Manilla John

EGA BlackLess than six months after Japan’s “sneak attack” on the United States, our armed forces were on the comeback trail.  Americans were angry—very angry, and our front-line troops gave no quarter to the fanatical Japanese who confronted them.  And, truth be known, it was just as well the Japanese were more willing to sacrifice themselves to their Emperor because US Marines weren’t inclined to take prisoners.  Guadalcanal was a disease-ridden cesspool; it was here that U. S. Marines met the Imperial Japanese Army for the first time in land combat.  The contest was one of fierce determination, bullet to bullet, bayonet to bayonet, and in some cases, hand to hand.

Imperial Japanese forces occupied the Solomon Islands in April 1942.  It was their plan to capture Port Moresby in New Guinea and Tulagi in the southern Solomons.  This would extend their southern defensive perimeter and establish bases to support future advances.  Their seizure of Nauru, Ocean Island, New Caledonia, Fiji, and Samoa would sever supply lines between Australia and the United States; the result of this would reduce or eliminate Australia as a threat to Japanese possessions in the South Pacific.

The Japanese pushed forward two construction units, consisting of around 2,450 men.  They were originally planned to work on Midway Island when it was captured, but that didn’t happen, so the Japanese moved these construction crews to Guadalcanal on 6 July, where they began building an airfield.  When coast watchers reported this activity to the Americans, US military planners devised a scheme for the capture of Guadalcanal and use of the airfield against the Japanese.

Guadalcanal is not a small island; it extends 2,047 square miles.  The U. S. Marine Corps footprint on this island was desperately small.  Once the Marines had gained a foothold on Guadalcanal however, they were determined to keep it.  The IJA was equally determined to push the American Marines into the sea.  The battle lasted six months.  The struggle to retain possession of the air strip, which the Marines renamed Henderson Field [1], was the focus of a bloody contest.  The climax to the Battle of Lunga Ridge came on a Sunday night, 25 October 1942.

Lunga Ridge lay about 1,000 yards south of Henderson Field.  Typical of Guadalcanal at this time of year, it was raining buckets that Sunday night; Marine positions were transformed into miserable mud pits.  The Marines were exhausted; they had been battling the Japanese for two days, driving back wave after wave of fanatical assaults.  The Marines knew well enough that the Japanese weren’t through with them just yet.

Basilone John 002At about midnight, through dense darkness and rain, hundreds of screaming Japanese troops assaulted the Marine perimeter.  They threw themselves into the flesh tearing barbed wire —these first waves creating human bridges across the wire to allow their comrades access to Marine lines.  The Marines, although tired, knew that this was a desperate contest.  They were wet, undernourished, ill, and pissed off.  Among the Marines waiting to receive them was Sergeant John Basilone, who commanded two machine gun sections in Company D, 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, 1st Marine Division.

Basilone, born on 4 November 1916 of Italian immigrants, was an experienced machine gun section leader.  He joined the US Army in July 1934, serving a three-year enlistment with the US 16th Infantry Regiment in the Philippine Islands.  He was a strapping young man who was a champion pugilist.  He reenlisted in the Army in 1937 and was reassigned to the US 31st Infantry Regiment.  He liked serving in the Philippines, where he was known as Manilla John, but the Army would not re-post him to the Philippines, and so he took his discharge from the Army and went back to his hometown, where he worked for a time as a truck driver.

But Manilla John maintained his fervor for the Philippines and figured that the best way to find a posting there was to join the Marine Corps.  He enlisted in 1940, and after recruit training at Parris Island, South Carolina, he was sent to Marine Corps Base, Quantico for advance infantry training. After an assignment at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the Marine Corps assigned him to the 7th Marine Regiment, which was part of the 1st Marine Division—an infantry division earmarked for service on Guadalcanal.  In 1942, Basilone had nearly eight-years of active service in the infantry.  He knew his job.

The Japanese assault on the night of 25 October was ruthless.  Marine defenders received intense grenade and rifle fire; automatic weapons shredded human flesh, splattering friend and foe alike with blood and body parts.  Buckets of blood mixed with the rain and mud.  Basilone’s men, like many others on the line that night, suffered from malaria and dysentery.  Despite these circumstances, Basilone kept his guns firing and his men focused. When the barrels became too hot, he changed them, cleared jammed weapons, directed automatic fire into the mass of attacking Japanese, and kept his men supplied with ammunition.  He steadied his Marines on the line, and gave them encouragement by word and example.

Japanese bodies piled so high in front of the machine guns that he had to constantly reset the weapons so that they could fire over the dead soldiers into additional waves of fanatics.  Eventually, not even water-cooled weapons could stop the Japanese and one section of guns was overrun.  Two of the defenders were killed, three others seriously wounded.  Basilone took up one of his weapons and ran to the breach.  He surprised and killed eight Japanese soldiers.  He then noted that two guns had become jammed by mud and water; the Japanese were setting up for yet another charge.  Basilone stripped the mud away from the belts of ammunition, fed them into the guns, cleared the jammed chambers, and sprayed the Japanese as they began their renewed attack.  The battle ran hot for two hours.

At around 0200, the Japanese assaults stopped, and the firing died down, but the Marines knew better than to relax, and as expected, the Japanese Sendai regiments renewed their attack at 0300.  It was a Banzai attack with the full weight of the assault on Basilone’s sector.  During the lull in firing, Basilone has repositioned his guns to establish a killing zone.  Attacking Japanese fell by the hundreds.  Advancing Japanese soon dropped into the mud and began crawling forward.  Basilone depressed his weapons and destroyed these determined soldiers.

