Today is a special day in one of my hometowns, Raritan, New Jersey.
A parade is held every year in the borough in memory of Gunnery Sargeant John Basilone, U.S. Marine (1915-1945). In my teenage years, I remember this being in May or June. But I might have it confused with the Memorial Day parade.
For those who don’t know, John Basilone was a remarkable soldier. He fought in the Pacific Theater during World War II. First, in the Battle of Guadalcanal where he and his men were outmanned and outgunned by the Japanese. We won Guadalcanal, and Basilone’s actions in that battle earned him a medal and the nickname “Manila John”.
The War Department brought John back as a hero to do bond promotions. In those days, the United States actually raised the money to pay for wars from our own citizenry, and people patriotically bought them with another thing that seems to have disappeared since then, savings.
But John didn’t want to do bond tours. He told the government he wanted to go back into the marines. He didn’t think it was right to be back home when so many other corps members were back doing the fighting.
So John Basilone re-enlisted.
He died in the initial assault on the Pacific island of Iwo Jima on February 19, 1945. (Iwo Jima now called Iwo-to by the Japanese, which was its original name. We gave the island back in 1968.)
The man did not live to see the age of 30.
Back home, most people are impressed with the dedication that John’s generation has put into keeping his memory alive. Like most legends though, I think the story gets stretched here and there, usually by people not from Raritan.
Biographical accounts mention that the Basilone family lived in Goosepatch, which has been described as the poor neighborhood in Raritan. The press of the time made something out of John going from “Goosepatch” to national hero.
But Raritan at the time was basically a mill town along the Raritan River. People mostly worked in factories if they didn’t do agricultural labor. Back in those days, Somerset County maybe had 50,000 people. It was North Plainfield, Somerville, Raritan, Manville, maybe Bernardsville. Each of those boroughs no more than two miles square. And in between, farms.
My great-grandfather had a house in Goosepatch up until the 1940’s. So my grandmother, who passed away in the 1990’s lived there too at one time. Other than the silly name, I don’t think there was anything down-and-out about it. And it takes from the overall story of how brave John was.
There are a few people around who make fun of the number of things that the Raritan gang try to have, as local things named after Basilone. I think he’s got three bridges already: the one over the Somerville Circle, the new one between Hillsborough Township by Dukes and Raritan, and one somewhere on the New Jersey Turnpike.
He’s got the Bridgewater football field and athletic facility. I think he might have a room at the Raritan Library.
Previously, the government named a destroyer the U.S.S. Basilone. There are also a number of commemorations at Marine bases in San Diego.
So if anyone wonders about this though, this is a guy who was already a hero. He already was “Manila John”, as a sargeant. And he went back.
If you happened to catch the latest X-men series movie “Wolverine”, in the very beginning where Logan (Hugh Jackman) and his brother were shown as mercenaries in various U.S. wars, the scene that shows the amphibious landing on an island beach was the kind of thing that happened.
These guys waited in the hull, and when the bay doors went down, bullets already flying into the craft, the guys in the front were shot dead.
The wave of men behind, also being shot at, ran to retake as much of the beach as they could. Around and over their buddies who were alive just moments before. It was like that.
Can you imagine this?