Categories: Military leadership

Developing the Inspiration to Fight for Victory on the Battlefield and in Life Part 1 of 3

GySgt John Basilone, a USMC Medal of Honor, Navy Cross, and Purple Heart recipient from the WWII era is rightfully revered by Marines throughout the generations due to his courageous leadership under fire in some of the most desperate battles in WWII. Reading more about his life, something that struck me was he didn’t just teach his Marines how to fight in a tactical sense. He prepped their minds, hearts, and souls for battle...

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“Japanese tactics weren’t varied, but they were spooky as hell. They’d start by tooting horns and whistles and shouting parroted threats like, “Marine, you die!” Next, they’d lay down a pattern of mortar and artillery fire, and when that lifted, you knew they were ready to banzai. Basilone recalled that night for me later: ponchos off, machine-gun water hoses checked and tightened, new rounds chambered.

And as the fires lifted, the Japanese broke cover, charging uphill in a full-scale frontal assault. ‘Awright,’ Basilone yelled. ‘Give it to ‘em!” Leatherneck machine guns thundered along the line, lighting their muzzles with tongues of fire. In the darkness below, the muzzle-blasts of Hotchkiss and Nambus replied, while from the slopes and ravines Arasakis flashed like fireflies.” (The Life and Death of “Manila John” by William Douglas Lansford)

In military history especially in movies, there is something to be said about the depiction of larger than life leaders whether they be enlisted or officers…individuals whom you just naturally would follow to the death. GySgt John Basilone, a Marine Corps Medal of Honor, Navy Cross, and Purple Heart recipient from the WWII era is undoubtedly one of those men. He is rightfully revered by Marines and military professionals throughout the generations who have worn the uniform since the World War II era concluded due to his courageous leadership under fire in some of the most desperate battles in US history.

Reading more about his life, something that struck me was John Basilone didn’t just teach his Marines how to fight in a tactical sense. He did that certainly with his machine gun drills and other training regimes, but he did much more. He understood something deeper that when bullets were flying, warriors need a fire lit in their soul that will keep burning when all hell breaks loose. They need a fire lit in their hearts when the easiest thing to do is to run away or to just lay down and die.

After John’s combat actions in Guadalcanal which are highlighted in the top paragraph, John received the Congressional Medal of Honor. He was brought home to help raise money for the war effort. He was a national hero. Movie stars, politicians, everyday people…even the president wanted to meet this iconic man. Even the Marine Corps institutional leadership wanted him to stay home and continue supporting the war effort of WWII by helping raise war bonds for front line troops and equipment. No doubt this was important. But there were plenty of salesman in America at that time and not necessarily enough warriors who could face the elite Japanese Army in the jungles of the Pacific Theater.

John wasn’t happy about his lot in life at this point. Not one bit. He wanted to be back on the front lines with his men. His fellow Marines. He wanted to continue to train them, fight alongside them, and ultimately lead them to victory. He wanted to do what he could to get himself and them to come home alive. John got his wish. He was given orders to 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, now known as “Chesty Puller’s” battalion named affectionately after the most decorated Marine in history who once led this storied unit.

John was given the opportunity to train Marines who would later fight on “X Island” which would soon be known to them as “Iwo Jima”, arguably one of the toughest battles in US history and certainly one of the most defining battles for the US Marine Corps. From one of the Marines who served with him, it is written:

“Basilone did more than drill us. He taught our recruits the meaning of esprit de corps, and in those of us who had fought, he rekindled a desire to fight again. His simplicity, his cheerfulness, his grasp of human nature, and the charm and easy grace with which he carried his honors gave us not only confidence but pride. We were “Basilone’s boys” and envied for it.” (The Life and Death of “Manila John” by William Douglas Lansford).

As I pondered this paragraph, I wondered where John first got his courage, humility, and deep understanding of human nature that enabled him to connect with his men and inspire their fierce loyalty in battle. Was it boot camp? How about initial infantry training stabbing bayonets into hay filled dummies while yelling kill? What gave John the character he needed for himself and his men to persevere through horrific battles to ultimately find victory…even in death if that is what it meant. Reading “The Life and Death of ‘Manila John’, it struck me that John seems to receive the development of his heart and soul early on from his parents:

“Mr. Basilone [John’s dad], had come from Italy to be a tailor and raise an American family. Meanwhile, Mrs. Basilone, a motherly Catholic lady, had not neglected the spiritual upbringing of her children. John and his nine brothers and sisters were taught to love God, work hard, and honor their country.” (The Life and Death of “Manila John” by William Douglas Lansford)

I don't know if you believe in God. I don't know if you still believe that there is greatness still to be found in your country or have become a hardened cynic upset at the state of social and political affairs in it. Regardless, something that you can take away here is this: John’s mother in particular did not just rely on the local school, the parish priest, or Sunday school to raise her children. She took it seriously to live out and speak out about her faith in God and her country. It seems so old school and so archaic these days and yet maybe there is something us enlightened ones in the 21st century can learn from her example.

John’s father, a devout Catholic, a family man, and a daring Italian immigrant determined to make a new life in the free world as a bold entrepreneur also left an impression on young John but more on that later in a blog post tomorrow.

In my mind John’s belief and willingness to fight in a cause bigger than himself must have been born from the values of his parents. This in my mind is where John learned how to develop rapport in his fellow Marines to get them to follow him…to the death if need be. John was the real deal. However, I believe a mistake can be made when looking at the inspiration that his Marines received from him in combat by only observing his actions on the battlefield as if he were just a real life depiction of “Rambo”. As William Lansford who served with him wrote, the Marines trained and led by John Basilone affectionally called themselves “Basilone’s Boys” and were the envy of others. They modeled what he taught them to keep them alive in the jungles of Guadalcanal and later face down their giants on the hell on earth that was known to be the volcanic rock of Iwo Jima. John’s Marines were proud to serve under his leadership. Such trust and affection like this is not birthed from going through the motions of managing tactical drills, delivering tasks, managing field day inspections, or correcting a junior service member on an error in how they are wearing their uniform. No. These things are important and must be done, but in the thick of battle, these actions alone are not enough to inspire fierce loyalty in the face of death.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series. Until then, remember, land of the free because of the brave.

Fit for the Fight and Life,

Chris Reardon


Freedom Fitness America