John Basilone biography

john-basilone-biographyA color photo of Marine Gunnery Sergeant
"Manila" John Basilone wearing his
Medal of Honor. @ John Basilone Biography

JOHN BASILONE BIOGRAPHY: Few soldiers deserve the title of “hero” more than John Basilone.
But few soldiers have ever held off thousands of enemy troops with just a couple of buddies and machine guns. And few soldiers have shown such valor in the field and played a pivotal role in two epic battles.
Few soldiers have been so decorated. John Basilone received the Medal of Honor, the Navy Cross and Purple Heart.

Lets take a look at the life of the gunnery sergeant who, despite his modesty, was a remarkable soldier and one of America’s true heroes of World War 2.


Growing up


Born: November 4, 1916 in Buffalo, New York
Best rank: United States Marine Gunnery Sergeant
Honors: Medal of Honor, Navy Cross, Purple Heart
Died: Killed in action on Iwo Jima, February 19, 1945

John was born into a big Italian family and grew up in Raritan, a small town in New Jersey.  He was the sixth of 10 children born to Dora and Salvatore Basilone, who had come over from Naples in 1903.
After finishing Middle School John chose not to continue his education and started working as a golf caddy.  But soon he grew tired of this and joined the army in search of adventure. 
John's three years of army service included a stretch in the Philippines where he showed his natural brawniness, becoming a champion boxer.  John later looked back so fondly on his time in the Philippines that his buddies nicknamed him “Manila John”.

Going back: A Basilone story

Hereís a YouTube video of part of a documentary about John Basilone and his fellow men-at-arms, apparently being made by Johnís niece, Diane Hawkins. It looks great, so we can look forward to seeing a longer version.

Home and away

John became a truck driver after returning to the States. He grew restless fast. World War 2 had broken out. John wanted to get back to the Philippines and figured the quickest way was by joining the Marines.  After enlisting, John found out he wasn't to return to Asia just yet and was posted to Guantánamo Bay in Cuba.

Finally in 1942 John got the news he’d no doubt been praying for: he was going for the Pacific to fight the Japanese. The name John Basilone was soon to become forever linked with his destination – a pindrop slither of South Pacific paradise soon to become a living hell – Guadalcanal.


The US and her Pacific allies Australia and New Zealand wanted to kick the Japanese off  Guadalcanal to stop the threat to South Pacific supply lines.  It was to be the first major Allied offensive against the Empire of Japan, which had been slowing spreading out across the Eastern Hemisphere like the red-and-white starburst on its war banner.

The US-led forces landed on Guadalcanal on August 7, 1942, surprising the Japanese and seizing an airstrip called Henderson Field.  But the Japanese clung on tenaciously and fought bloody battles against the Allies before finally relinquishing the island in February 1943.

Brawn and bravery

guadalcanal-world-war-2The Japanese transport Kinugawa Maru beached on
Guadalcanal in November 1943. The devastation
on the island is palpable. @ John Basilone Biography

It was in one of those fierce counterattacks on October 24 that John Basilone stepped up to the mark.  A regiment of 3000 Japanese soldiers from the so-called “Courageous” Sendai Division descended on John’s unit defending the airstrip. 

The attackers came in from the front lodging grenades, machine gun shells and mortar fire.
John led the defense with two machine gun sections of about 15 men. They fought almost without a break for the next two days. 
John's comrades were cut down around him until he was left with only two other Marines fighting off wave after wave.  He repaired a machine gun, helped move another one into position and maintained continual fire until backup arrived.  

John took enemy fire streaking through the jungle to pick up more machine gun belts to keep his comrades supplied.  By the time the next dawn broke he was fighting with just a machete and a .45 pistol.  The Japanese regiment was laid to waste. About 3,000 Japanese Banzai soldiers had been killed in the attack and the airfield had been successfully defended.
America had itsef a new hero.

Back in the states

After the battle the marines were posted to Melbourne, Australia, while the planned out a strategy to defeat the Japanese.  It was there that John received the vaunted Medal of Honor for his actions on Guadalcanal.

John returned stateside to do a War Bond Tour, helping to raise funds for the war effort.  John became a celebrity, a living embodiment of bravery and the American fighting spirit.  There were parades and parties in his name. From movie stars to city mayors, everybody wanted to meet the marine who proved that the Japanese could be broken.

