After John Basilone arrived at Camp Pendleton, where he trained Marines for upcoming Pacific battles, he met Lena Riggi. She was also a Marine sergeant (albeit reservist) who had one less stripe than John.
James Brady, in his book Hero of the Pacific, quotes Basilone's recollection of the first time he saw the woman he would marry:
"I saw her as I came down the serving line. She was dark - Italian or Spanish kind of dark. 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 [with enlisted female personnel] didn't apply." (Brady, Hero of the Pacific, pages 164-5.)
Everyone knew about Basilone's Medal of Honor. He was famous. He'd traveled around the country with movie stars (like Virginia Grey). Other women, at Camp Pendleton, told Sgt. Riggi all about it, but she wasn't impressed:
"Sergeant Lena Riggi 'heard all from her lady friends about me. They went on and on about what a hero I was, how brave I was and that I knew all the movie stars.' 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." (Brady, quoting Basilone in Hero of the Pacific, page 165.)
Falling in love with Lena Riggi, Basilone realized he would likely leave Pendelton sometime during the late summer of 1944. It wasn't easy to balance their different schedules, yet John was determined to marry Lena before he returned to the Pacific:
"I wanted to know how it was to love somebody the way Pop loved Mama. At least I wanted a few days, or weeks if I could get it, to know what it was like to be married. I wanted to be able to say 'I love you' a few times and mean it ... Lena agreed to marry me. We set the date for July 10th, 1944." (Brady, quoting Basilone, at page 171.)
John shipped out one month after their wedding. He and his fellow Marines were heading for the Battle of Iwo Jima. On her 32nd birthday, Lena learned that John had been killed in action when she received a telegram:
Deeply regret to inform you that your husband, Gunnery Sergeant John Basilone, USMC, was killed in action February 19, 1945 at Iwo Jima, Volcano Islands, in the performance of his duty and service to his country. When information is received regarding burial, you will be notified. Please accept my heartfelt sympathy.
When an American serviceman died as a result of war injuries, the government gave his family a $10,000 life-insurance check. Because Lena was John's closest family member, she received the money.
She didn't keep it, however. In his book, Hero of the Pacific, Jim Brady tells us what happened to the check:
She returned ten thousand dollars to the family. (Brady, page 94.)
After John's death, Lena never remarried. In this official Navy photo, she is taking part in the launch ceremony of a destroyer (DD-824) which bears the name of her husband.
Lena survived John by 54 years. When she died - on the 11th of June, 1999 - she was still wearing the wedding ring "Johnny" had given her.
Her final resting place is at Riverside National Cemetery in Riverside, California. (The plot is located at section 50, site 5557). She had declined the federal government's offer of a burial spot, near her husband's, at Arlington.
Official U.S. Navy Photograph, from the "All Hands" collection at the Naval Historical Center, online courtesy USN.
The official caption states:
Sergeant Lena Mae Basilone, USMC(WR), ship's sponsor, prepares to christen the destroyer [the USS Basilone (DD-824)], at the Consolidated Steel Company Shipyard, Orange, Texas, on 21 December 1945. She was the widow of Gunnery Sergeant John J. Basilone, USMC, in whose honor the ship was named.