The Life and Death of "Manila John"
By William Douglas Lansford
If my only purpose were to resurrect a hero, to glorify him for posterity,
I would start by saying that John Basilone had a sense of destiny.
But this would be silly. He had no feeling of destiny. He was all
here and now. No lofty speeches ever came from him to match his deeds,
because he spoke directly in the "dem's" and "dose's" of a grade-school education romped through in New Jersey. He was a
good boy, became a better man and eventually achieved greatness.
I first met Basilone after the balance of our war in the Pacific had
shifted. A victorious Marine Corps (Guadalcanal, New Georgia, Bougainville,
Tarawa) was adjusting to offensive tactics, which meant weapons like
the .30-caliber machine gun. In 1944, after two years overseas with
Carlson's Raiders, I was assigned to the newly formed Fifth Marine
Division at Camp Pendleton, Calif., and it was there I learned that “Manila John” Basilone, Medal of Honor winner, would be
By then, Basilone was already a legend to all Americans. It’s
a matter of record that a surprised first sergeant logged me in three
days under my 30-day furlough, and it was worth every day. I suppose
I’d formed some mental image of Basilone. I can’t clearly
recall now, but there was a sense of brute strength and determination
that went with that famous name. Certainly his citation suggested
this. Everyone in America knew the story of that fantastic night on
It had begun on Edson’s Ridge in the final hours of daylight
on 24 Oct. 1942. The daily rain had ended, and having just completed
a check of his guns, Basilone sat in his foxhole kicking off his shoes
and socks because his feet were soaked and itched like hell. Suddenly
the field phone hissed. Someone at battalion was blowing in the mouthpiece
to attract attention. Basilone picked it up.
”Basilone? There’s a large Jap force massing in front
of your position. They outnumber you about a hundred to one. You’ve
got to hold until we can reinforce.”
”Sure,” said Basilone.
As he hung up, the men around him raised their heads to catch the
drift. Basilone slapped one on the helmet. “See ya in the funnies,” he said, and without putting his shoes back on, he slipped out through
the mud to pass the word.
The night was eerily quiet as Basilone rechecked his machine-gun
section. All was shipshape. “Basilone’s boys” knew
how to use their ponchos. The trick wasn’t to stay comfortable,
but to stay alive. The gunners were soaked, but their guns and ammo
were dry. On the Canal an M1917A1 heavy machine gun with a cyclic
rate of 400 to 600 rounds per minute was a boy’s best friend.
It was Mom and Dad, and it beat the girl next door by a country mile,
even if she baked the best apple pie in Raritan, N.J.
Behind Edson’s Ridge lay Henderson Field, about which the enemy
had grown very touchy. For months, ever since the Yanks had pinned
an “Under New Management” sign on it, the Japanese had
kept livening up nights around the area. The night of the 24th promised
to be even livelier than usual.
As darkness covered the jungle like a blanket, BasiloneÕs
gunners squatted in their muddy holes. Civilians influenced by the
media invariably pictured the “steaming jungles of Guadalcanal,” but many who served there still recall the cold discomfort of their
dungarees plastered to their bodies by chilly rain and the icy metal
of their weapons as they lay in slimy mud waiting for the enemy to
Japanese tactics weren’t varied, but they were spooky as hell.
They’d start by tooting horns and whistles and shouting parroted
threats like “Marine, you die!” Next they’d lay
down a pattern of mortar and artillery fire, and when that lifted,
you knew they were ready to banzai.
Basilone recalled that night for me later: ponchos off, machine-gun
water hoses checked and tightened, new rounds chambered. And as the
fires lifted, the Japanese broke cover, charging uphill in a full-scale
”Awright,” Basilone yelled. “Give it to 'em!”
Leatherneck machine guns thundered along the line, lighting their
muzzles with tongues of fire. In the darkness below, the muzzle-blasts
of Hotchkiss and Nambus replied, while from the slopes and ravines
Arasakis flashed like fireflies.
After what seemed like hours of savage fighting, a runner stumbled
in with bad news: Basilone’s extreme flank was crumbling. Both
guns were jammed. Only two riflemen remained alive. Yelling for his
gunners to “keep shooting!” Basilone wrapped several belts
of ammo about his neck and shoulders, grabbed a reserve machine gun
“You other guys, come with me!”
