Death Before Dishonor
An American Hero from Humble Beginnings
By Brian Massie, Executive Director
Men of Honor Member
John Basilone was born in 1916 in Buffalo, New York and died a hero defending his country in 1945 on the South Pacific Island known as Guadalcanal.
When he was 18, he joined the Army and served for three years mostly in the Philippines, where he got one of his nicknames, “Manilla John”. In 1940, he re-enlisted and joined the Marine Corps, where he flourished as a hard-nosed, tough-as-nails leader of men.
By 1942, he was a gunnery sergeant, in charge of 14 Marines who had been sent to defend the Lunga area of Guadalcanal. They were part of a battalion of 6,000 men, up against 25,000 Japanese troops.
“He had the hunter’s instinct for terrain, and he knew instinctively what to do in an emergency. Though born to the city, he could hear sounds before the farm boys in his unit, or the Japanese who had made the jungles their province.” He denied his men the right to be weak; without a word or gesture he commanded them to follow. And follow him they did with a vengeance.
John’s date with destiny happened on October 24-25, 1942. He became a legend and earned the Congressional Medal of Honor for his “extraordinary heroism”, and “conspicuous gallantry”.
General Douglas MacArthur called him a “one man army”, and to many he become known as the “Fighting Sergeant”.
From his Medal of Honor citation, we learned the following:
“While the enemy was hammering at the Marines’ defensive positions, Sergeant Basilone, in charge of two sections of heavy machine guns, fought valiantly to check the savage and determined assault.”
In a fierce frontal attack with the Japanese blasting back with grenade and mortar fire, one of Sergeant Basilone’s sections 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 replacement arrived.”
“A little later, with ammunition critically low and the supply line cut off, Sergeant Basilone, at great risk of his life and in the face of continued enemy attack, battled his way through hostile lines with urgently needed shells for his gunners, thereby contributing in large measure to the virtual annihilation of a Japanese regiment.”
“By himself, with a machine gun and pistol he accounted for 38 Japanese dead. Their bodies were found later in front of his position.”
He was brought home by the Marines to help sell war bonds and was offered a permanent assignment in Washington.
He was hailed as a hero by mayors, governors, senators and movie stars, and even got a $5,000 war bond.
But he hated every minute of it!
Basilone thought he had become just a “museum piece”, and all he did was talk. He was definitely a man of honor and action.
When he returned to Marine headquarters in Arlington, after the nationwide tour, he was ushered into the office of the commandant who told him, “Sergeant, you have performed your service, and so I’ll let you choose what you’d like to do for the rest of the war. You can teach gunnery to our recruits in North Carolina, or work right here in my office, or go back with the men”.
Basilone’s response. “Sir, I want to go back with the men!”.
He landed on Iwo Jima, and died from Japanese mortar fire, but not before he had won the Navy Cross. Hours before his death, under heavy enemy fire, he had single-handedly destroyed an enemy blockhouse, earning him a posthumous Navy Cross.
The following statement was made by Speaker William Kurz of the New Jersey State Assembly when dedicating the Basilone memorial in Raritan, New Jersey in 1959:
“Cowards may claim, he was foolish to return”. “But cowards cause and lose wars. The courageous – men like John Basilone – prevent and win them”.
Gunnery Sergeant Basilone proudly displayed a tattoo on his left arm: “Death before Dishonor”!
Awards and Decorations:
Medal of Honor, October 24-25, 1942, Guadalcanal
Navy Cross, February 19, 1945…Iwo Jima (Killed in Action)
Presidential Unit Citation with Bronze Star, 1942 Guadalcanal, 1945 Iwo Jima
American Defense Service Medal with Blue Clasp, 1940 – 1941 Cuba
American Campaign Medal, 1941- 42, 1943 – 44
Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with two Bronze Stars, 1942 – 43 Guadalcanal, 1944-45, Iwo Jima
World War II Victory Medal
Sources of information:
1962 Jim G. Lucas, Scripps Howard Staff Writer
Life Magazine, October 11, 1943
Written by Bran Massie, average citizen
I never cease to be amazed each time I read about Gunnery Sergeant Basilone. I have read and heard the story many times because I have been married to a Basilone (Bernadette) for 47 years. My father-in-law, George Basilone, wore his hat that proudly displayed the Basilone name and the ship named after Gunnery Sergeant Basilone.
USS John Basilone (DDG-122) is a planned United States Navy Arleigh Burke-class Flight IIA guided missile destroyer, the 72nd overall for the class. The ship will be named for United States Marine Corps Gunnery sergeant John Basilone, who received the nation’s highest military award for valor, the Medal of Honor, for heroism during the Guadalcanal Campaign in World War II. Basilone was the only enlisted Marine to receive both the Medal of Honor and the Navy Cross in World War II.
The Marine tradition continues in the Basilone family. Brendan James Basilone has been a Marine for 12 years, and a Drill Sergeant for the past two years.
We hope you enjoy this slideshow of pictures that we took on a family trip to Washington, D.C. If you have never seen Arlington Cemetery, we highly recommend it. Click on the “<” or “>” to advance slideshow.