marine out
in the open, running around, directing men - it was John Basilone.
He first guided a tank out of a mine field. Only a few tanks came
ashore and they were needed to knock out Japanese blockhouses.
John had noticed a particular Japanese bunker had
been effectively shooting mortar shells and raging deadly fire upon
the U.S. troops. This enemy strong position "had to go".
John found and organized some machine gunners along with demolition
men and directed them toward the bunker. John Basilone instructed
a demolition man to blow a hole in the concrete structure, while
others gave cover against other nearby enemy positions. A large
explosion went off opening part of the bunker. Basilone then told
the enthused machine gunners to hold their fire and directed a flamethrower
operator to charge the pit. The brave flamethrower charged the pit
as quickly as he could, stuck his nozzle in the pit and ignited
the flame. Some of the Japanese soldiers ran out of the pit screaming
as they tried to wipe away the jellied gasoline that was burning
them. John Basilone cut them down with a machine gun. Fellow soldier,
Charles Tatum, said "for me and others
who saw Basilone's
leadership and courage during our assault, his example was overwhelming."
After knocking out the bunker, Basilone led twenty
men off the exposed beach area to a location where they could take
some cover and plan their next move. He ordered the men to stay
while he went back to get more men and some heavy machine guns.
John Basilone gathered some troops and weapons and started back
across the beach to the waiting soldiers. But John was hit with
a Japanese mortar shell which landed right in the middle of him
and the men he was leading. He died from his wounds around thirty
minutes later. For his actions that day, John Basilone was awarded
The Navy Cross.
The military paid tribute to John by naming a ship
after him. An anti-submarine Navy Destroyer, the U.S.S. Basilone
was commissioned on July 26th, 1949.
His home town of Raritan honors him every year with a parade. First
held in 1981, the parade has been held every year rain or shine,
attracting thousands of spectators. It is the pride of the town
John Basilone remains the only soldier (non-officer)
in U.S. history to be awarded both The Congressional Medal of Honor
and The Navy Cross. He is also the only Medal of Honor winner to
go back into combat and be killed in combat.