The first time I visited the island of Iwo Jima, I headed straight for the black-sand invasion beaches. I wanted to collect sand like every Marine who visits that iconic battlefield does, but I wanted to get my vial from the spot where John Basilone drew his last breath.
As a U.S. Marine and the child of an Italian immigrant, “Manila” John Basilone had always been a hero of mine. He was a tough kid from a large Italian family in Raritan, N. J., who joined the Army before World War II. He became an undefeated boxing champion and an expert machine gunner. When the war began, it found him in the Marines and in the first major American fight of the Pacific, the Battle of Guadalcanal, in 1942. He earned the Medal of Honor on a piece of high ground appropriately named Bloody Ridge. With only three men left from his two sections of machine gunners, he held off a continuous onslaught of Japanese attacks.
He was one of our first heroes of the war and was brought back to the States to help sell war bonds. The glitz and glory of touring with movie stars did not sit well with him. He asked to return to the Pacific and landed on D-Day on Iwo Jima. His life ended hours later, after he led his men off the beach to take down a Japanese position and guided a tank through a minefield. For those actions, he was awarded the military’s second-highest combat decoration, the Navy Cross.
John Basilone Day is celebrated in 12 states. He has a parade in his honor in Raritan each year, as well as a statue there. A Navy destroyer, a bridge and part of an interstate highway have been named for him. In a classic illustration in Collier’s magazine from 1944, he is draped in belts of ammo and holding a water-cooled .30-caliber machine gun.
To me, that image and his face have always been symbolic of the Italian American experience and what we have tried to do in serving our country to repay the opportunities given to our parents and grandparents who came here seeking the American dream.