Trotting down a trail dodging small-arms fire and grenade blasts,
Basilone ran into an enemy patrol. Almost without pause, he chopped
them down and kept going. Reaching the flank, Basilone set up his
gun and began a one-man fight that would last all night. Covered by
his team, he repaired his guns under repeated attacks. When the Japanese
broke through he used his pistol. Firing one machine gun, Basilone
would stop a charge, roll over to the next gun and stop another. When
the water keeping the guns cool ran out, Basilone and his men filled
the gun jackets with urine.
By midnight he was again down to only two riflemen, but he kept firing
until 0330 when his ammo ran out.
“You guys hold here!” he yelled.
Shoeless and shirtless, Basilone drew his pistol and started up the
Japanese-infiltrated ridge to his battalion (1st Bn, Seventh Marine
Regiment, 1stMarDiv) command post. Pelted by rain, covered with mud
and amid mortar and small-arms fire, he returned carrying nearly 100
pounds of ammo.
“That lousy last 100 yards!” he used to say. “I
thought it would never end!”
Rejoining his men, Basilone found that reinforcements had arrived.
But the over-used guns had fired so long that the barrels were burning
“Keep firing!” Basilone ordered as the Japanese launched
a last, desperate attack.
The machine guns glowed cherry-hot, but he kept firing, punching holes
in the charging ranks. Finally it was too much for the Japanese.
As a faint light filled the slope of Edson’s Ridge, evidence
of the incredible battle began to appear. The field was piled with
enemy dead and discarded equipment. Around Basilone’s guns lay
38 bodies, killed point-blank. It was later estimated that some 3,000
Japanese had thrown themselves at the Marine defenses, trying to plow
their way into Henderson Field. Not since the Edson’s Raiders’ battle of 12-13 Sept. 1942 on that very same ridge had anything like
it been seen. A Japanese regiment had been all but annihilated.
The following June, Mr. and Mrs. Salvatore Basilone of Raritan received
one of those rare letters from their Marine son. It was characteristically
“Dear Mom, I am very happy, for the other day I received the
The Basilones, from their son’s incidental comments, weren’t
likely to grasp the significance of his award. Above and beyond its
merit, the fact was that Staff Sergeant John Basilone, USMC had received
the nation’s highest decoration. He was what America needed:
a live hero from the ranks of those Spartan leathernecks still fighting
Newspapers waxed poetic. Sob sisters described John as “tall,
dark and very handsome.” His smile and “pixie” quality
charmed mothers. As for the men, all they had to do was read his citation
to know he wasn’t just “handsome,” like some spineless
movie star. Not since Charles Augustus Lindbergh had there been such
a perfect hero. He couldn’t have been better had he been born
in a log cabin.
Actually, John Basilone was born in a frame house in Buffalo, N.Y.,
but the family soon relocated to Raritan, N.J. Mr. Basilone had come
from Italy to be a tailor and raise an American family. Meanwhile,
Mrs. Basilone, a motherly Catholic lady, had not neglected the spiritual
upbringing of her children. John and his nine brothers and sisters
were taught to love God, work hard and honor their country.
Many of Raritan’s residents (at that time, population: 5,000)
remembered the prankish, happy little kid who made friends with everyone.
John’s mother wanted him to go to high school, but at 15 he
quit to drive a truck and caddy at the Raritan Golf Club. At 18, he
joined the Army. It was 1934, and after recruit training he was posted
to the Philippines, where he won a light-heavyweight, interservice
boxing championship, fell in love with Manila and got himself a nickname.
After three years, Sergeant Basilone was discharged from the Army.
He returned home to work in a chemical plant. But by 1940 he was too
restless to wait for the war he saw coming. He joined the Marines
as a private. Johnny was smart, full of confident leadership and knew
his weapons. But the big Browning machine gun, .30-cal., Model 1917A1
that splendid, water-cooled, defensive gun was his meat. By the time
the Japanese hit Pearl Harbor, Platoon Sergeant Basilone and his machine-gun
section were ready.
