In the darkness of October 24, 1942, the Japanese launched a terrifying night attack on the Marines dug in on Guadalcanal. Amidst the chaos, Sgt. John Basilone, known as “Manila John” due to his service in the Philippines, remained calm and collected. He tirelessly repositioned heavy machine guns, assisted gunners in clearing jams, and inspired his fellow Marines to keep fighting against overwhelming odds throughout the long night.
Basilone’s exceptional bravery that night earned him the Medal of Honor, making him the first enlisted Marine to receive the prestigious award in World War II.
His heroism was once again displayed on February 19, 1945, during the Battle of Iwo Jima, where he received the Navy Cross for his extraordinary combat gallantry. Sgt. John Basilone remains one of the Marine Corps’ most celebrated heroes.
From Army to Marines
Born on November 4, 1916, in Buffalo, New York, Sgt. John Basilone was the son of Italian immigrants. He enlisted in the Army at the age of 18 and served in the Philippines before being honorably discharged in 1937. Basilone then worked as a truck driver in Maryland but felt compelled to return to military life. In July 1940, he enlisted in the Marine Corps and underwent training in various locations before being deployed to the Pacific.
The Story of Basilone’s Machine Guns
In August 1942, the Allied forces launched a major offensive on Guadalcanal, aiming to capture the island and establish a strategic base for future operations against the Japanese. Sgt. John Basilone was among the Marines defending the Lunga perimeter and Henderson Field, a crucial airfield on the island.
During a fierce Japanese attack on the night of October 24/25, 1942, Basilone’s leadership and bravery stood out. Despite the enemy disabling one of his gun sections, leaving only two men able to fight, Basilone grabbed a heavy machine gun and tripod, ran 200 yards to the silenced gun section, and opened fire at point-blank range. He then repaired another machine gun under continuous enemy fire and personally manned it, valiantly holding his position.
Basilone’s relentless defense resulted in a mounting pile of Japanese bodies in front of his emplacement. When the enemy attacked him from behind, he fought back with his pistol, killing several more Japanese soldiers. Later that night, with critically low ammunition and supply lines cut off, Basilone courageously ran 200 yards through hostile lines to gather the much-needed ammunition and deliver it to his gunners. He repeated this perilous journey to obtain additional ammunition, continuing the battle against the enemy.
Basilone’s exceptional actions that day resulted in the deaths of at least 38 Japanese soldiers. He received the Medal of Honor in May 1943, presented to him during a ceremony in Australia.
“I Ain’t No Officer, and I Ain’t No Museum Piece”
Sgt. John Basilone’s heroism made him a national celebrity, and he embarked on a war bond tour across the United States. However, he felt uneasy with the attention and longed to return to combat. Despite his request being denied by the Marine Corps, which instead offered him a commission, Basilone declined the offer, stating that he was “just a plain soldier” and wanted to remain one.
In late 1943, Basilone was assigned to Camp Pendleton, California, where he fell in love with Lena Mae Riggi, a female Marine sergeant. They married in July 1944, but their time together was short-lived. Basilone’s unit received orders to sail to the Pacific, and he left for combat before Christmas 1944, never seeing his wife again.
Unbeknownst to Basilone, he would participate in the Marine amphibious landings on Iwo Jima. On February 19, 1945, he landed on Red Beach II and immediately recognized the need for his men to keep moving to survive. He bravely led the charge, attacking and destroying a Japanese blockhouse using grenades and demolitions, allowing his unit to capture an airfield.
While guiding a trapped Marine tank to safety amidst heavy enemy fire, Basilone was mortally wounded by shrapnel from an exploding mortar shell. He passed away approximately 30 minutes later, at the age of 27.
Sgt. John Basilone Honored at Arlington
Sgt. John Basilone’s bravery was widely recognized, with the New York Times even singling him out for his exceptional courage. His selfless dedication to fighting for America, despite knowing the risks, serves as a reminder of the enduring resolve needed to achieve lasting peace.
Basilone was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross for his actions on Iwo Jima, and his widow, Lena Mae, received the decoration on his behalf.
He is interred in Arlington National Cemetery and continues to be honored for his heroism.
The destroyer USS Basilone (DD 824) was named in his honor, and a stamp bearing his likeness was issued by the U.S. Postal Service. Numerous books and the HBO miniseries “The Pacific” have also featured Basilone, ensuring his legacy lives on.
Lena Mae Basilone passed away in June 1999 at the age of 87, never remarrying.