If you drive up I5 from San Diego in a half hour or so you’ll transit the massive USMC base of Camp Pendleton. If you are lucky, looking to the left towards the ocean, you may see some Osprey‘s landing or taking off.
And you will pass a sign on the right telling you that you are on the Gunnery Sgt. John Basilone Highway.
I wonder of the many thousands of people passing that sign every day know who John Basilone was?
Basilone was a Marine’s Marine, who fought in Guadalcanal under another legendary Marine, Col. Lewis “Chesty” Puller.
For his actions at Guadalcanal, he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Just after 10 p.m. on Oct. 24, the Japanese started a heavy attack. Basilone was in charge of two gun crews. A runner reported that the two guns on his right got jammed, so Basilone grabbed a machine gun to defend the spot. He got the guns working, first firing from one and then the other as the enemy attacked from different sides throughout the night, holding back several thousand Japanese soldiers with only 15 men. He ran through enemy-infiltrated territory to get more ammunition and after the battle, 1,000 enemy dead were counted, according to the Naval History Center based in Washington D.C. Basilone was awarded the Medal of Honor and promoted to gunnery sergeant.
…When Basilone received the medal in 1942 he was said to have responded, “Only part of this medal belongs to me. Pieces of it belong to the boys who are still on Guadalcanal…”
His MOH citation is here.
He was a humble man, an Italian-American from New Jersey. When he was awarded the medal, he was ordered to go stateside to help sell war bonds, a task that he disliked.
He wanted to be back with “his boys”. When he returned to his home town on that tour, 50,000 came out to greet him.
But he eventually got the Commandant to send him back to a combat unit, and he want to Pendleton.
Before being shipped overseas, he met the love of his life in of all places, the chow line at Pendleton. While most of the women were swayed by his national reputation and his Medal of Honor, Lena Mae Riggi didn’t care about any of that, and saw through him as he was.
After returning from his successful tour in Guadalcanal, Basilone received overwhelming amounts of publicity. He was offered roles in movies, invited to parades, and even spent time with the president. While this was all very flattering, he never seemed to find comfort in smiling for the cameras. John was attracted to the simpler things in life.
At the end of the day, after the cameras stopped flashing and parades came to an end, Basilone was a traditional man. He loved his country and he loved the brothers who fought by his side. He wanted, more than anything, to have a wife and a family of his own.
“I wanted to know how it was to love somebody the way Pop loved Mama,” Basilone admitted in James Brady’s book ‘Hero of the Pacific’ . “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.”
Basilone was constantly surrounded by swarms of women who clung to his arms and posed for pictures. It would seem easy to find a wife with these circumstances, but he wanted something real. He eventually met his wife in the serving line of a chow hall on Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton.
Her name was Lena Mae Riggi, a sergeant at the time serving as a field cook in the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve. Her fellow female Marines fawned over Basilone and his heroism but she wasn’t impressed. She saw him as yet another patronizing Marine returning from war. Basilone found her independence refreshing and realized she was exactly what he was looking for.
“I nodded and she might have nodded, or not, but she wasn’t falling over herself to get to know me. I liked this girl. She was tough,” said Basilone in ‘Hero of the Pacific’.
They were married July 10, 1944 after only a few weeks courtship in a little church in Oceanside, the St. Mary’s Star of the Sea Church.
He promised Lena that he would return, and his unit was shipped out.
On February 19, 1945 John and what would would become about 70,000 Marines landed on Iwo Jima.
In thirty-six days of fighting on the island, nearly 7,000 U.S. Marines were killed. Another 20,000 were wounded. Marines captured 216 Japanese soldiers; the rest were killed in action. The island was finally declared secured on March 16, 1945. It had been one of the bloodiest battles in Marine Corps history.
About 18,000 Japanese were killed defending the island.
Twenty-seven medals of honor would be awarded for actions on Iwo Jima, more than any other battle in US history.
John would lose his life while securing Airfield Number 1 and would receive the Navy Cross for his actions.
After his request to return to the fleet was approved, Basilone was assigned to “C” Company, 1st Battalion, 27th Marine Regiment, 5th Marine Division. On February 19, 1945, the first day of the invasion of Iwo Jima, he was serving as a machine gun section leader on Red Beach II. While the Marines landed, the Japanese concentrated their fire at the incoming Marines from heavily fortified blockhouses staged throughout the island. With his unit pinned down, Basilone made his way around the side of the Japanese positions until he was directly on top of the 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 Airfield Number 1 and aided a Marine tank that was trapped in an enemy mine field under intense mortar and artillery barrages. He guided the heavy vehicle 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…
That is the John Basilone honored on I5.
Lena would never remarry, and wore John’s wedding band until the day she died.