He’s a legend in Raritan, Bridgewater and throughout the country—and now he is being honored officially by New Jersey for his service.
John Basilone, a war hero and former Raritan resident, has been selected as one of the 13 people to be inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame for 2011.
Other nominees include Tony Bennett, Mary Higgins Clark, Admiral William “Bull” Halsey, Martha Stewart, Queen Latifah and John Travolta.
Basilone was a United States Marine Gunnery Sergeant, and the only enlisted Marine in World War II to receive the Medal of Honor and the Navy Cross. While fighting in Guadalcanal, he held off 3,000 Japanese troops after most of his 15-member unit was killed, and was then killed himself on the first day of the Battle of Iwo Jima.
“This is a significant honor for Raritan,” said Raritan Borough Mayor Jo-Ann Liptak of the honor. “We have been promoting John’s achievements for many years in many ways, including the U.S. Postage Stamp and naming the bridge in his honor. There will be a building named for him at Montclair State University in the near future.”
Liptak said the gala to induct all nominees will be held in June, and she believes there will be some kind of celebration in Raritan at some point, though the details are not yet clear.
“John truly should have been in the initial class of inductees,” she said. “He and Admiral William ‘Bull’ Halsey are obviously war heroes, but from what I have been told about John he would be embarrassed by the attention. He was very shy and uncomfortable with crowds.”
For Diane Hawkins, one of Basilone’s nieces, this is another great honor for an uncle who has been a huge influence in her life.
“I was extremely proud and honored and excited when I heard,” she said. “He’s been a legend in the community and in New Jersey for a long time. His name has been out there for a while and I guess everyone felt it was only a natural thing for him to be honored.”
According to Hawkins, the state makes a list with different categories of people who would qualify to be in the Hall of Fame, and then residents can vote for their choices. Anyone can vote, she said, and Basilone was one of the ones chosen.
“I’m sure Raritan was very proud, and I imagine they felt really good about it,” she said. “They’ve been keeping the legacy alive for years with the annual parade. I’m on the parade committee, and they have been doing lots of things to honor him.”
Liptak said she taught local history when she was a third grade teacher in 1980 at the John F. Kennedy Primary School, and she took the students on a walking tour of the downtown area in Raritan. The last stop on the tour, she said, was the Basilone Statute, where the children had a chance to read the inscription and engage in a discussion.
“After we got back into the classroom, we debriefed on our trip and the conversation was quite animated about John Basilone, especially among the boys,” she said. “Someone suggested that we needed to celebrate and honor John with a special day.”
The students, Liptak said, wrote letters to then Mayor Steve DelRocco asking for help, and later formed the John Basilone Parade Committee.
“The first parade was held in 1981, and 30 years later, we are still going strong,” she said. “It is the only parade in the United States that honors an enlisted man.”
“The people in town tell me that they are so proud to be the hometown of such a great war hero,” she added.
Hawkins said the parade grows each year, and has become a full weekend honoring Basilone, with fireworks on Friday, a band performance on Saturday and the parade itself on Sunday.
“The people are very proud, and it makes them feel good, like they are rewarded as well,” she said.
As for a hall of fame honor, Hawkins said her uncle had actually been inducted into a “hall of fame” set up by the Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Fort Lee a while back.
“They made a wall to put my uncle and others on it because the VFW believe he deserved to be in a hall of fame,” she said. “And then they were the first to give me the news [about the New Jersey Hall of Fame].”
James Viola, commander of the VFW in Fort Lee, said Basilone should have been nominated years ago.
“He never should have been left out in the first place,” Viola said. “We have him outside the post with a big plaque with him and those who raised the flag in Iwo Jima.”
Viola said he believes Basilone should have been honored years ago because he was an actual hero who served New Jersey and the country as a whole.
“You have to honor someone who did something in the community, and for the state of New Jersey,” he said. “I said, what about honoring the average someone who has done something for his community?”
Hawkins, whose mother was Basilone’s sister, said she has been listening to stories about him since she was young, and grew up in the house he lived in.
And when she was young, one of her aunts told her that, one day, she should do something to tell her uncle’s story.
In addition to her participation in the HBO film “The Pacific,” in which Basilone was featured, Hawkins has been working on a documentary about her uncle’s life and service to the community.
“I’ve been really connected even more so in the past years because of working on the movie and this documentary and meeting all the men my uncle fought with,” she said. “He’s been very much alive in my spirit.”
Hawkins is now in the process of putting together “Legacy of a Hero,” the documentary focusing on Basilone and the impact he had on so many people.
“It is my journey to find my uncle, and find out who he was,” she said.
She has traveled all over the world, Hawkins said, visiting people who knew Basilone and his accomplishments.
“I have been in and out of Paris, and I went to Iwo Jima, Guam and California to interview veterans who knew him,” she said. “I am preparing to go to the Philippines where he received his medal.”
For Hawkins, the decision to do the documentary to honor her uncle has been something she has kept with her for years, something she has always wanted to do.
“It’s been something that has haunted me all my life,” she said. “There was supposed to be a film about him and it never came to fruition, but my aunt said it would be great to have a film.”
“He was known in the Marine Corps and in the community, and when he got the medal, people all over the world knew him because he was on the radio and in the papers,” she said. “Then he was not as well known after he died.”
Hawkins said it was tough to sell this kind of documentary, but became easier after Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks produced “The Pacific,” which aired on HBO.
“John Basilone became more visible to the public, and I thought it would be a good time to get done what I had always wanted to do, and see who he was,” she said.
For Hawkins herself, she said she saw Basilone as someone she should strive to be like in her life.
“I always felt close to him because my aunts talked about him all the time,” she said. “I felt like he was such a strong dynamic man. Whenever I had difficulties in life, I thought about how he must have dug down to do what he did, and it inspired me to accomplish my goals.”
“He was a perfect example for me even though I didn’t know him,” she said.
Hawkins said she hopes to have the documentary finished by the end of the summer.
In addition to this, Hawkins is planning to take over the Sgt. John Basilone Foundation, currently run by her cousin, Jerry Cutter. She said she is currently one of the directors, but will be taking over soon.
And through the foundation, Hawkins said, she is hoping to raise funds to continue her documentary. Contributions to the foundation have been put toward filming, and, once that is complete, donations will be used to help military families and provide scholarships to ROTC students.
“Our new mission will be to help those with post traumatic stress disorder because we feel very strongly about it,” she said.
Those who would like to donate can find information on the foundation’s website at sgtjohnbasilone.com.
With all that she has learned about her uncle through her work on the documentary, Hawkins said she continues to believe that her uncle’s induction into the New Jersey Hall of Fame is very well-deserved.
“It’s nice because it’s kind of what my documentary is about, that we show a younger generation what men of this area did for our freedom,” she said. “It’s nice to see that someone who risked his life at such a young age is not forgotten.”
“He didn’t get to live, and we didn’t get to meet him, but we’re living with him right now,” she added. “Almost 66 years later, having the chance to hear about him and honor him, that’s a blessing.”