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Historically Speaking

Historically Speaking: A ‘Hero of Heroes’

By Tom Morrow

No doubt, most of you have driven along Basilone Road through Camp Pendleton, or on John Basilone Memorial Freeway, a.k.a. Interstate 5 between Oceanside and Camp Pendleton, but few of today’s populace know who he was and what he did.

There were thousands of heroes from the “Greatest Generation” who fought in World War II, but few, if any, rose to the height of Gunnery Sergeant John Basillone, USMC .

If you saw the HBO miniseries, “The Pacific,” Basilone, played by actor Jon Seda, was prominently featured, In 1943, a book, “Guadalcanal Diary,” by Richard Tregaskis tells of the horrific battles waged by the Marines.

Basilone joined the Marines in 1940, and in August 1942, eight months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Basilone took part in the invasion of Guadalcanal. In October, he, and two other Marines manning two machine guns, held off approximately 3,000 Japanese soldiers until the attack ceased

John Basilone was born Nov.4, 1916, in the family home in Buffalo, N.Y., and was killed in action on Iwo Jima Feb. 19, 1945. He received the Medal of Honor for heroism above and beyond the call of duty during the Battle of Guadalcanal and the Navy Cross posthumously for extraordinary heroism during the Battle of Iwo Jima. He was the only enlisted Marine to receive both of these decorations during World War II.

Because of his Medal of Honor, the Corps and the Department of War thought Basilone could be more valuable going around the nation helping to sell much-need War Bonds. But, he hated not being with the troops. The generals felt he was too valuable for his notoriety to risk in battle. His requests for being returned to battle duty was continually refused.

PFC Nash W. Phillips, of Fayetteville, N.C., witnessed Basilone during the battle for Guadalcanal: “Basilone had a machine gun on the go for three days and nights without sleep, rest, or food. He was in a good emplacement, and causing the Japanese lots of trouble, not only firing his machine gun, but also using his pistol.”

Basilone was offered a commission, which he turned down, and was later offered an assignment as an instructor, but refused this as well. He requested again and again to return to the war. Finally, the request was approved. While stationed at Camp Pendleton before returning to the Pacific theater, he met Lena Mae Riggi, who was a sergeant in the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve. They were married at St. Mary’s Star of the Sea Church in Oceanside, on July 10, 1944, with a reception at the Carlsbad Hotel.

Basilone was assigned to the 5th Marine Division. On Feb. 19, 1945, the first day of invasion of Iwo Jima, he was serving as a machine gun section leader on Red Beach II.

On Iwo that first day, with his unit pinned down, Basilone made his way around the side of Japanese positions until he was directly on top of a blockhouse. He then attacked with grenades and demolitions, single-handedly destroying the entire strong point and its defending garrison. He then fought his way toward an airfield and aided a Marine tank trapped in an enemy mine field under intense mortar and artillery barrages. Basilone guided the tank over the hazardous terrain to safety, despite heavy weapons fire from the Japanese. As he moved along the edge of the airfield, he was killed by Japanese mortar shrapnel. His actions helped Marines penetrate the Japanese defense and get off the landing beach during the critical early stages of the invasion.

Those exploits of Basilone were depicted in the film, “Sands of Iwo Jima,” starring John Wayne, who plays a role loosely based on the gunnery sergeant. (The film was shot on Camp Pendleton).

In addition to the nation’s highest recognition, the Congressional Medal of Honor for the Guadalcanal campaign, and the Navy’s highest honor, the Navy Cross for his life-ending action on Iwa Jima, GSgt. Basilone also was awarded three (3) Bronze Stars as well as a Purple Heart.

Since World War II, Basilone has received many other honors including being the namesake for streets, highways, military locations, and two U.S. Navy destroyers. During his lifetime, Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Victor Mature, who was a close friend from the national bond tour, would always salute driving past Camp Pendleton’s “Basilone Road.”

GSgt John Basilone was interred in Arlington National Cemetery. His widow, Lena M. Basilone, died June 11, 1999, at the age of 86. She never remarried and was buried still wearing her wedding ring.

So, the next time you’re driving north along I-5 from Oceanside and San Clemente, you might think of John Basilone — maybe even salute.

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