Kansas City Joe and Manila John
Thomas Calabrese –Joe Bossanova was born in Kansas City, Missouri on November 4, 1917. He was fifth of eight children. His father, Pietro emigrated from Palermo and his mother was from Catania. Both cities are in Sicily. Joe attended St. John the Baptist Parochial School before attending De La Salle High School. He dropped out during his junior year and found employment at the city market unloading trucks when his father, a bricklayer was injured on a construction job after the scaffolding that he was standing on gave way. Pietro Bossanova fell 20 feet and broke his right leg and left arm. Joe helped support his family until his father recovered and was able to return to his profession. Soon afterwards, Joe joined the Navy.
John Basilone was also born on November 4, 1916, in Buffalo, New York. He was the sixth of ten children and dropped out of high school and worked as a caddy before enlisting in the United States Army.
Bossanova and Basilone ended up in the Philippines at the same time and first met at a bar in Manila, where both men were celebrating their birthdays. They quickly found out that they had more in common than just the day they were born, like their Italian heritage, coming from large families and their affection for the Philippines and its people. Their physical appearance was very similar. They were about the same height and weight, had brown wavy hair, olive skin and could pass for brothers.
Two weeks later, Bossanova and Basilone were at a bar called Morals and Malice outside Cebu City. John took a long swallow from his bottle of beer and commented, “When I get out of the Army, I’m coming back here.”
“And do what?” Joe questioned.
“I thought about that. There’s a lot of our military personnel in the area. It only seems right that they should be giving their money to a fellow American.” John replied, “I’ll oblige them.”
“I’m going to open a bar,” John said.
Joe thought for a second and then smiled. “What are you going call it…Manila John’s?”
“I like that. I’ve got an idea, why don’t you come back with me and we’ll open a restaurant too. Manila John’s and Kansas City Joe’s. I can see it now. We’ll live like kings!”
Joe laughed. “Something to think about. You got style, Johnny Boy!”
They were both approaching the end of their enlistments and would be heading back to the States. Joe was currently the fleet champion and John was his Battalion’s number one fighter and everybody was pushing for them to fight against each other.
“I’ll fight against anyone, but Basilone.” Joe said.
It was the same with John who told his First Sergeant Ben Chastain, “Bossanova is my friend…that fight is never going to happen.”
First Sergeant Chastain tried to manipulate him into taking the fight, “If you’re scared, just say so.”
John was his own man and didn’t fall into the trap and said simply, “I’m scared. Why don’t you fight him?”
Two days before Joe was scheduled to leave the Philippines, he met with John at Romulo’s Café, a family restaurant in downtown Manila. “Call me when you get back to Baltimore and I’ll either come up or you can come down.”
“Got six months to go,” John said.
As the two friends ate dinner and socialized with the owner and the staff, a group of drunken English sailors came into the establishment. They were obnoxious, spewing obscenities and looking for trouble. Joe looked at John and both men walked over to the sailors. John asked politely, “Do you mind keeping it down a little. My friend is leaving for America soon and we were having a quiet dinner .We can’t hear each other over the yelling.”
One of the sailors responded defiantly. “Ask us if we care.”
“There’s plenty of bars that want your business. Go there and be jerks.” John added.
It was obvious that the English sailors were not in the mood for compromise or being courteous. One of them pushed Joe backward and warned. “We go where we want and don’t need no bloody Americans telling us anything. You blokes need to get out of here before you get hurt.”
Even though Joe and John were outnumbered eight to two, they were not the kind of men to back down from a fight, especially when they thought they were right. Joe said, “Why don’t we step outside where we have more room to stretch our muscles.”
As they were leaving, the owner of the restaurant, Nathaniel Romulo cautioned his American friends, “Be careful…those are bad men.”
Joe reassured Nathaniel. “We’ll be fine, but thanks for your concern.”
Everybody walked outside. Joe and John did not have to verbalize their plan, they instinctively knew what the other was going to do, which was to strike first. Joe spun around and hit the most talkative sailor in the jaw with a crashing right hand and the man was knocked unconscious. John did the same thing to the man closest to him and in an instant the odds were six to two. The fight began and Bossanova and Basilone were holding their own until ten more English sailors came walking down the street, saw what happening and joined in to help their comrades. Joe and John were getting beaten badly until a dozen Marines on liberty saw the fight and entered the fray. Five minutes later, the English sailors were either lying on the ground unconscious and moaning or limping away in defeat. Marine Sergeant Ben McDaniel spit out a mouthful of blood and smiled. “You guys are tough enough to be Marines.”
