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John Basilone's last battle

The Congressional Medal of Honor recipient who died on Iwo Jima — and whose heroism is resurrected in 'The Pacific' — is recalled by a World War II comrade.

May 03, 2010|By William Douglas Lansford

On the morning of Feb. 19, 1945, we hit Red Beach on Iwo and started climbing its black sides under a storm of enemy mortars and artillery. Basilone had landed one wave earlier.

Having assaulted a pillbox on the beach, Basilone gathered several Marines and left them to hold while he went back for more men and weapons.

On his way, Basilone spotted three Sherman tanks struggling up the beach under heavy fire. Knowing their value for knocking out bunkers, Basilone began guiding the tanks and pointing out targets while completely exposed.

Once on high ground, Basilone resumed rounding up troops for the assault team he had started building. To do this he'd have to recross the steep volcanic beach where many Marines were still pinned down by the enemy's relentless shelling and well-camouflaged pillboxes.

It was almost noon, and throughout the battle Basilone had risked his life repeatedly. It seemed nothing could touch him.

Many men have said they saw John Basilone fall on the beach, which he did not. One said Basilone's legs were blown off by a mine. Several claim they heard Basilone's final words, and one said Basilone begged to be put out of his misery with his own pistol. It's all fiction.

The most credible eyewitness is Roy Elsner — the headquarters cook who had watched our machine-gun drills back in Pendleton and knew Basilone by sight. He said that when he and some buddies were hunting for their headquarters: "A few hundred yards from Motoyama Field No. 1 we heard an explosion, which caused us to look [toward the field]. We saw Basilone and the three guys who were with him fall."

Some time after noon I came across a group of blackened bodies on the edge of Motoyama Airfield No. 1. Company C was advancing half a mile ahead, sweeping the flat field clean, when one of the dead caught my eye. He was a thin, pallid kid. His helmet was half off, and he lay face up, arched over his combat pack, with his jacket torn back and his mouth open. I vaguely recognized someone I had known in that lean, lifeless face beneath its dusty stubble of hair.

Someone said, "That's Basilone."

I walked around and asked, "Is this Basilone?"

A guy I knew said, "Yeah. He was briefing his guys when a mortar scored a direct hit. It killed them all."

I sat and studied the dead man closely, but I didn't touch him. The shell had landed at his feet, sending shrapnel into his groin, neck and left arm. He looked incredibly thin, like an undernourished kid, with his hands on his stomach as though it hurt. This was the hero of Guadalcanal, the joy of a nation, the pride of the Marines and my friend, John Basilone.

calendar@latimes.com

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