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Category:  Did You Know?
Published:  April, 2010

Did You Know?
I’ve always thought that Hollywood was, at times, guilty of sanitizing history.

I remember the night I saw John Wayne’s Vietnam effort (he co-directed and starred in it) The Green Beret in 1969.

The movie was set, in part, at Danang. I saw that movie at the Danang Air Base movie theatre, and the disapproving snickers among my fellow troops nearly drowned out the unrealistic dialogue on the screen.

Because of its utter lack of realism, the film could hardly be considered an historical document.

But in recent years, Hollywood has taken great care to present war as it really happened.

Clint Eastwood directed the companion films Letters from Iwo Jima (January of 2007) and Flags of our Fathers (October of 2006), which presented in uncompromising detail the battle for the tiny island of Iwo Jima during WWII.

HBO’s 2001 miniseries Band of Brothers was the equally vivid chronicle of the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne and their exploits from basic training until the end of WWII.

Band of Brothers had as its executive producers two of the biggest names in Hollywood, Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks.

Well, they’ve teamed up again for another 10 part HBO miniseries – The Pacific.

They’ve helped craft a startlingly frank portrayal of young U.S. Marines who flung themselves into battle in places many of them had never heard of until the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941.

And there is something even more fascinating to me about this heart-pounding, yet, sensitive piece of filmmaking. It has a definite tie to Fayette County, Pennsylvania at the heart of it.

John Basilone, one of the film’s true-life heroes, had parents who once lived in Connellsville and in Dunbar.

His uncle, Alfonso Basilone, and Alfonso’s son (Angelo Basilone) were two highly well-respected Connellsville businessmen. Alfonso was married to the sister of one of Uniontown’s most prominent citizens – Dr. Cataldo Corrado.

John Basilone was born in Buffalo, New York in 1916. He moved with his family to Raritan, New Jersey at an early age.

His father, Salvatore (a tailor) and his mother Dora had, for a time, lived in Connellsville and Dunbar during the early years of the 20th century.

John Basilone served in the U.S. Army between 1934 and 1937. When he mustered out, he took work as a truck driver.

But when war clouds began to gather in the late 1930’s, Basilone again volunteered for military service - this time it was The United States Marine Corps.

The film The Pacific follows him and two of his fellow Marines, from their lives with their families to the stark realities of Guadalcanal.

We’re witnesses to the rapid transformation of young boys who gladly left the comfort of their hometowns, to become men on the battlefield.

The HBO cameras do not flinch in showing every gritty, bloody, muddy detail of the battles.

In Part II of the miniseries, we see a full Japanese regiment of 3,000 men attacking the Marines in a marshy area known as Lunga.

Basilone (by then he had become a Gunnery Sgt. and platoon leader) is shown firing his machine-gun, and running from position-to-position carrying ammunition while, at the same time, he managed to fight-off Japanese soldiers who’d broken through the Marine’s battle-lines.

There is even one scene where Basilone shot down so many Japanese soldiers that a pile of their dead bodies obscured his line of vision. We next see him rush to the pile of corpses, and pull bodies from the pile in order to get better shots at the advancing enemy.

None of that, as it turns out, was the result of a Hollywood overstatement.

Those men who actually served with Basilone verified that it had happened.

Yet, there is even more proof that Messrs. Spielberg and Hanks took seriously their task of bringing the true accounts of those young Marines to the American public, in ways we rarely see them.

During the battle scenes in Part II, we clearly see Basilone’s attempts to keep firing at the enemy no matter how difficult it would become.

There is the close-up of him struggling to free a bullet that had jammed an idle 30 caliber machine gun. When he frees the gun’s mechanisms, he runs with it into the teeth of the Japanese assault.

On the front page of the November 2nd, 1943 edition of the Uniontown Morning Herald, there is the story about Basilone’s visit to Uniontown.

He had come to town after he’d been the first ever enlisted Marine to earn the Congressional Medal of Honor. He had returned to the United States as a genuine hero, to help sell war bonds.

He had been visiting his uncle Alfonso in Connellsville for a number of days. That day, he paid a visit to Dr. Cataldo Corrado (as I’ve mentioned) who was the brother of Basilone’s aunt (Carmella).

His account of that fateful day in Guadalcanal is exactly what we see in the miniseries.

"Every time they knocked out one of our guns I rushed in another from the opposite flank,” he said.

“Then, while the Japs tried to sneak in on all sides, I tinkered with the two broken guns and managed to repair them,” he concluded without knowing that 67 years later Hollywood would tell that story in such minute and graphic detail.

Next week I’ll conclude the story of John Basilone and his ties to Fayette County. The Pacific can be seen on Sunday nights at 9PM on HBO.