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Spotlight on John Basilone, legendary Marine

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John Basilone

Through smoke and screaming and the crush of mortar fire, John Basilone never faltered.

When the heavy .30-caliber machine guns jammed, he fixed them. When just two of his section men were left fighting that day on Guadalcanal, Basilone scooped up one of the 90-pound weapons, ignoring the searing heat that was burning his hands, and opened fire.

 

Under a driving October rain, Basilone and his badly depleted unit somehow held the line against waves of Japanese soldiers. When shells ran dangerously low, he — a sergeant from New Jersey — stole past enemy lines to replenish critical ammunition supplies until help could arrive.

After the fusillade of bullets and hand grenades sputtered to a close, nearly 40 dead enemies lay sprawled across Lunga Ridge, where Basilone had staked his position. Not long after, he turned up at the medical tent to check on the wounded.

Nash Phillips, a young private first class who had lost his hand during a battle the night before, later described his bedside visit from Basilone.

John Basilone US Stamp“He was barefooted and his eyes were red as fire,” Phillips told a biographer. “His face was dirty black from gunfire and lack of sleep. His shirt sleeves were rolled up to his shoulders. He had a .45 tucked into the waistband of his trousers. He’d just dropped by to see how I was making out, me and the others in his section.”

Those desperate hours in late 1942 helped saved Henderson Field for another day. American reinforcements swooped onto the tiny spit of land, and the Japanese soon retreated. The first major offensive by Allied forces in the South Pacific proved nothing short of historic.

With control of Guadalcanal and its critical airfield, the Allies were able to gain a toehold within striking distance of the Empire of Japan. Equally important, the victory prevented the Japanese from disrupting the critical supply chain between Australia and the United States.

For his seemingly impossible bravery, Basilone earned the instant respect of his men, his superiors and the Corps. He also received the Medal of Honor, the highest military decoration bestowed by the United States for combat valor.

“He was significant, not only for his actions on the battlefield but also for the symbolism he generated,” said Gary Ohls, a military historian who teaches for the Naval War College in Monterey. “He became quite famous, very well-known in the country, and also was a great inspiration to the Marines in general but also to the ones who served with him.”

Military brass knew what they had in “Manila” John Basilone, handsome and a ready smile, not yet 26 and so-nicknamed for his constant stories about his time in the Philippines, where he had deployed during three years in theArmy and was undefeated in 19 prizefights.

Basilone was promoted to gunnery sergeant and summoned stateside. He was asked to serve his country another way: marketing war bonds. Instead of navigating firefights, Basilone’s days were filled with speeches and parades. He lingered with movie stars, gave interviews for newsreels and was featured in magazines.

But Basilone, the sixth of 10 children, was less comfortable in the limelight than others. He itched to return to the front lines, where he felt his war service was more direct.

After repeated requests, Basilone was approved for transfer to Camp Pendleton, where he would train for reassignment to the Pacific theater. He spotted Lena Mae Riggi one day while walking the serving line at his new base, and he was smitten.

“At first it was just a look between us,” Basilone is quoted in “Hero of the Pacific” by the biographer James Brady. “There was nothing on it. No wink or smile like we knew something special between us. It was just her looking at me from a distance taking stock of me and me looking back at her.”

 

Riggi was a Marine sergeant too but a reservist, so military rules against fraternization did not apply. Basilone, familiar to everyone on base for his valor at Guadalcanal, was intrigued with the nonchalant girl who was less than spellbound by talk of the Medal of Honor recipient.

“Sgt. Riggi waited for the gossips to tire themselves out, looked at them and said, ‘So what?'” Brady quoted Basilone again. “She was the girl for me.”

The couple married a few months later at St. Mary’s Star of the Sea Church in Oceanside. They honeymooned outside Portland, Ore., before Basilone returned to war, this time to the South Pacific island of Iwo Jima.

Basilone and Sgt Lena Mae Riggi

Within hours of landing at Red Beach II in February 1945, Basilone’s unit was pinned down by Japanese soldiers attacking from inside fortified blockhouses.

He single-handedly positioned himself atop one of the bunkers and attacked with hand grenades and other demolitions. The threat was neutralized. Basilone then made his way to a nearby airfield where an American tank was trapped under a barrage of mortar fire and artillery.

He was able to guide the vehicle through an enemy minefield to safety but was struck by shrapnel and killed in action. He was 28 years old.

Basilone received the Navy Cross — the nation’s second-highest medal for combat valor — and a Purple Heart posthumously.

The Navy named one of its ships after Basilone; his widow christened the destroyer in December 1945.

City fathers in Raritan, N.J., erected a statue of their hometown hero in 1948. To this day, the borough holds a parade in his honor each September.

Business owners in San Diego’s Little Italy neighborhood dedicated Piazza Basilone in 2003, a public square that memorializes Basilone in a sculpted bust and honors other Italian-Americans who gave their lives defending the United States.

Two years later, on the 230th anniversary of the founding, the U.S. Postal Service released a series of Distinguished Marines commemorative postage stamps, including an image of Basilone with the insignia of the 5th Marine Division.

Today, a stretch of Interstate 5 in north San Diego County is known as the “Gunnery Sergeant John Basilone Memorial Highway.”

Nearby, Basilone Road winds from the freeway south of San Clemente to the north entrance of Camp Pendleton. Young recruits at boot camp are still told stories of the gunnery sergeant’s exploits.

“Basilone had a reputation as a Marine’s Marine,” said Keith Huxen, senior director of history and research at the National WWII Museum in New Orleans. “He lives large in popular memory.”

After the Battle of Guadalcanal, “He was offered the opportunity to stay in the U.S. and become an officer, but he turned all this down,” Huxen said. “He said he was just a fighting Marine and wanted to go back to his men and lead them. And that’s what he did.”

jeff.mcdonald@sduniontribune.com

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