On Oct. 25, 1942, the U.S.'s six-month struggle to keep a small advantage at Guadalcanal's Henderson Field hardened into a contest between two exceptional armies. The Marines at Lunga Ridge had driven off waves of Japanese assaults for two days in torrential rain and seemingly bottomless mud.
At midnight, hundreds of screaming troops from Japan's famed Sendai Regiment threw themselves over the barbed wire surrounding the field, forming human bridges for their comrades to cross. The exhausted, malaria-ridden U.S. Marines must have been overwhelmed by this night firefight.
An experienced machine gunner, Gunnery Sgt. "Manila John" Basilone knew his men and his guns were about to be severely tested. Basilone, who had earned his nickname during an Army stint in the Philippines, realized it would be up to him to keep them fighting and firing. "Basilone was everywhere at once, clearing jams, calming nervous gunners, replacing parts, and repositioning guns … he became the glue that bound Co. C together," wrote Eric Hammel in his article "October on Guadalcanal" ('Leatherneck," October 1992).
At dawn, the barefooted, red-eyed Basilone finally rested his head on the edge of a pit. The line had held. The battlefield was strewn with casualties. At least 38 Japanese dead were credited to Basilone, but more important, his men credited Basilone with inspiring them and giving them the will to fight.
"Only part of this medal belongs to me," Basilone said of the Medal of Honor he received. "Pieces of it belong to the boys who are still on Guadalcanal." He believed this so strongly that he turned down the opportunity to have President Franklin D. Roosevelt bestow the medal, opting instead to have the ceremony in the field with his unit. With his self-effacing manner and movie-star good looks, Basilone soon became the U.S. government's War Bonds celebrity, featured in parades, newsreels, and other media. The Marine Corps offered him a commission and a D.C. desk job, but he declined both. "I ain't no officer, and I ain't no museum piece," Basilone said. "I belong back with my outfit."
Basilone left the limelight for Camp Pendleton, Calif., where he met and married fellow Marine Sgt. Lena Riggi in 1944. By early 1945, he was voluntarily back in the South Pacific. Within hours of landing on Iwo Jima, where he forcibly got his men up and off the beach, Basilone was killed by an enemy mortar round at age 27. For his heroism there, he was awarded the Navy Cross. He is the only Marine to have won both that award and the Medal of Honor during World War II.