But John preferred standing behind a machine gun than in front of the cameras. 
He desperately wanted to be a part of the force that retook Manila. John tried to get himself sent back into the war but the top brass said he was needed more at home.  John turned down a commission as an officer and then an assignment as an instructor before his superiors finally relented.  But before he could once more leave the States, John was to loose his heart.

Love and marriage

john-and-lena-basiloneJohn Basilone and Lena Riggi were married
at St. Mary's Star of the Sea Church in Oceanside,
on July 10, 1944. @ John Basilone Biography

They met at Camp Pendleton in California, where John was training before heading out into the Pacific. Her name was Lena Mae Riggi and she was a Sergeant in the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve. 

They fell in love and were married within six months, honeymooning on Lena’s parents’ onion farm in Portland, Oregon.

I wanted to know how it was to love somebody the way Pop loved Mama.  At least I wanted a few days, or weeks if I could get it, to know what it was like to be married.  I wanted to be able to say 'I love you' a few times and mean it ... Lena agreed to marry me." 
- James Brady, quoting Basilone in Hero of the Pacific

Ready for return

Despite the marriage, John always kept a part of himself on duty.  He was responsible for training other men how to use a machine gun. But John's contribution went far beyond that. John built camaraderie between the men and taught them the meaning of esprit de corps.  One of his recruits, William Douglas Lansford, said John gave them not only confidence, but pride. “We were ‘Basilone’s Boys’ and were envied throughout the division,” Lansford said.

“He never barked like the other gunnery sergeants but ruled like a wiser, older brother looking after his younger siblings, with humor and a style all his own. Under the hot California sun, with our faces stuck in the dust of Camp Pendleton, he could pick up a draggy machine gun drill with ‘Awright, ya goldbricks. Ya cut the time on settin’ them guns up or don't expect no liberty come Friday!’ And we did it because we knew he was the best machine gunner in the Corps and we wanted to be like him.”
- William Douglas Lansford

John’s unit was ordered back to the Pacific in late 1944. Though John could have stayed in California with his new wife he insisted on going to war with his men.
“I’m staying with my boys. They need me,” he said, according to Lansford.
Unfortunately for John, his next battle was to be his last.

Iwo Jima

Iwo Jima was a tiny spec of land between the US-controlled island of Guam and the Japanese home islands.  Winning the island and its valuable airbase, would put an end to Japanese air attacks in the area and pave the way for the eventual invasion of the Japanese mainland.  
The fighting on Iwo Jima was some of the fiercest of the Pacific campaign. The Japanese fought hard and to the last man – of 22,000 on the island at the start of the battle, only 218 were captured. The rest perished.

Basilone's last stand

john-basilone-heroJohn messing around with fellow Marines.
@ John Basilone Biography

John came ashore with the first wave of Maries on the first day of the Battle of Iwo Jimo, February 19, 1945 about 9.30am.  The Japanese held their fire at first, waiting the beach to fill up with soldiers before letting loose with machine guns from hidden blockhouses. 

John’s unit was pinned down and being taken apart.  John knew he had to take action or everyone would be annihilated.  He worked his way around the Japanese and got directly on top of one of the blockhouses, then proceeded to single-handedly destroy it with grenades and demolitions.

John then worked his way up the battle-torn beach towards the airfield.  He saw an American tank taking fire and trapped in a minefield.  John guided it to safety while taking heavy fire.
Lansford, who was also at the battle, said “It seemed nothing could touch him”.
But something did.  John was moving along the edge of the airfield with three other marines when they were hit by mortar shrapnel, killing them all.
John’s actions helped the Marines get off the beach in the early stages of the invasion, which would take over a month to complete.
For his actions at Iwo Jima, John Basilone won the Navy Cross, the US Navy’s highest decoration for valor.

Lena Basilone (1916 – 1999)

John’s widow, Lena was a Marine and a hero in her own right.  She gave the Basilone family a $10,000 life insurance check as well as her husband’s Medal of Honor after he died.  After the war Lena spent her life helping others, volunteering at the Women’s Marine Association and the American Veteran's Auxiliary.

She was a very determined lady, loved by many…when she saw a need, she would go about filing it.”
Barbara Garner, a longtime friend and roommate of Lena’s, in an obituary to Lena Basilone. 

The Veteran’s Administration offered to give Lena a plot in Arlington Cemetery, so she could be buried alongside John after she died, but she refused, saying she “didn’t want to cause trouble for anyone”.  
Lena never remarried and when she died she was still wearing the ring John had given her, 54 years earlier.  She was buried in Riverside, California.