Then came Guadalcanal, 24 Oct. 1942, and “The Medal.”
Basilone returned to Raritan amid all the pomp and glory a hero-hungry
nation could provide. Major Burns W. Lee recalled how, as a young
lieutenant, he was assigned to escort the reluctant Basilone on a
war bond tour. “John didn’t like it,” he said, chuckling.
“ I asked if he owned a set of dress blues and he said, ‘What
d’ya think I am, Lieutenant? A Navy Yard Marine?’“
The Basilone home was decked out with flags, the streets with streamers
declaring: “Welcome Sgt J. Basilone!” It was ‘Basilone
Day’ and John’s picture hung beside General Douglas MacArthur’s.
More than 30,000 people crowded the streets for a glimpse of their
hero. When they had finished cheering, the government presented him
with a $5,000 war bond, and he sold them a staggering $1,400,000 in
pledges for the Third War Loan Drive.
Movie queens buzzed him, politicians vied to shake his hand, and
people rushed him, wanting to touch the medal around his neck. There
was no denying it: Sgt Basilone, USMC was the biggest draw in the
war bond business.
There was only one cloud in the Treasury Department’s sky:
Basilone was very unhappy. Maj Lee recalled: “John said, ‘I’m
becoming a museum piece. What if some Marines should land on Dewey
Boulevard and Manila John ain’t with them?’ “
He was offered a commission. TIME magazine quoted his reply: “I’m
a plain soldier. I want to stay one.” He was sick of being “glamorous.”
He kept asking for line duty. Headquarters’ idea of “line
duty” was to transfer Basilone to the Washington, D.C., Navy
Yard, where he continued to chafe.
Finally, he put it bluntly to his new commanding officer: “Sir,
I’m a soldier. I belong with the fleet.” Luckily, Basilone
had found a sympathetic ear. By the next day he was packing his seabag.
According to Maj Walter Bandyk, USMC (Ret): “I was personnel
sergeant major, 27th Marines, 5thMarDiv, when John reported for duty.
Recognizing his Medal of Honor ribbon, I ushered him to the adjutant’s
office. I informed Captain Fultz that John had requested the machine-gun
company. The adjutant said, “Give him anything he wants.” John was constantly receiving orders from Headquarters, U.S. Marine
Corps, Washington, D.C., to appear at fund drives to sell U.S. bonds.
He came to my office to ask if I would write headquarters for authority
to reject the requests so he could train with his company preparing
for combat. He was losing too much time away from his troops. I wrote
the request, and John received permission to accept or decline. He
never again left his company.”
For better or worse, Gunnery Sergeant John Basilone was a member
of 1st Bn, 27th Marines, 5thMarDiv, the last post he would ever hold.
And it was then that our parallel paths crossed.
In 1944, Camp Pendleton could boast of numerous well-stocked slop
chutes. It was in one of these that I noticed a jug-eared young gunny
who wore his cap sideways, drank beer with the gusto of a millionaire
guzzling champagne and laughed so infectiously that one couldn’t
help liking him on sight. There was no cascade of decorations on his
chest. He looked like no colossus who could dash about loaded with
ammo belts, spitting death from machine guns cradled in his Òbrawny
The next day I saw him in front of the barracks, holding machine-gun
drill. His cap was on straight, and he greeted me with the ease of
an old friend: ”You’re the new corporal, eh? It’s
time to secure the butts. Wanna make a
run to the slop chute?” I admitted the notion had crossed my
mind. Basilone’s service record book described him as pretty
average: “ruddy, medium build, height: 5 feet 8 1/2 inches,
weight: 158 pounds,” which certainly matched the guy I’d
just met. Yet I had no doubt that this happy warrior was the “muscular
giant” gloriously depicted in oils on a recent cover of Collier’s
magazine. The tiny blue ribbon spangled with white stars hung above
the ribbons for his Presidential Unit Citation, American Defense Service
Medal and Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal.
Our meeting launched a friendship I will always value. Roy Elsner
of Odessa, Texas, had a different take on Basilone: “I was a
headquarters cook, and every day I’d see Basilone drilling you
guys next to the barracks, but I never dared talk to John. I was only
a private, and he was a big hero.”
