|When 30,000 People Came to Raritan
John Basilone’s 1943 Welcome Home Parade
|After John Basilone was awarded The Congressional Medal of Honor for heroics at Guadalcanal, he was ordered home to help sell war bonds. Before he was sent on the bond tour, he would be granted a couple of weeks leave at home. The town of Raritan was proud that one of their own had been awarded the country’s highest honor and plans were made to have a homecoming parade in his honor.
The parade chairman was Judge George Allgair. He served as a judge in the Somerville court system and the town’s attorney. He immediately set the bar high for this event saying “It will be the greatest day in the history of Raritan”. The day when Johnny would come marching home was set for Sunday, September 19th, 1943. The organizers called it “John Basilone Day”.
Anticipating the public would turn out in vast numbers for the parade, the organizers realized that the town of Raritan would not be big enough, so they planned to start the parade in Somerville and end it in Raritan.
| After much planning and anticipation, John Basilone Day arrived. At 8 AM, John Basilone was picked up by members of the parade committee at Marine Headquarters in New York City. He was then driven to meet with the Bridgewater/Raritan Township Committee. Waiting until the day of the parade to bring John into town, as opposed to days before, added to the excitement.
At 10 AM, mass was said in his honor at St. Ann’s Church on Anderson Street in Raritan. He asked that mass be said in honor of his buddies still in Guadalcanal. Mass that day was given by Father Robert Graham - a priest from Somerville who was very active on the homefront during the war. He said in his sermon “Sergeant Basilone’s life will be a guide to American Youth. God had spared him for some important work.”
At 11:30 there was a lunch in Basilone’s honor headed by the reception committee at The Raritan Valley Farms Inn - a popular restaurant that was located on the Somerville Circle where the Super 8 Motel is today.
|Then at 1 PM, the parade started. The streets of Somerville and Raritan were packed. The local papers later gave estimates of the attendance with the lowest estimate 30,000 and the highest 50,000. The number of groups marching in the parade was also very large and diverse. Some of the groups marching included The American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), state and local police, service men on leave, French Navy Soldiers, Coast Guard, Drum and Bugle Corps, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Red Cross Units, Air Raid Wardens, The Italian American Society, Raritan First Aid Squad, soldiers from Camp Kilmer, and various marching bands.
One parade marcher was another Congressional Medal of Honor winner, John Reilly, who had won his honors in The Spanish-American War way back in 1898
|John Basilone rode in an open car with his parents Sal and Dora - who beamed with pride throughout the day. Also in his car was Private Stephen Helstowski of Pitsfield, Massachusetts. Stephen had fought with John at Guadalcanal and had been injured in the battle. John sat on top of the back seat (between his parents) acknowledging cheers from the crowd. His car moved slowly allowing John to shake hands with various people, including a group of veterans from World War I.
The atmosphere along the parade route was impressive. Signs were hung saying”Welcome Home Sergeant J. Basilone”. There were flags everywhere and John Basilone’s picture was in many storefronts. Raritan resident and business owner, Charley Glaser, in a 2005 interview, perhaps summed the day up best describing it as “electrifying”. The residents were amazed that such a big event was held in Raritan with so many politicians and celebrities in attendance.
It was a very emotional parade, as the war had consumed people’s lives in many ways, through missed loved ones overseas, the rationing of goods, the constant news reports, and the ever increasing number of casualties of the local men who were fighting the war.
|The parade itself was only the first half of the festivities that day.
The parade route had ended in a large field that was just over the Nevius Street Bridge. (Tobacco heiress Doris Duke owned this property.)
In this field, a platform and sound system would be set up. Behind the platform was the grandstand where 250 important people from the state, military and entertainment world sat. John’s parents were seated in the front of the grandstand. At 3 PM, the second half of Basilone Day began. Speeches were given.
Songs were sung. Bonds were sold. A blimp, a big deal in 1943, flew overhead. The master of ceremonies was Harry Hershfield, a popular New York Columnist, who was also host of a radio show called Can You Top This. The program started with the singing of The National Anthem by a local rising singing star from Raritan, Catherine Mastice. Then Father Russo of St. Ann’s said the invocation.
|Next a $5000 war bond was presented to John Basilone by parade organizer George Allgair. John Basilone addressed the crowd:
“I want to thank you Judge Allgair and these very good home folks of Raritan for this wonderful gift. For all my buddies overseas on the front lines - that they really appreciate everything you wonderful people are doing by backing the attack and buying these war bonds. Today is like a dream to me. Thank you all for everything from the bottom of my heart.”
