Basilone at Guadalcanal
By Bruce Doorly
It is widely known that John Basilone was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for heroics at Guadalcanal during World War II.

But most people do not know much more than that. What did he actually do? Why was it so important? And what is Guadalcanal?
To answer these questions, we first need to understand the setting for the battle at Guadalcanal.

When the Japanese attacked at Pearl Harbor on December 7th 1941, the U.S. was thrust into a war that it had tried to avoid. The surprise attack devastated the U.S. Naval Fleet.

But while the element of surprise would be gone in the next battles with the Japanese, the U.S. was still unprepared for a fight. The Japanese would soon expel our forces from our military bases in the Philippines and take over the previously U.S. held islands of Guam and Wake. The Japanese army seemed invincible. From the start of the War until September of 1942 they were undefeated in every battle that was fought on the ground.
In August 1942, the Japanese were expanding their empire by building an airport on an island 1000 miles northeast of Australia called Guadalcanal. That island is 90 miles long and 25 miles wide. This would increase the range from which they could launch attack and allow them to control vital shipping lanes. It was here that the U.S. choose to halt the advancement of the Japanese Empire.
At Guadalcanal the Japanese sent hundreds of workers to begin to build the runway. Thinking that the U.S. was still licking its wounds, the Japanese did not initially send troops to reinforce the workers.

In September of 1942, the U.S. Marines landed at Guadalcanal and easily took the almost completed airfield from the construction workers. The U.S. would finish the airfield naming it Henderson Field after a pilot that had been killed a few months before in the battle at Midway. But taking the airstrip was the easy part, keeping it would prove to be much more difficult. The Japanese soon started shipping thousands of troops toward Guadalcanal to retake the airfield. This resulted in numerous naval battles in the sea around the island as each side attempted to prohibit the other from landing fresh troops and supplies. Dozens of ships on both sides were sent to the bottom of the sea.
Henderson Field Headquarters
The fighting on the island itself was defined by the dense jungle.

Visibility was extremely limited and noises from birds and other creatures rattled constantly.
The U.S. fought several battles to prevent the Japanese from taking the new airfield. By mid-October the determined Japanese decided it was time for the ultimate battle to retake the airstrip. So they amassed thousands of their troops around Henderson Fields for an all-out attack.

The Japanese commander addressed his men saying

This is the decisive battle between Japan and the United States in which the rise or fall of the Japanese Empire will be decided. If we do not succeed in the occupation of these islands, no one should expect to return alive to Japan.
Japanese Commander at Guadalcanal
General Harukichi Hyakutake
The U.S., knowing what was coming, setup a strong defensive position with fox holes containing machine guns and fences of barbed wire.

On the night of October 24th 1942, the Japanese attacked.
John Basilone was in charge of four machine gun positions and a dozen men. As the enemy began their charges toward their positions Basilone and his men fought them off, mowing down the attackers.

But as the nighttime battle wore on his unit would face many challenges. First, they would take many casualties. Then two of the machine guns were knocked out of action. Basilone in the dark of night put his training to use and was able to repair one of the guns with little visibility by feeling the parts to figure out what was wrong.
Basilone’s expertise in firing the machine gun was evident in the battle thus his men would load the machine guns for him and have him fire the gun at the enemy. As he fired one gun the men loaded the other. He moved between guns - after exhausting a cartridge of bullets in one gun he would roll over to fire the other machine gun.

His tenacity and skill ensured that he and his men would remain alive and that the fanatical charging enemy would soon be dead.
Jon Seda portrayed Basilone in "The Pacific"
Later in the night his unit ran out of ammunition for the machine guns. The men still had rifles and pistols, but the rapid firing machine gun was the vital weapon when the Japanese charged in numbers.

So Basilone made the decision to run back to get more cartridge belts of ammunition. This was a dangerous trek as many Japanese were scattered throughout the dense jungle. As he ran back he dodged bullets and grenades. When he arrived at the ammunition supply dump, he threw the cartridge belts over his shoulder in order to carry them back (This image of Basilone with the ammunition belts over his shoulder is what sculptor Philip Orlando would use for the Basilone Statue.)
Chuck Tatum who fought with Basilone at
Iwo Jima visited Raritan a few ago
Returning to his men with the extra ammunition they were able to continue the fight with their best weapons. The Japanese attack subsided at sunrise. As the sunlight arrived Japanese bodies could be seen everywhere.

Around one of Basilone’s machine gun positions were 38 Japanese bodies. This number would soon appear in the newspapers.
The over confident Japanese lost thousands of men in the battle for Henderson Field. After that at Guadalcanal they were no longer an effective fighting force and would eventually withdraw from the island.

The U.S. had finally turned the tide of the War. A once seemly invincible enemy was now shown to be beatable.

The Marines, along with Basilone, were responsible for that.
John tells his brother Donald about Guadalcanal
For his heroics that night John Basilone was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

The highest award a soldier can be given. A parade in his honor has been held in Raritan since 1981.
And what about Guadalcanal and that airfield they defended.

The island today has a population of 58,000. Most of the inhabitants are poor. It still has plenty of jungle. Henderson Field, while initially abandoned after World War II, was later put back in service and today is the main airport on the island, but the name has been changed to Honiara Airport.
For tourists Guadalcanal is known as a top diving spot, with clear water that has many shipwrecks to explore.

The island is also a bird watcher's paradise, as over 200 species of birds can be seen.

Many other tourists come to Guadalcanal to visit World War II battle sites.
One of these battle sites is the machine gun position that Basilone fired from on the night of the battle.

But that site is seldom visited as it requires a tour guide and an hour walk through the jungle to get there.

It is a fascinating site as the original foxhole used by Basilone is still there.

And a few artifacts from that battle remain. Posts that once held barbed wire are still in the ground. A recently posted video on YouTube shows this site.

Click to see the video that takes you to Basilone's Machine Gun Position today at Guadalcanal