Basilone did more than drill us. He taught our recruits the meaning
of esprit de corps, and in those of us who had fought, he rekindled
a desire to fight again. His simplicity, his cheerfulness, his grasp
of human nature the charm and easy grace with which he carried his
honors gave us not only confidence, but pride. We were “Basilone’s
boys” and envied for it.
Despite John’s reluctance to play the hero, he’d picked
up some useful lessons. When one of his boys was tossed in the brig,
or lodged in the San Diego calaboose, Basilone would pick up a phone:
“This is Gunnery Sergeant John Basilone,” he’d announce.
“I understand ya got one of my kids. I’d appreciate your
turnin’ him loose. I got a special mission for him.” No
general, provost marshal or police chief could resist the old Basilone
charm or The Medal.
Early that summer of 1944 it suddenly ended. We’d been alerted.
Between 22 July and 12 Aug., the division began leaving San Diego
by regiments for Hawaii. Camp Tarawa a pile of tents in the middle
of the Parker Ranch in Kamuela had been built to house a shattered
2dMarDiv returning from a bloody speck of coral (Tarawa) it had bought
with thousands of lives and torn bodies. That should have signaled
our own fate, but we were veterans or boys eager to be veterans and
the lessons of Tarawa held no terrors, for we Marines worshipped our
traditions. Camp Tarawa would be our staging area, and we knew it.
Some time in December 1944 word came that we had been attached to
V Amphibious Corps and would soon see action. We’d long expected
that. Shortly after, we began practicing landings on “Island
X, and it was clear that weekends in Hilo guzzling 5-Island Rum and
chasing the girls of Kamuela were things of the past.
Some time back, I’d been promoted to sergeant and transferred
to regimental headquarters as an intelligence noncommissioned officer,
so I was no longer one of Basilone’s boys and I missed that.
I visited Basilone in January 1945, only days before we were to ship
out. I wanted to say goodbye to him and the guys, for we wouldn’t
be sailing together.
As I approached their tent area I could see the whole goofy crew
engaged in giving each other haircuts with the company tools. John,
his arms covered with hair, stood back surveying a perfectly grotesque
job he’d just performed on another guy. ”Not bad,”
he said. “Mohawk style oughta scare hell outta some poor Jap.”
”It scares me,” I said, pulling off Basilone’s famous
The handsome John was clipped bald as a brass ball. He grinned. “What
d’ya think?” Then, growing serious, “It’ll
be cleaner. There’s no barbershops on Iwo Jima.”
The words echoed in my ears long after I’d left him. Iwo Jima.
So that was ”Island X.” Then I couldn’t help thinking:
ten days before leaving Pendleton, John had married Sgt Lena Riggi,
a pretty female Marine. So why wasn’t he back in Pendleton?
His answer had always been, “I’m staying with my boys.
They need me.” Perhaps it was the only answer that mattered.
I wanted to stay longer, but I felt like an intruder.
“Charlie” Co was a different world, and I was no longer
of it. They were assault troops. They could laugh and joke knowing
theirs was a horrendous mission that they would somehow accomplish
with grace and courage. I envied their humor, their fatalism and their
easy acceptance of an uneasy future. What they had to do they would
Since John and I would land in different waves, I wanted to wish
him luck, but luck’s not a word one uses. In such moments, banality’s
the only refuge, so I said something banal and went back to my own
area, feeling sad and wondering where Iwo Jima was.
On the morning of 19 Feb. 1945, we hit Red Beach on Iwo and started
climbing its black sides under a storm of enemy mortars and artillery.
Basilone had landed one wave earlier and apparently moved in. He didn’t
know how to stand still. “Let’s go in and set up them
guns for firing!” a correspondent later quoted him. Whose guns
the correspondent was talking about is hard to imagine.
From the moment we landed it was total confusion: platoons and companies
mixed up and in the wrong places; men and equipment sinking into the
black sand while officers and NCOs drifted about, looking for their
men. All this as Lieutenant General Tadamichi Kuribayashi’s
presighted weapons tore our battalions to pieces.
