John Basilone is a Marine Corps legend, but few know his wife, Lena Mae Riggi, was a Marine too. Born in Portland, Oregon, to Italian immigrants, Lena enlisted in the Marine Corps after a stint in business school. Her parents were resistant to the idea. As a woman, Lena could not be deployed to the Pacific Theater, and was instead stationed at Camp Pendleton. Lena was a field cook on base, having attained the rank of Sergeant. It was there she caught the eye of Sgt. John Basilone. Basilone’s own recollection is telling:
I saw her as I came down the serving line…Black hair, dark eyes, and she walked around like she owned the place…At first it was just a look between us. There was nothing on it. No wink or smile like we knew something special between us. It was just her looking at me from a distance taking stock of me and me looking back at her. I nodded and she might have nodded, or not, but she wasn’t falling all over herself, to get to know me. I liked this girl. She was tough. And she was a sergeant, the rules against fraternizing didn’t apply. (James Brady, “Hero of the Pacific”)
Though John Basilone had traveled around the country with movie stars and met his share of fawning women, Lena was not impressed with his celebrity status.
Sgt. Riggi waited for the gossips to tire themselves out, looked at them, and said ‘So what?’ She was the girl for me. When she saw me again she pretended like no one else told her a thing about me and that was just the way I liked it. (James Brady, “Hero of the Pacific”)
Basilone had his own discomfort with his celebrity status, and Lena’s ability to look past it had drawn John to her. With his deployment imminent, they were married in short time.
Though their time together was brief, it was happy. Less than a year after they married, John was killed in action in an exchange of heavy gunfire on the island of Iwo Jima. He died February 19, 1945. Lena was informed of his death on March 7, 1945 – her 32nd birthday. Though she survived her husband by more than 50 years, Lena never remarried. She once told a friend: “Once you have the best, you can’t settle for less.” Despite the loss of the love of her life, Lena lived a full life, staying active in many veterans associations including the American Veterans Auxilliary and the Women’s Marine Association. Beloved by many in the community, Lena’s legacy should live on with her husband’s. Though she christened the Navy destroyer ship USS Basilone in 1949, she did not live to see the 17-mile stretch of the 5 Freeway near Camp Pendleton dedicated as the ‘Gunnery Sergeant John Basilone Memorial Freeway.’
Sgt. Lena Mae Basilone passed in 1999, at the age of 86. Though the federal government offered to bury Lena in the Arlington National Cemetary, near her husband, she refused the offer as “she didn’t want to cause trouble for everyone.” She was interred instead at the Riverside National Cemetary. We honor Sgt. Basilone here at American Heroes Smokehouse, and hope her legacy of service lives on and inspires other female veterans and veteran spouses.