1945
John Basilone, a winner of the Congressional Medal of Honor, dies in battle. He is one of many Italian American honorees of World War II.


The United States established the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1862 as the military's highest award for combat valor. Approximately two dozen such awards have been bestowed on Italian Americans, with thirteen -the largest cohort earned during the Second World War -a supreme testing time for Italian Americans beset by questions of loyalty. To counter such imputation the ethnic community extended itself in many capacities such as working in defense plants, donating, blood, and buying war bonds. Performance on the field of battle where blood was shed and lives lost, however, was the peerless test of patriotism. This was the place where so many extended themselves.

Marine Sergeant John Basilone (1916-1945) stands as among the best known of Congressional Medal of Honor winners in that conflagration. Born in Buffalo, New York he grew up in Raritan, New Jersey, one of ten children of an Italian immigrant tailor. He joined the Army for a three-year hitch in 1933. In 1940 he enlisted in the Marines and saw action in the Pacific in the early phases of the war, particularly as American forces went on the offensive in Guadalcanal in 1942. Basilone, in charge of a machine-gun section, showed his mettle in the face of a devastating Japanese counterattack that endangered the entire American mission, by rescuing two Marines and killing numerous enemy soldiers that contributed mightily to annihilating a Japanese regiment. Following the act of heroism, Basilone was sent home where he was joined by movie actors and was sent on a mission to encourage Americans to buy war bonds. Hugely popular among Italian Americans, he was credited with raising nearly $1.5 million in ten days. Eschewing the shelter of stateside assignment, he requested return to action. In February 1945 he was part of a Marine force engaged in some of the nastiest fighting of the war on island of Iwo Jima. He single-handedly destroyed an enemy strong point but was killed in action. For this extraordinary performance he was awarded the Navy Cross posthumously. The Basilone name was remembered in a destroyer named after him as is a Sons of Italy lodge.

Other World War II Italian Americans to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor were William Bianchi, Frank J. Petrarca, Ralph Cheli, Anthony Damato, Arthur DeFranzo, Gino Merli, Vito Bertoldo, Joseph J. Ciccheti, Mike Colalillo, Robert F. Viale, Peter Dalessandro, and Anthony Casamento. Dalessandro was believed to be the second most decorated World War II veteran with three purple hearts, two Silver Stars, a Bronze Star, and the French Croix de Guerre. There were, in addition, many other Italian Americans who, although not Congressional Medal of Honor winners, nevertheless performed heroically. Don Gentile, who was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross by General Dwight Eisenhower for breaking Eddie Rickenbacker's record of enemy planes destroyed, is only one example. Clearly these heroes played a major role in validating the Americanism, not only of Italian Americans of that era, but also of their descendants.






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