Updated: Mar 27
The advent of COVID-19 has greatly reduced my blogging opportunities, so I am forced to fall back on "Old Reliables" that are inherently virus-resistant (memorials, statues, bridges, rocks, etc.). I was visiting my Mom in Denville, NJ, searched the local area, and discovered this opportunity.
The John Basilone Statue in Raritan, NJ honors perhaps the second most famous leatherneck¹ in Marine Corps history (after Chesty Puller, of course²). To be honest, until about ten years ago I was not familiar with him at all, except for noticing that there was a street named Basilone on every Marine Corps base I ever visited. That all changed when I watched the HBO tv series called The Pacific, which told the story of Sergeant Basilone as well as two other Marines who fought in the Pacific during WWII (Robert Leckie and Eugene Sledge³).
Quite simply the John Basilone story is an impressive one. He enlisted in the Army in 1934, served in the Philippines, and was discharged in 1937. Drove a truck in Maryland, but the pull of the Philippines was so great that he enlisted in the Marines in 1940, as he felt that this route could get him back to Manila faster than the Army. Assigned to the 1st Marine Division he played a key role in the Battle of Henderson Field, winning the Congressional Medal of Honor. Spent the next two years touring the States on a war bond drive. Turned down a commission and requested a return to combat. Killed in action on Iwo Jima on February 19, 1945, and posthumously awarded the Navy’s second-highest honor, the Navy Cross for actions thereon. Oh, and he married a fellow Marine in 1944, who never remarried and was buried in 1999 with her wedding ring.
This statue, which was dedicated on June 06, 1948, is as impressive as the man himself. It is larger than life, as the Sergeant must have appeared on October 24 1942, carrying a water-cooled Browning M1917A1 heavy machine gun, with an ammunition belt around his shirtless torso and dog tags around his neck (and a cross, he was a paisan after all).
From an artistic point of view, three things make this statue quite special:
• There are numerous statutes of men holding a rifle, but this is possibly the only one that has a man holding a machine gun.
• When this was sculpted in 1948 almost all statues were still quite traditional, with the subject in a formal pose that consisted of a stern or contemplative look, with a posed posture and formal clothing. Sargent Basilone is just the opposite, he is smiling and shirtless, in a very relaxed pose, with his right foot casually placed on a rock. You can almost feel the happiness of surviving a battle in which most of his comrades were either killed or wounded.
• His hands appear slightly exaggerated, which adds to the imposing yet friendly nature of the statue (no better friend, no worse enemy?). It didn't hurt that the Sergeant was a good-looking man, with a nice head of curly hair, a Greek or should I say Roman god.
It was sculpted by Phillip Orlando who was a friend of Basilone and a decorated WWII veteran himself. Perhaps his first-hand knowledge of the subject is what made this statue so magical. As while it appears Mr. Orlando was able to earn a living as a sculptor, I cannot find a single other statue that was sculpted by him.
1. The Raritan Library contains John Basilone Archives which includes a first-hand account of his time on the "Canal". It's a short read that contains a few great lines like "That night they sure hollered 'Marines, you die!'. But they died." and " . . . I fired both machine guns. I'd fire one and then roll over and fire the other."
2. If you're in New Jersey on September 26, 2021, then stop by Raritan for the annual John Basilone Memorial Parade.
Endnotes: I wanted to provide some very specific details that while vaguely interesting did not contribute to the overall narrative. Perhaps just wait until the end to read.
¹ Leatherneck is a slang term for a member of the Marine Corp due to the wearing of a leather "stock" or collar around the neck, which kept the posture erect (it was last worn in 1872). Other nicknames are Devil Dogs and Gyrene. As a former sailor, I am quite familiar with a fourth nickname, but in order to better preserve U.S. Naval Service camaraderie, I will forgo mentioning it.
² A Devil Dog subscriber while agreeing with me about Chesty Puller, mentioned that Dan Daly⁴, Alfred A. Cunningham, General "Mad Dog" Mattis, or Pressly O'Bannon may be the second most famous Marine. I defer to him on this matter, though I was “never a fan” of Mattis.
³ Robert Leckie wrote Helmet for my Pillow and Eugene Sledge wrote With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa. These two, plus Guadalcanal Diary are the trinity of books that document the WWII Marine experience.
⁴ Dan Daly, besides being awarded two Congressional Medal of Honors, is popularly attributed in Marine Corps lore, as yelling "Come on, you sons of bitches, do you want to live forever?" on June 06, 1918, during the Battle of Belleau Wood.