Honoring One Marine To Remember Them All

Marines stand at attention for the commemoration of a plaque at the U.S. Navy Memorial to honor World War II hero Gunnery Sgt. John Basilone. A new wall at the memorial will honor heroes from the sea services.
Marines stand at attention for the commemoration of a plaque at the U.S. Navy Memorial to honor World War II hero Gunnery Sgt. John Basilone. A new wall at the memorial will honor heroes from the sea services. (By Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)
By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 29, 2006

Gunnery Sgt. John Basilone has achieved a measure of posterity. The World War II Marine Corps hero, who died at age 28 on Iwo Jima after legendary feats there and at Guadalcanal, has a Navy destroyer named for him, as well as a bridge, overpass and high school in his native New Jersey and a stretch of interstate highway in California. A stamp was issued with his image last year, and tales of his courage are a boot camp staple.

But in the eyes of several Washington area Marine Corps veterans, further recognition is in order. Too many people, they say, have never heard of Basilone, who is the only enlisted man in World War II to have received the Medal of Honor, Navy Cross and Purple Heart and who is best known in Marine circles for having held off 3,000 Japanese troops at Guadalcanal after his 15-member unit was reduced to three.

So in recent months, the veterans set out to do their small part to expand appreciation of Basilone. They won approval to dedicate a new wall inside the U.S. Navy Memorial, on Pennsylvania Avenue NW between Seventh and Ninth streets, to a handful of selected heroes from the sea services, with a large plaque honoring Basilone as the founding commemoration. Timed to coincide with the Memorial Day weekend, the plaque was unveiled Thursday at a ceremony attended by both veterans and active-duty Marines.

"The memorial gets thousands of visitors a year, and there was nothing there that depicted the story of this hero. It should be there," said Nicholas Beltrante, 78, a Marine veteran and retired D.C. police detective from Alexandria who led the effort.

The push for further recognition of Basilone has served a broader purpose as well. It has brought together several Washington area veterans in their late seventies and eighties. They did not know one another before, but now, six decades after the war they have in common, they talk every week.

Driving this late-in-life fellowship, they say, is a renewed or intensified appreciation of what fallen comrades like Basilone accomplished. When the veterans were younger and talked about the war, "we were sharing events of what we just did," said Cyril O'Brien, a World War II Marine Corps war correspondent who spoke at Thursday's ceremony.

But now, decades later, "we're looking back with much more devotion and admiration," said O'Brien, 87, of Silver Spring. "Because [our numbers] are getting smaller, the brotherhood is closer. These are bonds that are sacred."

The campaign for the Navy Memorial recognition began in February, when Beltrante came across an advertisement in a military history magazine for "I'm Staying With My Boys," a new book and documentary about Basilone co-written and produced by Basilone's nephew.

Beltrante, who served in the Marine Medical Corps in the Atlantic theater, had heard vaguely of Basilone, but was astounded, after reading the book and seeing the documentary, to discover just how extraordinary his story had been. A high school dropout with nine siblings, Basilone joined the Army in the 1930s and served in the Philippines, where he was a champion boxer.

He didn't care for the Army, however, and returned home, where he worked as a caddie and laundry truck driver. In 1940, he enlisted in the Marines, thinking they were a better fit than the Army.

Two years later, at Guadalcanal, he and his men found themselves in a mismatch of epic proportions, defending their sector of the line against an elite Japanese regiment of 3,000 men. Twelve of the 15 were killed and two others wounded, but Basilone held out and fired away for three days from the only two remaining machine guns, repairing one mid-battle and making a successful run for more ammunition. By the battle's end, 200 Japanese lay dead around him. His Medal of Honor citation credited him with the "virtual annihilation" of the regiment.

He was sent home, as was customary with medal winners, and put on a war bond tour with Hollywood starlets, then assigned to guard duty at the Washington Navy Yard. But the safe assignments depressed him. After turning down movie and boxing contracts, he pushed to be sent back into action.

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