Hero of the Pacific: The Life of Marine Legend John Basilone
By James Brady. 272 pp. Wiley, 2010. $25.95.
In October 1942, marine Sgt. John Basilone earned the Medal of Honor on Guadalcanal by defeating a massive Japanese attack with his machine gun sections. The handsome young man of proud Italian descent became arguably the most famous American enlisted man of the war, and to this day remains a revered figure in Marine Corps history.
This book is easily the best Basilone biography. The late journalist James Brady applied his own background as a Korean War combat marine officer and his professional skills shrewdly and successfully to Basilone the man. He sifts through the miasma of mythology about Basilone, honestly admitting at many junctures where the truth is now impossible to verify.
What shines through Brady’s account is that the essence of Basilone’s legendary life is real. Manila John’s extraordinary heroism on that October night was genuine. He was painfully conflicted about returning home and promoting war bond sales while his buddies remained in the Pacific. But as Brady observes, the American people “recognized [Basilone] for the real thing, and when he spoke and cracked that lopsided Italian smile, the crowd understood that this wasn’t just a practiced performer. This was a genuine American legend….” Basilone insisted on returning to combat, a decision that cost him his life. On Iwo Jima, he demonstrated the same extraordinary professionalism and valor he displayed on Guadalcanal. But Brady’s Basilone is not a plaster saint: he exhibited large appetites for liquor, gambling, and women. The most poignant sections of the book tell the story of Basilone finding and marrying his equally remarkable love match—marine Sgt. Lena Riggi. Despite their union’s brevity, she never married again.
However, when Brady moves the focus from Basilone to the larger picture, he perpetuates around a score or so of factual errors. Perhaps most inexplicable are his confused statements about the weight of the Browning machine gun Basilone personally wielded to famous effect on Guadalcanal. He also restates the now-discredited legend that Basilone was killed by mortar fire. But overall, this book’s importance is best summed up by Brady’s conclusion: Basilone has been ill served by those who invented fanciful embellishments about his life rather than letting the facts speak for themselves.
Originally published in the August 2010 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.