Medal of Honor Recipient Sergeant John Basilone

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Medal of Honor is the highest military award offered by the United States. In this lesson, we'll examine the life and military career of Medal of Honor recipient John Basilone.

The Medal of Honor and WWII

In 1941, the United States was attacked by Japanese planes at the naval base of Pearl Harbor. For the next four years, America fought World War II in both Europe and the Pacific, and a great number of soldiers served with distinction. U.S. Marines in particular earned a fierce international reputation. But we're only going to talk about those Marines in WWII who were awarded both the Navy Cross, the second-highest military award offered to members of the U.S. Navy, and the Medal of Honor, the highest-ranking military award in the United States. Ready for the complete list?

Here it is: John Basilone. A Gunnery Sergeant in charge of machine gun divisions in World War II, Basilone is the only enlisted Marine to have been awarded both the Navy Cross and Medal of Honor, making him truly one of the few and the proud.

John Basilone receiving his Medal of Honor in 1943.
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Biography

John Basilone was born in Buffalo, New York, in 1916. His father had immigrated to the United States from Italy, and Basilone was one of ten children in his family. At the age of 18, he enlisted in the U.S. Army, and served in the Philippines, earning him the nickname Manila John. In 1940, Basilone re-enlisted with the U.S. Marines. After the U.S. entered WWII, he was deployed into the Pacific theater and saw his first major action in the Solomon Islands, on the small island of Guadalcanal.

Guadalcanal was hardly impressive by any means, but provided an extremely important base for American planes and ships to refuel and resupply while crossing the Pacific Ocean. The Marines launched a surprise attack, capturing the island and setting up an airfield called Henderson Field. For the next six months or so, Japan and the U.S. would fight over the island. It was the first real military encounter between the United States and the Japanese military, one which tested the might of each power. The result was an American victory and successful entry into the Pacific.

John Basilone
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After 1943, Basilone was sent home in recognition of his heroism in Guadalcanal, and he went on tour promoting U.S. War Bonds. He soon voluntarily returned to active combat, requesting to continue serving in the Pacific Theater. In 1945, in the Battle of Iwo Jima, Basilone was killed in action while driving Japanese troops off the beaches and leading his machine gun squad toward the enemy. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery and posthumously awarded the Navy Cross for valor.

Medal of Honor Action

The actual fighting that earned Basilone his Medal of Honor occurred while he was in Guadalcanal, during the Battle for Henderson Field. In October 1942, a Japanese force of roughly 3,000 soldiers launched a direct assault on the Marine airfield. For three days, wave after wave of Japanese troops battered the American Marines. Basilone was in charge of two machine gun units that were heavily targeted by Japanese mortars and grenades. Now, machine guns can fire a lot of rounds, but there's only so much wear and tear they can handle. Under inclement weather and constant use, the guns were being completely worn down. By the third day of fighting, the Americans were almost out of ammunition, the guns were on the verge of falling apart, and only Basilone and two other members of his units were left standing.

U.S. Marines in Guadalcanal
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