Joe replied, “Thanks for your help.”
“No problem,” Sergeant McDaniel said.
Joe went back to Kansas City and started a professional boxing career. When he wasn’t in the ring or training, he patronized a local gambling hall in the Italian section of the city to supplement his income by playing poker. His skills in both ventures showed significant results. He was undefeated in his first six bouts and won much more than he ever lost at cards.
After being released from active duty six months later, Basilone returned to Reistertown, Maryland, where he got a job a truckdriver. It was boring and mundane work and the former soldier got restless again.
Bossanova and Basilone got together every couple months and Joe suggested that John move to Kansas City, but Basilone declined, “Thanks buddy, but I’ll still planning on going back to the Philippines. Coming here will only delay me, especially if I like it.”
Joe smiled. “Nobody can say that you aren’t one determined son of a gun. You get a thought in your mind and you just can’t shake it.”
“Right now I’m saving all the money I can.” John said.
Joe exclaimed. “If this is just about cash…I can give some.”
“I might take you up on that” John said.
A year passed and John saved three thousand dollars and Joe matched it. Their plan was simple, John would go back to the Philippines, start his bar business and Joe would follow at a later date. What could go wrong? Imagine Joe’s surprise when John called to inform him that he joined the Marines.
“Why in the hell would you do something crazy like that?” Joe demanded.
John struggled to supply a coherent answer. “What I’m about to tell you isn’t going to make any sense, but this is what happened.”
“If you tell me that it’s true, then I’ll believe you,” Joe said.
John explained, “I had this dream last night about people fighting all over the world and they needed the Marines to get things back in order.”
“How did it turn out?” Joe asked.
“How did what turn out?”
“The dream,” Joe said.
“I woke up.”
John Basilone went to recruit training at Parris Island, South Carolina followed by additional training at Quantico, Virginia and New River, North Carolina. In March, 1941, he was assigned to Guantanamo Bay.
Joe continued to read about Germany’s military actions in Europe and Japan’s expansion throughout the Pacific in the Kansas City Star newspaper. He wondered how long the United States could or would wait before they officially declared war. That decision was made for America on December 7, 1941 with the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
Joe sent a telegram to John Basilone who was still on duty in Cuba on December 8, 1941, informing him that he was enlisting in the Marines. After finishing his recruit training at San Diego, Bossanova went 35 miles north for additional training at Camp Pendleton.
By this time, John Basilone had been promoted to Staff Sergeant and Joe Bossanova was only a corporal. John approached his commanding officer, Colonel Zachary McDermott of 1st Battalion, 7th Marines with a request. “Sir, Corporal Joe Bossanova just finished training. He has prior military experience and I know him from when we were both in the Philippines. He’d be a great addition to our unit.”
Colonel McDermott replied, “I trust your judgment, tell Bossanova to put in his transfer request and I’ll make sure it gets approved.”
The two friends were re-united in Delta Company .Joe commented with pride. “Sergeant Basilone, the next thing you know, they’ll be offering you a commission.”
John smiled. “It’s good to have Manila John and Kansas City Joe together again. It’s too been long.”
The two friends didn’t have much time to reminisce about the good old days as their unit was sent to the Solomon Islands. On the night of October 24, 1942, in the jungles of Guadalcanal, Sgt. Basilone commanded two heavy .30-caliber machine gun sections and was tasked with holding a narrow pass at the Tenaru River. Corporal Joe Bossanova was in charge of one of the machine gun crews. In the distance, the Marines could hear the Japanese moving about in the brush, not more than 50 yards away. “If the Japs get any closer, we’ll be sharing our c-rations with them.” John commented.
Occasionally one of enemy would yell out, ‘How you doing, Joe or tonight you die, Joe.’
John turned to his buddy, “You know those guys out there? They’re calling you by name.”
“We went to different schools together. Something tells me that we’re not going to get much sleep tonight.” Joe replied as he stared at the thick jungle.
“As least we’re closer to the Philippines,” John joked.
“Keep that positive attitude, Manila John.”
As the small crews of Marines dug in for the night near Henderson Field, a Japanese regiment from the battle hardened Sendai Division attacked. They hammered the Marines with grenades and mortar fire. Wave after wave were kept at bay by the small teams of entrenched Marines.