Honors, citations and depitctions

uss-basiloneThe USS Basilone at sea.
@ John Basilone Biography

In late 1945 John posthumously received a singular honor: a destroyer was named after him.  The Gearing-class USS Basilone was launched in Orange, Texas on December 21, 1945.  John’s widow, Lena, was there to sponsor the ship. 
John’s memory has lived on in other ways: streets, parks, a stretch of highway, and a pizzeria have been named after him. 
John’s story was depicted in the 2010 HBO mini-series “The Pacific”.

Medal of Honor citation

John's Medal of Honor citation, signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, reads:

The President of the United States in the name of The Congress takes pride in presenting the MEDAL OF HONOR to
for service as set forth in the following CITATION:

For extraordinary heroism and conspicuous gallantry in action against enemy Japanese forces, above and beyond the call of duty, while serving with the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, 1st Marine Division in the Lunga Area. Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands, on 24 and 25 October 1942.
While the enemy was hammering at the Marines' defensive positions, Sgt. Basilone, in charge of 2 sections of heavy machine guns, fought valiantly to check the savage and determined assault.
In a fierce frontal attack with the Japanese blasting his guns with grenades and mortar fire, one of Sgt. Basilone's sections, with its guncrews, was put out of action, leaving only 2 men able to carry on. Moving an extra gun into position, he placed it in action, then, under continual fire, repaired another and personally manned it, gallantly holding his line until replacements arrived.
A little later, with ammunition critically low and the supply lines cut off, Sgt. Basilone, at great risk of his life and in the face of continued enemy attack, battled his way through hostile lines with urgently needed shells for his gunners, thereby contributing in large measure to the virtual annihilation of a Japanese regiment.
His great personal valor and courageous initiative were in keeping with the highest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service.

Navy Cross citation

The President of the United States takes pride in presenting the NAVY CROSS posthumously to GUNNERY SERGEANT JOHN BASILONE, UNITED STATES MARINE CORPS
for service as set forth in the following CITATION:

For extraordinary heroism while serving as a Leader of a Machine-Gun Section, Company C, 1st Battalion, 27th Marines, 5th Marine Division, in action against enemy Japanese forces on Iwo Jima in the Volcano Islands, 19 February 1945.
Shrewdly gauging the tactical situation shortly after landing when his company's advance was held up by the concentrated fire of a heavily fortified Japanese blockhouse, Gunnery Sergeant Basilone boldly defied the smashing bombardment of heavy caliber fire to work his way around the flank and up to a position directly on top of the blockhouse and then, attacking with grenades and demolitions, single handedly destroyed the entire hostile strong point and its defending garrison.
Consistently daring and aggressive as he fought his way over the battle-torn beach and up the sloping, gun-studded terraces toward Airfield Number 1, he repeatedly exposed himself to the blasting fury of exploding shells and later in the day coolly proceeded to the aid of a friendly tank which had been trapped in an enemy mine field under intense mortar and artillery barrages, skillfully guiding the heavy vehicle over the hazardous terrain to safety, despite the overwhelming volume of hostile fire.
In the forefront of the assault at all times, he pushed forward with dauntless courage and iron determination until, moving upon the edge of the airfield, he fell, instantly killed by a bursting mortar shell. Stouthearted and indomitable, Gunnery Sergeant Basilone, by his intrepid initiative, outstanding skill, and valiant spirit of self-sacrifice in the face of the fanatic opposition, contributed materially to the advance of his company during the early critical period of the assault, and his unwavering devotion to duty throughout the bitter conflict was an inspiration to his comrades and reflects the highest credit upon Gunnery Sergeant Basilone and the United States Naval Service.
He gallantly gave his life in the service of his country.
For the President,
Secretary of the Navy

The page John Basilone Biography was written by S. Anderson, 2011. Last updated 2011.

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References for John Basilone Biography

Hero of the Pacific: The Life of Marine Legend John Basilone, James Brady, 2010 (Guadalcanal Campaign) (Quotes from William Douglas Lansford).

Photo sources for John Basilone Biography

• John Basilone in color

• Kinugawa Maru beached US Navy photograph, National Archives

• John and Lena's wedding

• John messing around

• USS Basione

Unless otherwise stated, all photos used on the page John Basilone Biography are, to our knowledge, in the public domain. If you think otherwise, please let us know.