Today’s United States Marines have many idols. Unsurprisingly, these are often other Marines, Marines who served in wars past but distinguished themselves and exemplified what it means to call oneself a United States Marine. Few of these idols loom as large as Gunnery Sgt. John Basilone.
Basilone was born to an Italian family in Upstate New York and raised in New Jersey. He was working as a golf caddy when he decided to join the Army in 1934. It was, of course, years before the United States entered World War II. He spent three years in the Philippines, a place he would come to love.
John Basilone Came Back to the Military Service
John Basilone loved Manila so much, in fact, that after he left the Army and became a truck driver, he decided he would re-enlist to get back to Manila as fast as possible. Thinking the Marine Corps would get him there faster, he joined the Marines instead of the Army in 1940. He was sent to Guantanamo Bay instead.
After the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, the Marines went to war in the Pacific. By 1942, Basilone was sent to Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands with the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, and 1st Marine Division. John Basilone was about to make history while stacking many Japanese bodies.
The Marines on Guadalcanal found intense resistance from the Japanese defending the island. The 1/7th Marines were being hammered all along their defensive perimeter. Three thousand enemy soldiers from the Japanese Sendai Division came at the Marines with everything they could.
Then-Sgt. Basilone was in charge of two machine gun sections defending the perimeter. The enemy began blasting away at his sections using mortars and machine guns of their own until only Basilone and two of his Marines were left standing. To make matters worse, his guns had been cut off from the main American force by the Japanese assault. Things were beginning to look bleak.
With ammunition critically low, Basilone fought his way through the enemy-occupied territory to bring his machine gunners the supplies and ammunition they needed. He even brought a heavy gun of his own to bring to bear against the onslaught. As they continued to fight on for two days, Basilone repaired another gun under heavy fire and was able to use that weapon as well.
When ammunition began to run out, Basilone fought on with his sidearm and a machete. The Marines were not only able to hold the defensive line until relief arrived, they virtually annihilated the entire enemy unit. For his actions on Guadalcanal, which helped keep the critical Henderson Field in American hands, he was awarded the Medal of Honor.
But Basilone wasn’t done. After a tour raising money for war bonds back in the United States, Basilone reenlisted in the United States Marine Corps and asked to be returned to combat duty. He arrived back in the Pacific Theater, newly married and attached to 1st Battalion, 27th Marine Regiment, 5th Marine Division.
Basilone Joined the Marines in the Invasion of Iwo Jima
Basilone made it back to the front lines in time to join the Marines in the invasion of Iwo Jima, some of the bloodiest fighting of the entire war in any theater. Once more, Basilone was leading machine gun teams. But upon landing, the entire unit was pinned down by enemy machine gunners coming from blockhouses.
In a daring act of bravado under heavy fire, Basilone separated from his unit, headed toward the enemy blockhouses, and made his way on top of them. From his position atop the defenses, he used grenades and explosives to destroy the fortifications and their garrison inside, freeing his troops to advance.
The Marines then advanced toward an enemy airfield when they encountered an American tank trapped in a minefield. Under heavy Japanese small arms, mortar, and artillery fire, Basilone helped guide the tank out of the minefield and to safety. Sadly, he was killed in the effort.
Without John Basilone’s bravery, his Marines might never have advanced off the beach. For his actions under fire, he was awarded the Navy Cross, the Marines’ second-highest award. He is the only enlisted Marine to have received both the Medal of Honor and Navy Cross during World War II, so it’s little wonder why his memory is revered by Marines to this day.