One of the gun crews was disabled by enemy fire and Joe volunteered to carry 90 pounds of weaponry and ammunition to the silenced gun pit, but John said. “No can do, I outrank you, this is on me.”
“I’ll cover you.” Joe reluctantly agreed.
Showing a total disregard for his own life, Basilone ran 200 yards through heavy enemy fire with bullets nipping at his heels. Joe kept his buddy in a protective cocoon of cover fire and when he lost sight of him behind a palm tree, he jumped out into the open to continue firing and exposed himself to enemy fire. Joe was wounded three times, but this did not deter him from his mission of protecting his friend. Bossanova kept shooting, even as a corpsman applied field dressings to his wounds. Joe commented. “Thanks, Doc.”
Basilone somehow made it back to check on his friend. “You alright?”
“No problem, don’t worry about me…take care of the other guys.” Joe said.
Enemy bodies were (literally) piling up so rapidly that the Marines had to vacate their defensive positions to knock over the growing wall of flesh so they could re-establish clear fields of fire. An entire Japanese regiment was thwarted by these valiant Marines. With Bossanova too wounded to move, he manned the machine gun while Basilone fought through hostile ground to resupply the other Marines with urgently needed supplies. When the ammunition ran out shortly before dawn on the second day, Basilone fortified their fighting hole and waited for the inevitable.
John checked Joe’s wounds and commented, “The good news is that the bleeding has stopped.”
“I wonder if that’s because I’m out of blood or if I’m just too stubborn to die yet” Joe quipped.
John accessed the situation in a matter of fact manner. “We’re out of ammunition, outnumbered, you’re wounded and worse of all…we’re out of c-rations. I hate to die with an empty stomach.”
“Thanks for pointing out the obvious to me. I was under the impression that we had the enemy surrounded and they were ready to surrender.” Joe quipped.
“I never did ask you if you joined the Marines because I did.” John said.
Joe hesitated for a moment then replied. “After Pearl Harbor, I just did what came naturally…kind of like you. Since it doesn’t look like we’re going to make it out of here, we might as well take as many of them with us as possible.”
“I’ll take the machete and you take the forty-fives.” John suggested.
Just when all seemed lost, Colonel Merritt Austin ‘Red Mike’ Edson arrived with reinforcements. He was astonished to see so many dead enemy soldiers around the Marines’ position. “Who’s responsible for this?”
John pointed to his wounded friend. “Blame it on Bossanova.”
Besides Bossanova and Basilone, only one other Marine was left standing. John was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor and returned to the states. Joe received the Navy Cross and was sent to Melbourne, Australia to recover from his wounds.
In 1943, Basilone was assigned to participate in a highly publicized war bond tour. When his hometown held a parade in his honor, it drew thousands of people, including politicians, celebrities, and the national press. The event made national news in Life magazine and Fox Movietone News. John toured the country raising money for the war effort and achieved celebrity status in the process. Although he appreciated the admiration and numerous benefits, Basilone felt guilty that he was receiving all this notoriety while his buddy was still in harm’s way.
Back in Australia, Sergeant Bossanova recovered from his wounds and was reassigned to the 2nd Marine Regiment under the command of Colonel David Shoup. His next campaign was on the island of Tarawa. This was the first American offensive in the critical central Pacific region. It was also the first time in the Pacific War that the Marines faced serious Japanese opposition to an amphibious landing. Previous landings met little or no initial resistance, but on Tarawa 4,500 Japanese defenders were well-supplied and well-prepared, and they fought almost to the last man, exacting a heavy toll on the Marines during the first 76 hours. The Japanese were eventually driven back from their entrenched positions with Sergeant Bossanova leading the way. Colonel Shoup showed up several hours later, visibly relieved that his leathernecks were able to move inland even though he mistakenly told them to dig in. He asked Corporal Elmer Ashby who was sitting among a group of dead enemy soldiers, “I gave orders to hold your positions until reinforced. Who made the decision to attack?”
The battle weary Marine with vacant eyes stared at the ground and responded. “Blame it on Bossanova.”
That soon became a catch phrase throughout the Pacific theater. Whenever a Marine wanted to deny blame or ‘pass the buck’, he’d respond simply. “Blame it on Bossanova.”
