This article first appeared in our May 2001 issue as a special Memorial Day feature. We've had many requests for it over the years and are happy to be able to bring it to you again through our "Best of The BRJ" archives.
By the summer of 1942, the military juggernaut of Imperial Japan had won a vast empire for the tiny island nation. The borders of its far-flung conquests ran east from the Gilberts and Wake Island and west to the Soviet/Manchurian border through Burma and India. They reached north to the Aleutians and south to Sumatram Java, Timor, half of New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands. It was on this southern boundary that Japan now prepared for its next offensive – to meet the looming Allied counterattack.
After being checked in the east at the Battle of the Coral Sea, and then defeated at the naval battle of Midway, Japan looked south for further expansion and to stop the Allied build-up taking place in Australia under American General Douglas MacArthur.
Key to Japanese hopes of taking Port Moresby and the rest of New Guinea, was the fetid, pestilent island of Guadalcanal in the southern Solomons. Here, on the torrid jungle island, the Japanese were building an air base to accommodate the bombers that would be essential in supporting the offensive in New Guinea and cutting the crucial supply lines of troops and material from America.
The Americans also recognized the importance of Guadalcanal and the potential threat of a Japanese air base there. On August 7, exactly eight months after Pearl Harbor, the Marines of the 1st Division (the old breed), led by General Vandegrift, launched the first American amphibious assault of the Pacific campaign. They caught the Japanese defenders of Guadalcanal completely by surprise.
The Marines achieved all of their immediate objectives, including taking the nearly completed air base, which they renamed Henderson Field, in honor of a Marine pilot killed at Midway. The Japanese defenders, who were mainly construction workers building the airstrip, retreated into the jungle, leaving behind construction equipment, building materials, and stores of food. They also left their breakfast, which the Marines found still warm, on the abandoned tables of the mess hall.
Though things were going well on land, the Navy, in a controversial move, pulled out of Guadalcanal in the face of the Japanese naval threat, and were dealt a crushing blow during the Battle of Salvo Island. The Marines were left stranded without most of their heavy guns, 1,000 reinforcements, and half of their food supplies. By living on the captured Japanese stores (mainly fish, rice, and soy beans), they held on until a tenuous sea-borne supply line could be maintained, and somehow they managed to get the airfield up and running. The first airplanes of what would be known as the Cactus Airforce (for Guadalcanal’s code name) arrived to the sound of the cheering “mud” Marines, on August 20.
The Japanese were stunned initially, but they were also determined to retake Guadalcanal and Henderson Field. On the same day that planes began landing at Henderson, Japanese Colonel Kiyona Ichiki launched an assault on the defensive perimeter around the air field in a two-day engagement known as the Battle of the Tenaru River (it was actually the Ilu River). The Japanese however, greatly underestimated the American strength on Guadalcanal. Ichiki’s 800-man force was annihilated. Colonel Ichiki himself, in a futile last stand, burned the unit’s colors and committed harakari.
On the night of September 12 through the morning of the 14th, the Japanese attacked the Henderson Field defensive perimeter again. This time, 5,600 men of the Japanese 35th Brigade attacked the Americans along a low ridge known afterward as “Bloody Ridge.” Here, a small battalion of Marine Raiders, led by Colonel Merritt Edson (who received the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions), tenaciously held back the Japanese attack, inflicting 1,200 casualties on the enemy. Finally, the Japanese decided that only a large force could dislodge the stubborn Marines. During September and October, they shipped another 20,000 soldiers to the small, festering island of Guadalcanal for the final assault.
A Marine’s Marine
The Marines were also receiving reinforcements on Guadalcanal, including Lt. Colonel Lewis “Chesty” Puller’s 1st Battalion, 7th Marines. Among these Marines was Sergeant “Manila” John Basilone, a section leader in a weapons company, from Raritan, New Jersey. A big, swaggering Marine with a devilish smile, John Basilone would find the adventure he had long been seeking on Guadalcanal. He would also be the first enlisted Marine in World War II to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Basilone was a big, black-haired, handsome kid with an infectious smile and a “twinkle” in his dark eyes. The son of an Italian immigrant and an American-born mother, John’s adventurous, fun-loving nature made him stand out from his nine brothers and sisters. Always joking and laughing, John’s high spirit and talkativeness often exasperated the nuns at St. Bernard’s Parochial School in Raritan, but his charm and winning smile always kept him out of trouble.
