Basilone: the Man and the Ship

By Major Van Harl, USAF Ret.

Navy Medal of Honor

The US Post Office has issued a new set of stamps honoring distinguished Marines. It would appear that a lot of effort was expended convincing the post office to honor these military heroes. There are four Marines included in the stamp set: Lt. General John A. Lejeune (they named Camp Lejeune, NC after him), Lt. General Lewis "Chesty " Puller (of W.W.II & Korea service), Sergeant Major Daniel J. Daly (two time Medal of Honor recipient), and Gunnery Sergeant John Basilone (Medal of Honor recipient).

Sgt. Basilone was the one that caught my attention. My father, Navy Master Chief Basil Harl, served on a destroyer named after Sgt. Basilone (the USS Basilone, DD824.)

You'll notice the similarity of my father's first name and the name of his ship. As a small child I thought maybe they had named the ship after my dad. So the name of the USS Basilone has always remained close to the surface of the memories of my dependent naval adventures with my father.

He served on the USS Basilone in 1954. Years later, in 1967, my father was stationed at the Navy base in Norfolk, VA and the USS Basilone was home ported there. He would point the ship out to me when I went out to the pier with him. The ship was commissioned in 1949 and left active duty in the 1970's.

The USS Basilone served well during its time in the fleet, but it was the fighting efforts of Gunnery Sergeant "Manila" John Basilone who started the legendary Naval / Marine Corps history of the name Basilone. For most people the name Basilone means very little, but not to a Marine.

When you get to Marine basic training the Corps wants its new recruits to understand why they are there and learn and remember the history of the United States Marine Corps. I would suggest that teaching military history to its members has the highest level of importance in the Marine Corps.

The Marines believe it is hard to understand what you are about and what you "stand for" if you do not know where you came from and how you got there. History is important to the Corps, both to remember the past and to help prepare for the future. The Marines have an illustrious record of making new history for this country. Sgt. John Basilone was one of those history makers.

He was from a large Italian family in New Jersey. With few jobs available in the early 1930s, young John joined the Army (which was not easy to do during the depression) and was stationed in the Philippines. He was a boxer and his winning ways in the ring earned him the nickname "Manila" John, a name that stuck for the rest of his life.

With his enlistment up he left the Army, but joined the Marines when it looked like the US was headed for war. He wound up stationed on Guadalcanal in the Pacific and was in charge of two sections of .30-caliber heavy machine guns.

His position was attacked over the course of several days by a Japanese infantry unit of 400 men. Most of the men in Sgt. Basilone's unit were either killed or wounded so badly that they could not continue the fight, but "Manila" John never stopped.

He went for more ammunition, fixed broken machine guns and saw to the medical needs of his men, all while under intense enemy fire. During the final Japanese attack he was reduced to fighting with only his Colt .45 pistol and his fists. He was personally credited with 38 enemy dead.

For his efforts Sgt. Basilone was the first enlisted man in W.W.II to be awarded the Medal of Honor. He was pulled back to the States to go on war bond drives and made the cover of Life magazine. The military tries to keep its surviving Medal of Honor recipients out of harm's way, but this was not for "Manila" John. He returned to action on Iwo Jima.

Just after single handedly destroying an enemy blockhouse, he was killed by an exploding mortar round. He was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross and the Purple Heart and buried with full honors at Arlington National Cemetery. And, of course, the USS Basilone was named after Gunnery Sergeant "Manila" John Basilone, for his fighting efforts in defense of his country. Buy the stamps and honor these men. Semper Fi.

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Copyright 2006, 2012 by Major Van Harl USAF Ret. All rights reserved.