Lest We Forget: John Basilone; Marine Observation Squadron One (VMO-1)

By Lieutenant Commander Thomas J. Cutler, USN (Ret.), and Lieutenant Commander Rick Burgess, USN (Ret.)

Six months after Pearl Harbor, Sergeant "Manila" John Basilone and his fellow Marines were fighting not only for an important strategic victory but also for their very survival on the then little-known island of Guadalcanal. On the night of 24-25 October 1942, Basilone was in charge of two sections of heavy machine guns defending the vital airstrip at Henderson Field. The rain was falling in torrents, and Japanese soldiers had been coming in a virtual deluge of human waves for two days.

Just after midnight, hundreds of Japanese troops again came screaming out of the darkness. For the next several hours, under Basilone's direction, the Marines maintained a steady fire, expending more than 26,000 rounds as they mowed down scores of the fanatic attackers. Basilone directed fire, kept the supply of ammunition flowing, repeatedly fixed jammed weapons, and inspired his men through his undaunted courage—personally killing nearly 40 Japanese with his .45-caliber pistol at point-blank range as they surged over the growing mound of corpses.

Basilone was awarded the Medal of Honor—the first enlisted Marine to receive the award in World War II. On receiving the medal, he said, "Only part of this medal belongs to me. Pieces of it belong to the boys who are still on Guadalcanal." His picture appeared on the cover of Life magazine, and he was offered a battlefield commission. He turned down the 2nd lieutenant bars, saying, "I'm a plain soldier, and I want to stay one." After a stateside war bond tour, he asked to be returned to the fighting Marines.

In February 1945, Gunnery Sergeant Basilone stormed ashore at Iwo Jima, courageously leading raw troops through the terrible carnage on the beach, around the end of the airfield toward the western side of the island. Along the way, he stormed a blockhouse, destroying it with grenades and demolitions, then guided a tank through a minefield while under continuous enemy fire. But Manila John's luck ran out when an incoming mortar round ended his heroic life.

For his actions in those final hours he was awarded a Navy Cross to be placed alongside his Medal of Honor. On his lifeless left arm was a tattoo that read "Death Before Dishonor."

—Lieutenant Commander Thomas J. Cutler, U.S. Navy (Retired)


Marine Observation Squadron One (VMO-1) was activated on 27 October 1943 as VMO-155 at Quantico, Virginia, with OY-1 light observation planes. The squadron deployed to the South Pacific in January 1944 and was redesignated VMO-1 on 12 February 1944.

In July 1944, VMO-1 launched from escort carriers into Guam and flew 213 spotting missions in support of the liberation of the island from the Japanese. During February and March 1945, the squadron supported the seizure of Iwo Jima.


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