Seventy-four years after the death of the most decorated Marine in WWII, the United States still very much remembers the sacrifice of Marine Sergeant John Basilone. John Basilone Day is still celebrated every year in September in his hometown of Raritan, New Jersey.

San Diego named the highway that leads to Camp Pendleton after him, as well as built a bronze statue in the heart of the city. His exploits and efforts are the stuff of legends, and his sacrifice is a reminder on Memorial Day of how the devotion of one allows so many people to live in a free world. Awarded both the Navy Cross (the second highest decoration for valor) and the Medal of Honor (the highest decoration for valor), Sergeant Basilone made a habit of taking on longs odds and gave his life for his country in the process.

“Basilone is an embodiment of what they’re trying to instill in you when you’re becoming a Marine,” says former Marine Forward Observer and writer for the Military Times Jon Simkins. “His exploits and heroics and the things he represented are what drill instructors are trying to impress upon you in the formative phase of becoming a Marine, and it sticks with you.”

On the night of Oct. 24, 1942, on the island of Guadalcanal, a Japanese regiment of 3,000 troops attacked a handful of Marines, including Sergeant Basilone.  The Marines were vastly outnumbered and under-gunned and had the dubious task of defending the most important airfield in the South Pacific.

“If the Japanese force got through Basilone’s line and took Henderson Field,” said Senior Director of Research and History at The National WWII Museum, Keith Huxen. “It would’ve completely changed the complexion of the war.”

The first contact occurred during the night. Basilone and the two machine gun positions under his command received intense fire from mortars, grenades, and machine guns. When the barrage stopped wave after wave of Japanese banzai charges descended upon Basilone and his hardened Marines. When the Japanese succeeded in knocking out one of the guns, Sergeant Basilone ran a distance of 200 yards while encountering withering gunfire to carry nearly 100 pounds of equipment and ammunition to restart the gun.

The Japanese pressed their attack, and soon there was just Basilone and two other Marines left. He retrieved another heavy machine gun and poured accurate fire upon the fierce Japanese attacks. Suddenly, one his men stopped shooting, and under intense enemy fire, he ran over to the junior Marine and fixed the jam in his gun. Over the course of the ensuing hours (and during a relentless Japanese assault), he ran supplies from the rear to his gunners.

Sometime during the course of the battle, he lost his asbestos glove, which was critical in preventing burns when handling the hot barrel of his machine gun. But he didn’t have time to look for it and sustained terrible burns on his hand and arm while pouring rounds into the Japanese attackers. Using his machine gun, .45-caliber pistol, and machete, he was credited with killing 38 enemy soldiers single-handedly. When reinforcements finally arrived on October 25th, nearly the entire 3,000 man Japanese regiment had been annihilated.

Sergeant-John-Basilone-asbestos-glove-burns-machine-gun-Guadalcanal
Flickr – Sergeant Basilone displays an asbestos glove. He wishes he would’ve had that glove on Oct. 24-25, 1942 when during the battle he barehanded a.30 caliber machine gun.

“The U.S. Finally won a battle at sea in November at Guadalcanal, and by February 1943, they were finally able to starve the rest of the Japanese out,” explained Huxen. “But if Basilone loses that battle, there is no naval battle in November 1942, and there isn’t a Japanese withdrawal in 1943.”

“For extraordinary heroism and conspicuous gallantry in action,” as the citation reads, Sergeant Basilone was awarded the Medal of Honor. He was immediately shipped home and went on a war bond tour around the country, and became a household name. But celebrity life didn’t agree with the battle-hardened Marine, as he requested over and over again to return to his men. Over and over again, he was denied.

The Marine Corps and Defense Department felt that Sergeant Basilone had done his duty, and offered to make him an officer if he stayed home. Ever the faithful Marine (Semper Fidelis), Basilone insisted that he wanted to return to active duty.

“Without the Corps,” he once said. “My life means nothing.” Eventually, the Corps gave in, and Basilone was sent to Camp Pendleton in San Diego to begin training.

Everywhere Basilone went, people knew who he was and what he did, and that followed him to Camp Pendleton. But there was one person who was completely unimpressed with his celebrity, and her name was Lena Mae Riggi. The reserve Sergeant didn’t bat an eye at Sergeant Basilone, as “Sergeant Riggi waited for the gossips to tire themselves out,” Basilone later explained. “[She] looked at them and said, ‘So what?’  She was the girl for me.”

The two were wed at a chapel near San Diego, California on July 10, 1944. The two barely had enough time to honeymoon, as just one month later, Basilone got his marching orders.

All the luxuries that we enjoy in our daily lives,” Simkins reminds us. “To put that behind you and instead to share that comradeship with your men — it’s unbelievable.”

Sergeant-John-Basilone-Sergeant-Lena-Mae-Riggi-"Manila-John"-wedding
1st Marine Division – Sergeant John Basilone was wedded to Sergeant Lena Rae Riggi on July 10, 1944 at St. Mary’s Star of the Sea Church in Oceanside, California.

“One of the main reasons why Basilone’s legacy endures,” said Huxen. “Is that he had an opportunity to become an officer and come home, he had the Medal Of Honor, a new wife, but he felt so committed to his fellow Marines that he went back when he didn’t have too. Not only does he perform heroic actions to earn a medal at Iwo Jima, but he’s also killed, and this makes him a legend.”

On Feb. 19, 1945, Sergeant Basilone landed on Red Beach on the remote island of Iwo Jima. The Japanese baited the Marines to come ashore and then unleashed a barrage of fire that had most men laying down in the open. But that wasn’t the case for Basilone, who moved through enemy artillery fire around an enemy position. He got to a high point and flanked a blockhouse that was spraying machine gun bullets at his Marines. With hand grenades and demolition charges, he managed to take it out and kill all inside, single-handedly.

Basilone then spotted a tank that was under fire and in trouble. He led the tank through a minefield and out of harm’s way. Always at the font of the fray, he exposed himself time and again to direct his fellow Marines. Just as he reached the airfield, which was the invasions stated objective, a mortar round exploded nearby and killed him along with four other Marines.

For his efforts, Sergeant Basilone was awarded the Navy Cross, posthumously. Though the Marines prevailed at Iwo Jima, the loss of Basilone was a terrible blow to the country, his family, and his new wife. She never remarried, and when she was buried in 1999, she was wearing the wedding ring Basilone gave her.

“On Memorial Day, it’s especially important to honor Basilone, as he’s such a representation of sacrifice,” said Simkins. “He had the opportunity to have a cush lifestyle when he came back, but not only did he turn that down, he requested to go back overseas. And then to be killed at Iwo Jima — that sacrifice is what Memorial Day is all about.”

As the country honors the fallen this Memorial Day, we’ll remember the ultimate sacrifice made by Basilone, and by so many other brave soldiers of less celebrity, but no less honor.