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BOOK REVIEW

'Hero of the Pacific: The Life of Marine Legend John Basilone' by James Brady

The World War II hero's story is well-known among the corps, and gets a broader retelling here.

February 10, 2010|By Tony Perry

Near the end of their grueling 13 weeks at boot camp in San Diego, Marine recruits are taken into the hills of Camp Pendleton for a 54-hour gut check called the Crucible to see if they still have the strength and audacity to be accepted into the corps.

When the recruits are thoroughly exhausted -- mentally and physically -- from an unrelenting series of obstacles, barriers and problems, they are ordered to sit on the ground and listen to a sergeant read the Medal of Honor citation detailing the bravery of Sgt. John Basilone during the World War II battle at Guadalcanal.

The recruits are then unleashed on what is called the Basilone Obstacle Course, the biggest challenge they have yet faced.

The Marine Corps -- where the institutional DNA calls for continual remembrance and reverence of heroes and battles -- never tires of telling the Basilone story. (An early lecture given to recruits mentions Basilone, and Camp Pendleton has a main street named for him.)

Basilone, a tailor's son who never attended high school, served in the prewar Army in the Philippines, was a champion boxer and became a Marine machine gunner. After he and his fellow Marines stopped the more numerous Japanese at Guadalcanal, he was ordered to be part of a celebrity-laden war bond drive in the U.S., and he was featured in Life magazine. He turned down the chance to be an officer and ultimately finagled his way back to combat with "his boys," only to die at Iwo Jima.

But outside the Marines -- and Basilone's hometown of Raritan, N.J., where an annual parade is held in his honor -- the story has long since faded into obscurity.

Now comes a carefully reported, briskly written book by James Brady, "Hero of the Pacific: The Life of Marine Legend John Basilone," that could go a long way toward correcting that historical oversight.

Battle stories

Brady carefully reconstructs Basilone's courage at Guadalcanal, the subsequent bond drive and then the assault on Iwo Jima, where Basilone was killed leading a charge at heavily fortified enemy positions. For his actions on the "sulphur island," Basilone was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross and the Purple Heart.

Brady, who saw combat in Korea as a Marine officer, sifts through the differing accounts of Basilone at Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima, some written by Marines, some by Basilone family members. He finds some discrepancies but not enough to shake the essential story of remarkable courage and leadership under long odds and withering enemy fire.

The battle scenes in both campaigns are vivid and compelling, but it may be Brady's exposition of the bond drive and how the Hollywood-media-Marine Corps public relations apparatus turned Basilone into a national sensation that is the triumph of "Hero of the Pacific."

In the modern context, the concept of celebrity has been degraded and become synonymous with artifice. But in Basilone, a frightened nation found reassurance that the war could be won:

"Basilone was the goods and people got it. They recognized him for the real thing and when he spoke and cracked that lopsided Italian smile, the crowd understood this wasn't just a practiced performer. This was a genuine American legend come to town or to the gates of the big war plant. . . ."

As he notes in an epilogue, Brady was neither a scholar nor a historian. But neither was he given to hagiography. His Basilone is no saint: He tipples, he chases, he could be a pain to officers, particularly when stationed stateside.

Hollywood moment

Basilone did his duty on the bond drive and had some fun, including a possible fling with a Hollywood starlet. But in his heart he knew he possessed a skill that was desperately needed at the front:

"Peddling war bonds door-to-door was important, of course, the war had to be paid for, but there were plenty of good salesmen in American selling everything else from Fords to encyclopedias and patent medicines. There were only a relatively few men capable, strong enough, and sufficiently courageous to go into the jungle barefoot and armed in a tropical rainstorm at night and fight hand-to-hand with the flower of the Japanese imperial infantry."

After the bond drive, he was assigned to Camp Pendleton, where he married a fellow Marine sergeant, Lena Riggi, at a church in downtown Oceanside and, just weeks later, got his wish and, as a gunnery sergeant, shipped out with a combat unit. He was killed within hours of landing on the beach at Iwo Jima.

Brady died last year at age 80, soon after finishing "Hero of the Pacific." Probably best known for his entertainment column that ran for 25 years in Parade magazine, he also had several high-level editing and publishing jobs and wrote comic novels about life on Long Island and serious takes on the Marine Corps, including his own service in Korea.

In the military, one task of the brass is to team the right troops with the right mission. For Brady, with his deep understanding of the Marines, in peace and war, to have written -- revived really -- the story of John Basilone for modern audiences, that match has been accomplished.

tony.perry@latimes.com

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