Italian Heritage in New Jersey: John Basilone

In an earlier post, I noted that Italian immigrants and Americans of Italian descent made up approximately 10% of the entire fighting force during World War II; more than any other ethnicity. Despite Italian immigrants kept under surveillance and some put in containment camps, they volunteered by the thousands to fight against their Motherland.

One such great child of Italian immigrants was John Basilone from Raritan, New Jersey. One of 10 children, Basilone was born in Buffalo, New York in 1916. He grew up in Raritan. At age 15 he dropped out of school to work locally for a short time before joining the military.

Staff Sergeant John Basilone
Source: Wikipedia

He first enlisted in the Army in July 1934 and completed his three-year enlistment with service in the Philippines. Basilone was initially assigned to the 16th Infantry at Fort Jay, New York, before being discharged for a day, reenlisting, and being assigned to the 31st Infantry.

After his discharge from the Army, he again worked locally for a short period of time; this time as a truck driver. He wanted to return to Manilla and serve once again, so he reenlisted; this time as a Marine.

He went to recruit training at Parris Island, followed by training at Marine Corps Base Quantico and New River. The Marines sent him to Guantánamo Bay for his next assignment and then to Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands as a member of “D” Company, 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, 1st Marine Division.

In 1943, he returned to the United States to help with the War Bond effort. He was highlighted in Life and Movietone News. His hometown of Raritan had a parade in his honor. He helped raise money for the War effort.

While he appreciated all the accolades, he really wanted to be back fighting for his country. He requested a return to active duty multiple times. He was offered a commission, which he turned down, and was later offered an assignment as an instructor, but refused this as well. When he requested again to return to the war, the request was approved. He left for Camp Pendleton, California, for training on December 27. On July 3, 1944, he reenlisted in the Marine Corps.

After his request to return to the fleet was approved, Basilone was assigned to “C” Company, 1st Battalion, 27th Marine Regiment, 5th Marine Division. On February 19, 1945, the first day of the invasion of Iwo Jima, he was serving as a machine gun section leader on Red Beach II. With his unit pinned down, Basilone made his way around the side of the Japanese positions until he was directly on top of the blockhouse. He then attacked with grenades and demolitions, single-handedly destroying the entire strong point and its defending garrison. He continued to fight alongside service members until the very end. It is believed he was killed by a burst of small arms fire.

His actions helped Marines penetrate the Japanese defense and get off the landing beach during the critical early stages of the invasion. Basilone was posthumously awarded the Marine Corps’ second-highest decoration for valor, the Navy Cross, for extraordinary heroism during the battle of Iwo Jima.

He was the only enlisted Marine to receive both the Navy Cross and the Medal of Honor in World War II. Two United States Navy destroyers bear his name.

He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery, in Arlington, Virginia. He left behind his wife, Lena Mae Riggi, who was a sergeant in the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve during World War II. They met while he was stationed at Camp Pendleton.

Basilone made America proud, especially at a time when the country needed heroes. He stood up to be counted in the new homeland of his family. He made not just his country proud, but New Jersey proud, as well as those of us who count ourselves among the 1.5 million New Jerseyans of Italian descent proud. We owe him a debt of gratitude that can never be repaid.

Italian Heritage in New Jersey: Joseph Rotunda

Many of us have passed by Rotunda Pool in Newark on our way to St. Lucy’s Church or coming out of Branch Brook Park and have not given it a second thought. It is, however, an important location in the community and New Jersey Italian heritage.

The Rotunda Pool plaque
Source: Newark Historical Society

Rotunda Pool is named after Private Joseph Ralph Rotunda Jr., the first soldier from Newark’s Italian-American community to die in World War II. The dedication of this pool stands a testament to his sacrifice, as well as the sacrifices of the countless Italian immigrants and Americans of Italian decent that fought on behalf of their new homeland. The official renaming from Clifton Pool to Rotunda Pool took place in 1966.

By the early twentieth-century, approximately 21,000 Italian immigrants made Newark the fifth largest Italian-American community in the country.

Private Rotunda was killed by a land mine while serving with Cannon Company, 168th Infantry, in Tunisia, Northern Africa, as part of the first invasion forces. He had only been overseas for three months. A letter to the family from Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, dated June 9, 1943, informed the family that their son was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart.

On June 16, 1943, the Newark Evening News reported on an announcement from the War Department which listed the death of Private Joseph R. Rotunda, Jr. as one of four soldiers from New Jersey to lose their lives in combat. In total 229 U.S. soldiers were reported killed in action in North Africa and 630 more wounded, 11 of whom were from New Jersey.

In February 1944, after seeking permission from Joseph Rotunda, Sr., officials from the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) designated the Pvt. Joseph R. Rotunda Jr. Post (No. 848) in honor of the “first soldier from the First Ward to be killed in action in this war.” This post became the ninth V.F.W. unit in Newark.

So next time you ride past Rotunda pool, maybe take a moment and bow your head or tip your cap to the memory of Private Rotunda.