At dawn, Sergeant Basilone and his men were drained.  Only three of these Marines were left alive.  During the fight, Basilone has lost his boon dockers [2], the mud having sucked them off his feet.  Their faces were filthy black from cordite and gun oil, their eyes red and swollen from lack of sleep.  The battlefield was strewn with dead and wounded Marines and Japanese —but Henderson Field still belonged to the Marines.  Many of the dead Japanese were credited to Sergeant Basilone, who killed them with anything he could get his hands on, including his .45 caliber pistol and a machete.  On 26 October 1942, John Basilone was just 26-years old.  In this battle, the legend of the fighting Manilla John was born.

Basilone Lena 001
Sgt Lena Mae Basilone

Basilone was returned to the United States in 1943, where he received the Medal of Honor and placed on a war bond tour.  The press made him into a celebrity, but that wasn’t who Basilone was.  He was a Marine who felt that his duty, his rightful place, was with forward deployed combat Marines.  He was offered an officer’s commission but turned it down.  He was offered an assignment as a combat training instructor, but he turned that down too.  What he wanted was to go back to the Pacific.  The Marine Corps approved his request in December 1943 and Manilla John was assigned to Company C, 2nd Battalion, 23rd Marines, 5th Marine Division.  At the time, the 5th Marine Division was undergoing pre-deployment training at Camp Pendleton, California.  In 1944, Basilone married Sergeant Lena Mae Riggi, Women Marine Reserve, who was also assigned to Camp Pendleton.  After their honeymoon, Basilone reenlisted in the U. S. Marine Corps [3].

On 19 February 1945, on the first day of the invasion of Iwo Jima, Gunnery Sergeant John Basilone was serving as a machine gun section leader on Red Beach II.  The Marines came under concentrated enemy fire from Japanese fortifications staged at various locations on the island.  With his unit pinned down, Basilone made his way around the side of the Japanese emplacements until he was in a position directly above their position.  He then attacked the Japanese with grenades and demolitions, single-handedly destroying the entire point of resistance and its defending garrison.

Basilone then fought his way toward Airfield-1 and aided a tank that was trapped in an enemy mine field and encountering intense Japanese mortar and artillery fire.  Despite the enemy fire that surrounded him, Basilone guided the tank through the hazardous terrain to safety.  Soon after, however, Basilone was killed by Japanese fire while moving along the edge of the airfield.  Some have attributed his death to mortars, while others claim that he was killed by well-aimed rifle fire.  For his courageous actions at Iwo Jima, Basilone was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross and Purple Heart.  He was also entitled to wear the Presidential Unit Citation (two awards), which equates to a Navy Cross for every individual assigned to a valorous unit.

Manilla John Basilone is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.  Lena Basilone never remarried.  She passed away in 1999.

Endnotes:

[1] Named in honor of Major Lofton Henderson, killed in action during the Battle for Midway while commanding VMSB-241.  Henderson was the first Marine Corps aviator killed in this battle.

[2] Field boots used by soldiers and Marines in World War II.

[3] One wonders how much of Basilone’s story made its way into the popular John Wayne film, Sands of Iwo Jima (1949).

Published by

Mustang

US Marine (Retired), historian, writer.

13 thoughts on “Manilla John”

  1. If you get a chance, read the excellent “I’m Staying With My Boys” by Jim Prosser and Jerry Cutter. A very good account of “Manilla John” Basilone’s life. Semper Fi.

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  2. I am glad you finally wrote of GSgt Basilone. I drive by the offramp named after him just NW of Camp Pendleton very often.

    I stopped by the church he and Lena were married at a decade ago, I think. Need to stop by again and pay my respects to a great American couple.

    Lena passed away in Lakewood near my home; she gave her life to the Corps, helping veterans unceasingly. Beautiful woman, inside and out.

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  3. People agonize over nuclear weapons. Wouldn’t it have been so nice for so many in the trenches soldiers, marines and others if we could have just nuked any area that the Japs, or Germans , or any other offensive invader attacked so that no invader would ever consider doing such a thing again ?

    I view nuclear weapons as a very good thing. It keeps hundreds of thousands if not millions of people fighting each other with guns, knives, bayonets, mortars, bombs, etc.

    I’m a scorched Earth guy. We’ll treat you right as long as you treat us right, but when you fall off the wagon, expect to have everyone in your country incinerated.

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    1. I’m not one who supports the notion of unrestricted atomic warfare, but as the subject may apply to a full range of highly sophisticated technical weapons, they aren’t worth the cost of development or manufacture if the nation that owns them is unwilling to employ them. In today’s world, you have some multitude of morons running around blowing themselves up hoping to take as many innocents with them as possible. If these people get their hands on atomic technology, particularly given the fact that they are largely stateless, the result could be disastrous for civilized communities. If these people can get their hands on drones, they will over time get their hands on WMDs as well. Our world is in a deep spiral.

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    2. That is sure one of my thoughts as well Mustang.

      Also “It keeps hundreds of thousands if not millions of people fighting each other with…”
      Should have been
      “It keeps hundreds of thousands if not millions of people Not fighting each other with…”

      How do you fight Kamakaze’s rationally?

      We should have nuked Mecca in October 2001 to let the savages know we will never accept such carnage in out country by islamic maniacs.

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