John was restless for adventure, and it was clear no job was going to hold him in New Jersey. In 1934, just before his 18th birthday, he told his mother, “I’ll find my career in the Army,” and he convinced her to sign his enlistment papers.
Basilone had an aptitude for the military, especially machine guns. He could fire them with deadly precision and fieldstrip and reassemble them blindfolded. He spent four years in the Army, including two years with the US 31st Infantry in the Philippines. Besides being a crack soldier, John was also a champion Golden Gloves boxer. This reputation for toughness, combined with his outgoing, good nature, and legendary storytelling, made him a local celebrity on Dewey Avenue, earning him the nickname “Manila” John.
When Basilone returned home to Raritan, his mother hoped he would finally settle down and start a family. But “Manila” John was still restless. His job driving a truck for Calco Chemical Company in Bound Brook soon had him dreaming of adventure and longing for his old military life. In 1940, with the dark shadow of war creeping towards America, John told his mother, “the Army’s not tough enough for me,” and he joined the United States Marine Corps.
Basilone was assigned to a weapons company and was soon back with his old love – machine guns. He was a rugged, aggressive Marine but he looked after the men in his section and showed a natural ability to lead and inspire; he was a Marine’s Marine.
Marine, You Die Tonight
On the night of October 24, the 600 men of the Chesty Puller’s 1st Battalion stared across the mowed-down fields of Kunai grass, waiting for the Japanese onslaught they knew was coming. They were spread out along a 1,000-yard front, on a low rise, known as Lunga Ridge. Crouched in muddy foxholes in a steady rain, they knew there was nothing between them and the thousands of Japanese soldiers massing to their front, but the pitch-blackness of the jungle night and a thin perimeter of barbed wire adorned with shell fragments. (The shell fragments rattled and clanged if anyone disturbed the wire, a trick learned by Chesty Puller, while fighting in the “Banana Wars” in Nicaragua.) Anchoring the line was Sgt. John Basilone, his 14 men, and four heavy, Browning water-cooled machine guns of his section, divided evenly in two foxholes.
As the Japanese of the veteran “Sandai” Division (the butchers of Nanking) began slithering across the rotting jungle floor and up the ridge, the clanging of the shell fragments on the barbed wire could be heard by the Marine line. At 9:30 pm, the telephone rang at the battalion command post; it was one of the Marine listening outposts located 1,000 yards in front of the main line. The outposts were now completely surrounded and as Colonel Puller put his ear to the receiver, a tense voice whispered from the other end, “Colonel, there are about 3,000 Japs between you and me!”
Soon, the stillness of the night and the rhythmic pitter-patter of the rain were shattered by menacing screams from the Japanese soldiers who taunted the Marines from behind the black jungle curtain: “Marine, you die tonight,” and “Blood for the emperor.” Undaunted, a Marine voice bellowed back, “to hell with your emperor, blood for Eleanor and Franklin!” This was followed by laughter and a barrage of appropriately aimed obscenities tossed from the Marine line.
Suddenly, the night exploded in a frenzied, shrieking mass of Japanese soldiers who hurled themselves at the barbed wire perimeter, flinging dynamite and grenades to clear their way. Puller roared the order to “Commence firing!” and the Marine line burst into a fiery, stabbing sheet of machine gun and rifle fire that ripped into the Japanese assault wave.
Dead Japanese soldiers quickly piled up along the perimeter wire under the devastating hail of Marine lead. But the disciplined and fearless Japanese soldiers continued charging, like a wailing fury, and used the corpses of their dead comrades to bridge the barbed wire as they over-ran the isolated Marine positions in their ferocious bid to retake Henderson Field.
