John Basilone was born on November 4, 1916, in Buffalo, New York. Both sides of his family emigrated from Benevento, Italy. He was the sixth of 10 children, and his family moved from New York to Raritan, New Jersey, while John was still a child. Once he turned 18, he enlisted in the United States Army and served his time in the Philippines where he earned the nickname “Manila John.” While in the Army he fought as a light heavyweight prizefighter and went undefeated. After three years of active duty John was honorably discharged, returned home to New Jersey, and began to work as a truck driver.
In 1940, John enlisted in the Marine Corps. He was eventually sent to Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands as part of the 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment 1st Marine Division. For six months the Army and Marines worked side by side to hold Henderson Field, a critical airfield on Guadalcanal. Gunnery Sergeant (GySgt) Basilone was part of a group of 15 marines ordered to hold back Japanese troops – they were extremely outnumbered. According to reports from the three-day fight that became known as the Battle for Henderson Field, GySgt Basilone “fired machine guns, fixed guns, and crawled repeatedly through Japanese lines to get more ammunition. When the sun rose the next morning, the marines still held the airfield, and GySgt Basilone was credited by his men with giving them the will to fight on the most terrifying night of their lives” (Congressional Record S13335). For his heroic actions, John received the U.S. military’s highest award for valor, the Medal of Honor.
After receiving the award, he participated in a war bond tour that brought in over $1 million in pledges. During the tour he met Sgt Lena Riggi of the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve and the two married on July 10, 1944. Shortly thereafter John declined a position away from the fight and requested to return to the Pacific theater. In his words, “I’m a plain soldier, and I want to stay one.” His request was granted and shortly before Christmas he was sent back to the Pacific theater with the 1st Battalion, 27th Marines, 5th Marine Division.
On February 19, 1945, the Battle of Iwo Jima began. Sgt Basilone was among the first wave of Marines sent to the island. During the fight he destroyed firing ports, successfully guided a U.S. tank through a minefield, and destroyed a blockhouse being used by the Japanese forces. This allowed the Marines to take hold of a critical airfield early in the battle. Only a few hours after landing on Iwo Jima, Sgt Basilone was struck by machine-gun fire and died of his wounds. He was awarded both the Navy Cross and Purple Heart posthumously, making him the only enlisted marine in WWII to receive these and the Medal of Honor.