|One Speaker was former Senator Joseph S. Frelinghuysen Sr. - whose son was at that time in an enemy POW camp. Frelinghuysen said,
“Today, on the far flung battle fronts of the world, some 600 brave lads from Raritan have
answered the drum beat of war; and you John are living witness that they fight valiantly and not in vain. Sergeant Basilone … may I express personally to you the feeling of respect and admiration I have for the fine honor you displayed when, in recounting your experiences you said so modestly ‘I think only a part of this medal belongs to me; pieces of it belong to the boys who fought by my side.’ ”
While Frelinghuysen was speaking, John Basilone’s 5 year old niece, Janice, who was his brother Angelo’s daughter, snuck up on the platform and sat with John. The crowd roared in response. Janice remained with John for most of the program.
|Another speaker was ex-New York City Mayor James J. Walker. He praised Raritan and its Italian heritage. Those present said that he was the most dynamic, inspiring speaker of the day. Highlights from his talk were:
“The Italian-American and the Italian Soldier are as valiant as exist when they’ve got something to fight for. Sergeant Basilone is an inspiration, not only to other Italian–Americans, but to all Americans.”
For entertainment, there was a singing quartet from the Coast Guard, who came wearing their uniforms and sailor hats. The Somerset Messenger Gazette said they “stole the show”. They received a terrific round of applause after each song. They were even called back for an unplanned encore.
Two Hollywood stars, Louise Allbriton and Virginia O’Brien, were present at the parade and rally. Louise Allbriton surprised and delighted everyone when she kissed John Basilone on stage. The crowd let out a tremendous roar. She then repeated the kiss a second time, in order to give the cameramen a chance to get their pictures. John’s sister Mary, who was close by, later wrote how John turned bright red upon his kiss with the beautiful movie star.
Three stars of New York Night Clubs were on hand - Maurice Rocco, Bob Morris, and Danny Thomas - who was at the beginning of his career. (Thomas would later have his own T.V. show, The Danny Thomas Show.)
Catherine Mastice, who had earlier sung The National Anthem, returned to the microphone to sing a new song especially written for the event. It was called Manila John.
Toward the end of the event, Master of Ceremonies Harry Herchfield talked John’s dad Salvatore into saying something to the crowd in Italian. Many understood his message, as Raritan was then a second generation Italian town, where the older people often spoke Italian. The two hour program closed with God Bless America.
|The parade was covered by all the local papers and The New York Times. Life Magazine ran a four page story on Basilone Day. The Fox Movietone News made a newsreel that was shown at movie theatres throughout the country. The next week the local people flocked to the theatres to see this short footage, and oh yes, to see the regular movie as well. This newsreel footage which is just one minute and ten seconds long is a true delight. The first scene of the newsreel shows John riding in a car on Main Street in Somerville. The camera’s position was high above and the video shows the large enthusiastic crowd on both sides of the street. The whole spirit of the event is captured in this shot. The real gem is at the end of the newsreel, when John Basilone speaks to the crowd at the rally. This audio of Basilone talking is just1 of the 2 that is known to exist.
|John Basilone Day was an overwhelming success. Newspapers raved about how wonderful everything went.
Judge Allgair who had led the organization of the parade had made good on his promise that it would be “The greatest day in the history of Raritan” –
for it definitely was. Even the weather turned out perfect for John Basilone Day.
On his big day, John Basilone did not disappoint anyone who came to see him. He acknowledged the crowd throughout the day and spoke briefly at the bond rally. However, personally he said that he was overwhelmed by it all. On the speakers stand he wished he would have said more, but the words just would not come out. Some friends said he was not himself the day of the parade. Everyone wanted to shake his hand or touch the medal. Some security people were necessary during parts of day to keep the well-meaning crowd back.
John Basilone remained in Raritan for a few weeks after the parade. During this period the town was thrilled to have him back. A couple times kids would gather outside the Basilone home (which was located where the Shell Station is today at the corner of 202 and First Ave.) and chant for John to come outside to talk with them. John was always happy to talk with the local kids.
|After a few weeks at home he went on the Bond Tour along with celebrities Virginia Grey and John Garfield. After the tour the top military brass told John that he had done enough for the war on the battlefront and his orders were now to work a desk job on the homefront. However, “Manila John” felt a Marine in wartime does belong at a desk, thus he asked to go back in action. Eventually he was granted his wish to return to the boys.
|On February 19th, 1945 Basilone helped get a stalled attack started at Iwo Jima, but he was killed later that same morning. For his heroics at Iwo Jima he was awarded The Navy Cross.