John Basilone’s section was blazing away at the oncoming enemy and trying desperately to plug a gap in the wire. John was on his left flank, when one of his men rushed over and frantically reported that the right flank had been overrun. Five of the seven Marines there were dead or wounded, and both machine guns were “busted.” Instinctively, Basilone grabbed one of the machine guns from the left flank, which was red-hot from the incessant firing, and hefted it over his shoulder. Ordering two of his men to follow him, he dashed off towards his imperiled right flank. Halfway there, they ran into eight Japanese soldiers. They managed to kill all of them in a brisk firefight and got through to the isolated foxhole. Basilone immediately set up his machine gun and put it into operation. Of the two guns that were out of action one was completely destroyed, but the other was only jammed. Lying at the bottom of the foxhole in the dark, in the middle of a desperate battle, Basilone coolly stripped the gun, cleared the jam, and swung it into action. By this time, there were only two other Marines left in the foxhole with him. He put one on each of his flanks and began firing both machines gun himself. He would fire one gun, then roll over to the other to let loose a burst, and then roll back. He kept up continuous fire as the Marines on his flanks blasted away with rifles and pistols.
Throughout the battle, enemy soldiers broke through to Basilone's position. He managed to shoot them down at the last second with his .45 pistol that he kept on the ground by his side. Several times during the battle, when his men got low on ammunition, John would dash the 150 yards (now in enemy hands) back to the supply base. There, he would fling a hundred pounds of ammo belts on his back and fight his way back to his beleaguered men with nothing but his pistol, a machete, and grim determination.
All that night, without sleep, food, or water, John Basilone and the Marines of the 1st Battalion, repelled the bloody Japanese “banzai” attacks. Outlined in the eerie flickering of muzzle flashes, grenade explosions, and the ghostly green glow of Japanese flares, they cut away with their Brownings, burning out there riflings as the machine gun barrels glowed red hot from the incessant firing. When the shrieking waves broke through, the Marines clubbed them with rifles, stabbed them with their K-Bar knives, and threw them back in savage hand-to-hand combat. In the morning, some help came in the form of reinforcements from an army battalion from the 164th Regiment (scrappy North Dakota and Minnesota farm boys spoiling for a fight). The line was bolstered for another night of murderous and relentless onslaughts.
Finally, after grinding away at the Marine position for over 72 hours with over 15,000 men, the Japanese commander, General Murayama, called off the ill-fated attack and retreated back into the jungle after sacrificing 3,500 of his brave and loyal soldiers.
Death before Dishonor
After the Japanese retreated, the defenders of Lunga Ridge emerged from their foxholes like refugees from a tempest rising from their storm cellars to behold the devastation. The jungle was torn to pieces from bullets and explosions as if a tornado had touched down. The carnage from the gruesome work they had wrought on the relentless enemy was strewn in ragged heaps all around them.
In a hellish scene of war’s brutality, over 1,000 Japanese soldiers littered the narrow, smoking field, frozen in the ghastly throes of death. In front of the machine gun positions, the dead lay in bloody piles two and three deep. Along the shattered barbed wire perimeter, mangled corpses hung from the twisted coils like victims in a ghoulish slaughterhouse.
In the midst of the human wreckage, standing barefoot among the thousands of brass shell casings that carpeted the deck (one machine gunner reportedly fired over 26,000 rounds alone), was Manila John Basilone. His face was hollow with exhaustion and smeared in black soot from sweat and burnt gunpowder. A Marine who served with him recalled that “his eyes were red as fire” red and his beloved .45 was tucked in his waistband. The sleeves of his muddy shirt were rolled up to his shoulders revealing a fitting tattoo. The image was a dagger plunged into a human heart, with the words “Death Before Dishonor.”
Japan’s Doom Was Sealed
The bitter struggle for Guadalcanal would continue for several more months. The irreplaceable losses suffered by the Imperial Navy in the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal made it impossible to reinforce and supply their troops. Finally, the Japanese command reluctantly retreated from the embattled island. During the nights of February 5, 6, and 7, the Japanese evacuated General Hyakutake, who had been denied permission to lead his men on a final suicide assault, and 13,000 of his haggard, starved, malarial men from the place they called “the island of death.” Of the over 40,000 Japanese troops sent to Guadalcanal, only 23,000 came out.
The battle of Guadalcanal was a decisive victory for America and was a turning point in the war. As well as dispelling the myth of Japanese invincibility, it put Japan on the defensive in the Pacific for the rest of the war. As Japanese Admiral Tanaka stated, “There is no question that Japan’s doom was sealed with the closing struggle for Guadalcanal.”
