Young Marines are taught the story of Basilone — the World War II gunnery sergeant who fought at Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima, a hero killed in combat and awarded the Medal of Honor and Navy Cross.
But, to his cousin Constance Basilone Imbese, the Marine hero was the young man at the dinner table who told his fearful family he was returning to fight in the Pacific.
“They had sent him home to sell war bonds. And he just couldn’t make it, because he thought of the troops at Iwo Jima,” said Imbese, 95, who attended the Camp Pendleton ship-naming announcement Tuesday.
“So he went back, and he died,” said Imbese, who broke into tears at the memory.
Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus, speaking to reporters at Camp Pendleton, said Basilone’s name needs to remain alive in the fleet.
“It’s important for the next 30 to 40 years when this ship is out there, that generations Marines to follow, generations of Americans to follow, and people around the world get to know that story of John Basilone, and what he did and what he stood for,” he said.
The leader of West Coast Marines, Lt. Gen. Lewis Craparotta, told troops present that they should pause for a moment to remember Basilone’s sacrifice.
“Recommit yourselves to living up to that legacy,” the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force commanding general said.
The future Arleigh Burke-class destroyer John Basilone, hull number DDG 122, is expected to enter service in 2022 after construction at Bath Iron Works in Maine.
The first destroyer named for Basilone was DD-824, which earned three battle stars during the Vietnam War before being retired in 1977.
Around the San Diego region, Basilone is already remembered well.
Basilone Road is a busy thoroughfare at Camp Pendleton, a section of Interstate 5 along the base is Basilone Memorial Highway and Marines land at Basilone Drop Zone. In Little Italy, a bronze bust of the Marine hero graces Piazza Basilone.
John Basilone was 25 years old when his 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment participated in Guadalcanal, the first major offensive against Japan. The Italian American from New Jersey commanded two sections of machine guns that fought for two days until only Basilone and two other Marines were left standing, armed with pistols.
For his actions, Basilone was awarded the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest combat decoration.
Returning home, the Marine was a wartime celebrity. The Pentagon assigned him to sell so-called war bonds and build support for the fighting effort.
Basilone met and married his wife, Lena, while stationed at Camp Pendleton during this time. They wed at St. Mary’s Star of the Sea Church in Oceanside in 1944 with a reception at the Carlsbad Hotel.
But, according to various accounts, he was restless and unhappy, thinking about his troops still fighting.
He requested a return to battle, but the said no. Officials offered him an officer’s commission and an instructor’s slot. But Basilone wasn’t dissuaded and eventually shipped back to the Pacific, just in time for one of the fiercest battles of the war.
Basilone led another section of machine guns as the Marines landed on the beaches of Iwo Jima, under heavy fire from Japanese in bunkers. In his posthumous Navy Cross citation for the battle, he is credited with single-handedly destroying a bunker with grenades and demolitions.
Later, after helping a tank trapped in an enemy minefield, Basilone was killed by mortar fire. The Navy Cross citation describes “iron determination” that “contributed materially to the advance of his company during the early critical period of the assault.”
After the war, the Navy moved quickly to honor the Medal of Honor recipient with a ship naming. In 1949, a Gearing-class destroyer was commissioned into service. Lena Basilone was the ship’s sponsor.
For the second Basilone destroyer, the Navy chose as sponsors the surviving family members of San Diego-area troops who fell in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Ryan Manion Borek, sister of Marine 1st Lt. Travis Manion, and Amy Looney, widow of Navy SEAL Brendan Looney, will serve as the civilians most closely associated with the ship.
Manion’s death in Iraq in 2007 inspired the creation of the San Diego-based Travis Manion Foundation.
Looney was a Coronado SEAL whose helicopter went down in Afghanistan in 2010.
The friendship of these two Naval Academy roommates is the topic of the 2014 book “Brothers Forever.”
Imbese, a second cousin who grew up in the Bronx, was the closest Basilone family member present at the Marine base ceremony Tuesday. Basilone died before he and his new wife had time to have children.
“My heart is full of both sadness and joy today,” Imbese said after the ceremony. “It brings back so many memories.”
Imbese, who now lives in Riverside, was at the ceremony with her son, Anthony, who said that the Basilone name is a formidable thing to be connected with.
“You had to live up to it,” he said, chuckling.
Also on Tuesday, in San Francisco, Mabus officially announced that a supply ship will be named for gay-rights activist Harvey Milk, a former Navy diving instructor in San Diego. The oiler will be built at San Diego’s General Dynamics NASSCO shipyard.
Mabus said he wasn’t trying to make a statement by doing both in the same day.
He added, though, that Milk also gave his life in service of government when, as a San Francisco city supervisor, he was gunned down along with San Francisco Mayor George Moscone in 1978 by a political opponent.
“Harvey Milk stood up for what he thought was right,” the Navy secretary said. “Both of these people represent American values that we hold dear.”
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