Every young boy in 1942 America knew Sergeant John Basilone fired from the hip. Cradling his water cooled .30 caliber machine gun in his arms, on the night of October 24, 1942 he mowed down dozens and dozens of onrushing enemy soldiers on the island of Guadalcanal. More than any other one man he helped win Guadalcanal's climatic battle. The President hung that blue-ribboned Medal of Honor around his neck.
Basilone was just 26 then and from a poor Italian family in Raritan, New Jersey. He was short, although the war bond posters made him look huge. He had jug ears and curly black hair. He was always smiling, the Dean Martin of the Marine Corps. He was my hero. A warrior god. I joined the Marines not to be a hero--that was too lofty. But maybe to be in the company of heroes.
After boot camp I reported to Camp Pendleton in January 1944. The new 5th Marine Division was being formed there--another division to refill the ranks with bodies. "Welcome to the 5th Division!" the cab driver shouted when he dropped me off. "You're the first one here!" He was almost right.
I reported for duty to B Company, 27th Marine Regiment. They sent me to our barracks. As I walked through them I could hear my footsteps echo. The barracks was built for 260 men but the place was empty, except for one cot, where beneath a blanket there was a lump. As I came closer I smelled whiskey. When I shook the lump, a voice shouted, "Knock it off Mac! Leave me alone! Can't a guy get a little shut-eye in this man's Marine Corps?" Apparently, I was not the first to join B Company. A drunken recruit whom I named "The Lump," beat me to it.
Me and The Lump hung around for three days, without orders, just lingering, sleeping, and sauntering to the chow hall and back. Then we heard footsteps. I sat up in my cot. A husky, cheerful looking Marine with curly black hair came pacing our way. When me and The Lump saw the stripes of a platoon sergeant on his sleeve we jumped to attention. "At ease men," the sergeant said. He looked familiar. He asked us, "How's everything going?" We reported our idleness. Then he introduced himself as "Platoon Sergeant John Basilone." The Lump seemed unimpressed. But my knees trembled. My hero stood before me.
Then Basilone reached out and shook my hand.
I knew then and there that John Basilone, the hero with the Medal of Honor, the idol of a nation, the darling of all women-folk, was actually a good guy. But Basilone didn't become a legend because he was so nice. He told us he was our sergeant. And then he put us to work. He made us clean the barracks. He marched us to the mess hall and back, just the two of us. Soon, the others came and B Company was at strength.
For several months, Basilone taught us machine guns. How to clean them blindfolded. To fire only in short bursts. To use a bail, a wooden handle with hooks that could cradle a gun's hot barrel to allow you to stand up and fire from the hip. John Basilone knew that battles were won that way, by taking a stand.
John Basilone never had to ship out to Iwo Jima with us. After our training, he could have stayed in the States. His enlistment was up. He had married the love of his life, Sergeant Lena Riggi, the month before we shipped out. But he told someone "I'm staying with my boys." And that wasn't just hero talk. He meant it.
On February 19, 1945, Basilone and I came face to face again on Iwo Jima's black sand beach. I was hugging the earth, trying to dig my way to China. Shells were falling. Marines were bleeding into that coarse volcanic sand not far from Japan. We were all hugging the earth, scared to death. My head was spinning. The bursting sand was gagging me. The world moved in slow motion.
One lone Marine stood, walking along the dunes, shouting, "Get your butts off the beach!" It was Basilone. He injected obscenities when we hesitated. He knew that the Japanese had the beach zeroed in--a killing zone. And as the bullets cracked past his helmet, he was trying to lead us. We weren't following. It was dangerous out there.
Basilone spotted me with my machine gun and my assistant gunner and best friend, Steve Evanson. He ran up and wacked me on the helmet and pointed to a mound just inland. It was a pillbox. Worse, a cannon was firing from that pillbox, killing Marines on the beach. Basilone wanted us to take the war to the enemy.
Basilone pulled us up and led us toward the pillbox. We followed, slowly. He put us in position so we could fire into the pillbox and not get hit ourselves. We started shooting. The bullets were striking home. Then the enemy did something amazing. They stopped firing and shut the gunport. Seizing the opportunity, Basilone found a man with a demolitions charge and directed him to blow open the pillbox. Then Basilone found a flamethrower man to burn out the pillbox. Finally, Basilone came up to me, took my machine gun into his arms, and with its belt of bullets trailing, he led the charge off the beach, shooting from the hip.
He was a one man army.
I followed him, shooting my carbine at the enemy wherever they appeared. Others followed me. That morning, Basilone led the first breakout from the beach of Iwo Jima. Thirty minutes later I would watch him die.
I never realized just what I had learned from Basilone, until nine days later when my best friends, Steve Evanson and George VanConkelberg, lay out in the open, shot and bleeding. Japanese soldiers in a cave had ambushed us. The medics couldn't reach Steve or Van with the enemy watching. My friends were slowly dying.
Without thinking, I ran and picked up their machine gun. I hoisted up the 31 pound gun and fired from the hip, into the cave. Clouds of dust billowed. Bullets ricocheted within. With the enemy suppressed our medics raced and removed my friends. But I wasn't being a hero. I was only doing what I had seen my hero do. I thought I was being a follower. Only later, would I realize what had happened. Maybe that day when I was shooting from the hip, some young Marine was crouching behind a rock, shaking, scared to death, but watching me.
That's what I learned from John Basilone.
Chuck Tatum is the author of the new book Red Blood, Black Sand: Fighting Alongside John Basilone from Boot Camp to Iwo Jima.
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