Gunnery Sergeant Basilone
John Basilone received the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions on Guadalcanal and was promoted to Gunnery Sergeant. He accepted his medal saying that each man who died on Guadalcanal owned a piece of it. Of the battle itself, he later commented, “it was rough as hell….”
In July of 1943, John Basilone returned home to a hero’s welcome and the loving arms of his proud family. A huge parade was organized in Raritan, followed by a reception at “Cromwell Estate,” the home of heiress, Doris Duke. 20,000 people turned out to see the hero of Guadalcanal and present him with $5,000 in war bonds, purchased by the grateful citizens of Raritan and Somerset County.
Afterward, John went on a ten-state War Bond tour, making appearances, giving speeches and, as he said, being shown around like a “museum piece.”
He was offered a commission, but turned it down, proud of his new rank of Gunnery Sergeant. As a Congressional Medal of Honor winner, he could have spent the rest of the war selling war bonds or training troops. Instead, he asked for a transfer back into a combat zone, saying that he couldn’t think of the Marines marching up Dewey Avenue in Manila without “Manila” John Basilone.
John got married in July 1944 to a woman Marine Sergeant named Lena Riggi in San Diego. Two months later, he shipped out as a platoon leader with the 27th Marines of the new 5th Division.
The Black Ash and Sand of Iwo Jima
On February 19, 1945, John Basilone and his machine gun platoon hit “Red Beach 2” on the volcanic island of Iwo Jima. Iwo Jima is a tiny island of eight square miles that would prove to be hell on earth for the Marines who battled through its thick, black sand to get at the Japanese defenders who had turned the island’s labyrinth of caves and tunnels into a veritable fortress.
As Gunnery Sergeant Basilone was leading his men inland, in the face of deadly machine gun fire and screaming artillery barrages, they ran directly into a camouflaged, concrete, Japanese blockhouse concealed in a sand dune. It stopped them cold with vicious, point blank canister shot.
In the face of this maelstrom being hurled at them from the blockhouse and an intense mortar barrage that whirled around them, Basilone had his men dig in and began burrowing his way alone through the scorching black sand towards the enemy. Exposed the entire way to enemy fire, he reached a position directly on top of the blockhouse. With satchel charges and grenades, he single-handedly destroyed the fortified position and killed all of its defenders.
Standing on top of the smoking blockhouse, he turned towards his men and pulled his K-bar knife. He began waving it defiantly at the Japanese, urging his men forward and taunting the fleeing enemy troops.
As they cleared the blockhouse and began moving towards their objective, Airfield No. 1, they came across and American tank that was trapped in a minefield and being raked by enemy mortars and artillery. Again, Basilone told his men to take cover and dashed out alone into the minefield. As the ground around him shook and convulsed with explosions, he carefully picked his way through the minefield and guided the tank crew to safety.
As they continued inland, Basilone led his platoon on to their objective. They had just reached the edge of the enemy airstrip at Airfield No. 1 under a steady rain of whirring mortar fire, when an incoming round burst at John Basilone’s feet. With no time to react, the searing shrapnel from the direct hit tore into John and four other men around him.
The corpsmen were unable to save Manila John, as his vital, young life spilled out onto the torrid black ash and sand of Iwo Jima. As he lay dying from his gaping mortal wound, he still had that irrepressible twinkle in his eyes and managed to flash his unforgettable winning smile one last time, to reassure his stunned men as they came streaming by.
John Basilone would posthumously receive the Navy Cross for the bravery and leadership he demonstrated that day on Iwo Jima. He was only 28 years old.
John Basilone was one of over 400,000 Americans lost in World War II. Please pause for a moment this Memorial Day and remember the sacrifice made by young Americans who buried the flower of their youth in bloody battlefields throughout our history.
Each year in September, the John Basilone Parade, billed as the only annual parade in America honoring a war hero, is held in Raritan, NJ. The parade culminates with a ceremony at the John Basilone Memorial Statue. The Raritan Public Library also has a John Basilone Museum with digital archives that can be accessed at raritanlibrary.org
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