Back in the states, Sergeant Basilone requested to return to the operating forces in the Pacific, but it was denied. Instead, he was also offered a commission or a position as an instructor on Camp Pendleton, but he turned these down as well. John’s second request for combat was reluctantly approved and on July 3, 1944, he re-enlisted in the Marine Corps.
When Sergeant Bossanova found out that his friend was coming back to the war in the Pacific, he was both eager to see him and angry that he would do something so crazy. When the 2nd Regiment was pulled back for some much needed rest and recreation. Joe requested a transfer to the 28th Regiment.
Colonel Shoup voiced his concern. “You know that the 28th is one of the units on the list for the next beach landing. Why in the hell would want to go back into combat so soon? You’ve earned a rest.”
“I can rest when I’m dead.” Joe said.
Colonel Shoup said. “It’s no big secret that Sergeant Basilone is on his way back. Everybody knows your history together back on the Canal. Would the fact that he is going to the 28th have anything to do with your request for transfer?”
“That’s the first I’ve heard about that.” Joe lied.
“Yeah right…we’re going to need to crazy guys like you and Basilone if we’re going to win this war so your request for transfer is approved. Good luck, Bossanova.”
Sergeant Basilone was talking to a group of young Marines with no combat experience in a rear echelon area when Joe came up from behind and knocked him to the ground and called him out. “You stupid pencil-necked knucklehead. I oughta’ kick your butt all the way back to Pendleton for being here!”
Basilone was already a legend in the Corps and the young Marines were dumbfounded that anyone would be crazy enough to do this to him. John got to his feet and everybody expected a fight to ensue, but instead John smiled and said. “Leathernecks, this is the infamous Kansas City Joe.”
One of the young Marine blurted out, “It’s the Bossanova!”
The two friends walked off together and Joe said. “I figured that if I survived this war, I’d hang out with you and bunch of movie stars in Hollywood. You blew another plan all to hell!””
“That’s the main reason I came back, I wanted to tell you in person that Hollywood is too fancy for us. We should stay with our original plan of going to the Philippines.”
“You could have told me that in a letter,” Joe growled.
On February 19, 1945, Sergeants Bossanova and Basilone landed side by side on the beaches of Iwo Jima. The Japanese concentrated their fire at the incoming Marines from heavily fortified blockhouses strategically staged throughout the island. With their unit pinned down, Basilone and Bossanova made their way around the side of the Japanese positions until they reached a concrete emplacement. Both Marines attacked with grenades and demolitions and destroyed the entire strong point and its defending garrison. From there they fought their way toward Airfield Number One and aided a Marine tank that was trapped in an enemy mine field.
While under intense mortar and artillery barrages, Bossanova guided the heavy vehicle over the hazardous terrain to safety while Basilone provided cover fire. When both men reached the edge of the airfield, Basilone saw a group of Japanese soldiers approaching and pushed Joe out of the way and was riddled by small arms fire. Fatally wounded, John whispered, “Looks like you’ll be going to the Philippines without me. Give ‘em hell for both of us, Bossanova.”
Joe watched his friend take his final breath then charged toward the enemy hoping that he would be killed too, but that did not happen. He fought like a madman and killed them all. On February 23, 1945, Sergeant Bossanova provided cover fire for the six flag raisers of 3rd platoon, Echo Company, 2nd Battalion when they raised the American symbol of freedom and liberty on Mount Suribachi.
After the war, Joe was determined that the legacy of his friend would never be forgotten. He strongly encouraged the Marine Corps to name things after John Basilone, including a main access road on Camp Pendleton. It became his personal tradition to celebrate John’s birthday on November 4th, without mentioning or acknowledging that it was his as well.
The two most famous catch phases in World War II, were Kilroy was Here and Blame it on Bossanova. In 1962, the daughter of a Marine who fought in the Battle of Iwo Jima alongside Sergeant Joe Bossanova was inspired to write the song, ‘Blame It on the Bossanova’ after her father told her of the legendary Marine’s exploits while on his deathbed.
It was originally performed by Eydie Gorme’ in 1963. To this day, the first song played at Marine Corps Balls held every year around the world is ‘Blame It on the Bossa Nova. A toast follows; ‘Long live the memories of Kansas City Joe and Manila John.’
– Work of fiction. Names, characters, business, events and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance
The Veterans Writing Group of San Diego County invites all writers to join us at our monthly meetings. Veterans and Non-Veterans are equally welcome. For more information go to our website: www.veteranswritinggroup.org