In the midst of the hellish noise and confusion, two Marines were
seen moving among the stalled troops shouting, cursing and moving
them out. One was Colonel Louis C. Plain, the regimental executive
officer of 27th Marines, who would soon be wounded and evacuated;
the other was John Basilone.
Having cleared a path for the troops on the beach, Basilone gathered
several more Marines, set up a base of fire and ordered them to hold
while he went back for more men and weapons. On his way, Basilone
spotted three M4 Sherman tanks, their water-cooled V-8s grinding like
hell as they struggled up the beach under heavy fire. Knowing their
value for knocking out bunkers, Basilone immediately took over.
Sgt Adolph Brusa, a mortar squad leader, remembered he suddenly looked
up and there was this lone Marine with those tanks, “And I said
to myself, ’That’s John Basilone! What the hell is he
doing, standing up when everybody else is hugging the ground?’ “
What Basilone was doing was guiding the tanks through a minefield
and pointing out targets while completely exposed to the fire aimed
at the Shermans. Brusa later recalled the lead tank had a painting
of a crowned snake, and its name was King Cobra. The two following
it were the Rattler and the Python all members of the Snake Platoon
from Lieutenant Colonel William R. “Ripper” Collins’ 5th Tank Bn.
Leaving the tanks on high ground, Basilone returned to round up more
troops for the assault team he had started building near the edge
of Motoyama Airfield #1. To do this he’d have to re-cross the
steep volcanic beach where he had met the tanks and where many Marines
were still pinned down by Kuribayashi’s relentless shelling
and well-camouflaged pillboxes.
Among those trying to reorganize their scattered units was Major
(later Col) Justin G. Duryea of the 1st Bn, 27th Marines. Duryea,
who would lose an arm in an enemy mine explosion on D+18, was so impressed
by Basilone’s heroism that he later recommended him for a second
Medal of Honor.
Basilone had landed with the fourth wave at approximately 0930. It
was now almost noon and throughout the battle he had risked his life
repeatedly, disregarding every danger, to restore momentum to the
stalled attack. It seemed nothing could touch him, yet by ignoring
fires that would eventually kill or wound thousands of men, Basilone
had finally pushed his luck beyond its limits.
Many men have said they saw John Basilone fall on the beach, which
he did not. One said Basilone’s legs were blown off by a mine.
Several claim they heard Basilone’s final words, and one said
Basilone begged to be put out of his misery with his own pistol.
Perhaps the most credible eyewitness is Roy ElsnerÑthe headquarters
cook who had watched our machine-gun drills back in Pendleton and
who was now on Iwo. He said that when he and some buddies were hunting
for their headquarters: “A few hundred yards from Motoyama Field
#1 we heard an explosion, which caused us to look a bit to our right
[toward the field]. We saw Basilone and the three guys who were with
him fall. We reached them almost immediately.”
Author’s Note: Sometime after noon I came across a group of
blackened bodies on the edge of Motoyama Airfield #1. Co C was advancing
half a mile ahead, sweeping the flat field clean, when one of the
dead caught my eye. He was a thin, pallid kid. His helmet was half
off, and he lay face up, arched over his combat pack, with his jacket
torn back and his mouth open. I vaguely recognized someone I had known
in that lean, lifeless face beneath its dusty stubble of hair. ”That’s
John Basilone,” said one of the men standing around. “He
just got it.” ”That’s b---s---. I know Basilone.
We were in the same company.” Someone else said, “That’s
Basilone.” I walked around and asked, “Is this Basilone?”
A guy I knew said, “Yeah. He was briefing his guys when a mortar
scored a direct hit. It killed them all.” I went and studied
the dead man closely, but I didn’t touch him. The shell had
landed at his feet, sending shrapnel into his groin, neck and left
arm. He looked incredibly thin like an undernourished kid, with his
hands near his stomach as though it hurt. This was the hero of Guadalcanal,
the joy of a nation, the pride of the Marines and my friend, Manila
Editor’s Note: As a Marine sergeant with Carlson’s Raiders.
Bill Lansford acquired 18 awards and decorations and a lifelong interest
in guerrilla warfare. His first book, “Pancho Villa,” was made into a major motion picture by Paramount Studios. Since then,
Lansford has authored many stories and articles. The Marines are still
his favorite subject.