Monday, May 03, 2010

His Last Battle

Sunday's episode of "The Pacific" — the eighth of the 10-part HBO miniseries — depicted the death of Congressional Medal of Honor recipient John Basilone (played by Jon Seda) during the first day of fighting on Iwo Jima. William Lansford, a Marine and Angeleno, also fought that day in Iwo Jima and recalls his friendship with the famous Marine gunnery sergeant and his last day

In late 1944, after two years in the Pacific as a Marine with Carlson's Raiders, I rotated stateside and received a 30-day furlough. I was supposed to rest, visit my family and enjoy life among civilians, but none of it really worked.

Unable to adjust to the complexities of wartime civilian life, I lied to my parents, saying my leave was up, and boarded a bus for Camp Pendleton with a week left of my furlough.

In Pendleton I reported and was assigned to Company C, 27th Regiment of the newly formed 5th Division, but being early, I was told I'd find the area deserted. They were right. The new barracks stood empty, the bunks had no mattresses, the rifle racks were bare, the empty halls echoing.

Outside again, I was surprised to see a young Marine smiling at me. He wore khaki, with sergeant's stripes, and in no way resembled the muscular giant depicted in oils on a recent cover of Collier's magazine. Actually, he looked much like any other Marine, but what caught my eye was the tiny blue ribbon spangled with white stars pinned over his other ribbons. It was, unmistakably, the Congressional Medal of Honor and the smiling guy was John Basilone.

Serving with Basilone was a brief but golden period of the war for me. He never barked like the other gunnery sergeants but ruled like a wiser, older brother looking after his younger siblings, with humor and a style all his own. Under the hot California sun, with our faces stuck in the dust of Camp Pendleton, he could pick up a draggy machine gun drill with "Awright, ya goldbricks. Ya cut the time on settin' them guns up or don't expect no liberty come Friday!" And we did it because we knew he was the best machine gunner in the Corps and we wanted to be like him.

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