As we search desperately for leadership in this rapidly changing, rather daunting world, what kind of a person must we seek? What job description must we write for such a position? As one who loves his country fiercely, I believe that most of us would consider a true patriot a leader. The term “patriot” conveys not only a genuine love of country and the willingness to protect it no matter the cost, but a strong sense of integrity as well. For without integrity, power, after all, is often perverted.
This, then, is the story about a true patriot and leader. His name was John Basilone. Although he is a fallen hero, the world will soon be privy to his astounding bravery and patriotism via a ten-part series to bow under the auspices of HBO Films.
Born to Italian parents as one of ten children, John entered the world in Buffalo, New York on November 4, 1916. He grew up in Raritan, New Jersey and attended St. Bernard Parochial School. At the age of 18, in 1934, he enlisted in the United States Army and served in the Philippine Islands. During his three-year enlistment, he not only functioned as a soldier but gained expertise as a boxer, winning championships within the military. When his tour of duty ended, he returned home and secured humble but industrious employment as a truck driver in Reisterstown, Maryland.
But John’s heart belonged to his country, not to the road. In July of 1940, the 24-year-old John enlisted in the United States Marine Corp in Baltimore, Maryland. He trained at the Marine Corp base in Quantico as well as the Marine Corp Recruit Depot at Parris Island and Camp Lejeune, which was then known as New River.
Gunnery Sergeant John Basilone saw service at Guantanamo Bay before being sent to the Solomon Islands, where his mates nicknamed him “Manila John.” For the bravery he demonstrated unflaggingly with the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, 1st Marine Division at the Battle of Guadalcanal, he was awarded the Medal of Honor. Presented by Congress in toto and by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in person, the accolade that he received along with the medal tells the tale of John’s profound bravery:
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 the 24 and 25 October 1942. While the enemy was hammering away at the Marine defensive positions, Sgt. Basilone, in charge of two sections of heavy machine guns, fought valiantly to check the savage and determined assault. In the fierce frontal attack with Japanese blasting his guns with grenade and mortar fire, one of Sgt. Basilone’s sections, with its gun crews, was put out of action, leaving only two men 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 to his life and in the face of continued enemy attack, battled his way though 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.
As Medal of Honor recipients are generally not allowed to return to combat, John was then assigned to War Bond tours. After the tour, he was stationed at Camp Pendleton, where he met and married Sgt. Lena Mae Riggi. Lena, also of Italian descent, was part of the Marine Corp Women’s Reserve. In Oceanside, on July 10, 1944, John and Lena were happily wed in at St. Mary’s Church. A joyous reception followed at the Carlsbad Hotel, and the couple journeyed to Portland, to honeymoon quietly at her parents’ farm.
But John’s military days were not over. At his request, he returned to the Pacific Theater with the 27th Marine Regiment, 5th Marine Division, to assist in a key battle: the invasion of Iwo Jima. On Red Beach II, John and his platoon were pinned down by enemy gunfire. With the same fire in his belly and love of his country that had earned him the Medal of Honor, he then singlehandedly destroyed an enemy blockhouse, a coup that allowed his unit to capture a strategic airfield. Minutes later, America lost another brave son when an enemy shell claimed John’s life.
For his actions at Iwo Jima, the President of the United States awarded the Navy Cross to John posthumously. Gunnery Sergeant John Basilone was laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery. Because of his unwavering devotion to duty and his love for his country, John became the sole Marine who served in World War II to be awarded all three of our nation’s highest military honors: the Medal of Honor, the Navy Cross, and the Purple Heart.
In 2007, it was announced that Basilone’s deeds, together with Robert Leckie’s memoirs, Helmet for my Pillow and Eugene B. Sledge’s book, With the Old Breed, would serve as the basis for the successor to HBO’s Band of Brothers. This ten-part series, whose trailers promise a moving and accurate account of the war, will be called The Pacific. Hopefully, we will take the time to witness this series. As America seeks the leadership our country now needs, men like John Basilone have already set the standard.