In Raritan, a new effort to honor N.J. war hero John Basilone

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The statue of John Basilone sits on the west end of Somerset Street in his hometown of Raritan Borough. (Jerry McCrea | The Star-Ledger)

RARITAN BOROUGH — Kids today can learn a thing or two from John Basilone, the only enlisted Marine to receive both the Medal of Honor and the Navy Cross award, 70 years after he was killed in combat in World War II.

That’s according to Don Tozzi and Kim Van Note, who together started the Basilone Memorial Foundation in September. After becoming a recognized 501c3 non-profit organization, the group booked a slew of events in 2015 to commemorate the war hero and help raise funds for veterans and cancer patients.

“I think the younger generation can learn about how important soldiers were, and how dedicated people were to our country and how less dedicated people are to our country now,” said Tozzi, a former Borough Council president.

A local and national figure, Basilone, a Raritan native, received the Medal of Honor award after the Battle of Guadalcanal, in which he and a dozen men staved off swarms of Japanese soldiers on Oct. 24-25, 1942. In the end, Basilone and two of his men survived.

He returned home and was given the Medal of Honor Award, before embarking on a war bond tour. Basilone fought with top military brass to return to war, where he eventually died, at age 29, on the first day of the Battle of Iwo Jima.

He was awarded the Navy Cross award posthumously, and is recognized by airfields, monuments and bridges across the country. Basilone’s story was also told in the 2010 HBO documentary, “The Pacifice.”

Locally, his memory lives on with an annual parade and a statue on Somerset Street. The John Basilone Bowl, featuring football players from Somerset County schools, is also played every year at Bridgewater-Raritan High School.

Van Note, who is Basilone’s niece, said she helped form the organization to help honor her uncle but to also recognize the sacrifices made by the armed forces.

“I think we have to let people understand that we wouldn’t be where we are today without our freedom,” Van Note said.

“So we need to support them back,” Tozzi added.

The first event, held on June 14, is called the Manila Madness Sniper Race and Obstacle Challenge. “Manila” was Basilone’s nickname when he was a champion boxer while stationed in the Philippines, Van Note said.

Participants ages 16 and up will run through a military-inspired obstacle race while avoiding more than 50 “snipers,” or people armed with water guns. The race will be held at Bridgewater’s Duke Island Park.

A month later, on July 11, the Manila Madness Throw Down competition offers participants a chance to win cash prizes in a crossfit challenge, held at CrossFit Toy Box on Johnson Drive in Raritan.

Three events will be held in September, starting with the Parachute Drop at TD Bank Ballpark in Bridgewater. Before the Somerset Patriots start their game on Sept. 13, a Marine paratrooper will jump towards a bull’s-eye target located in center field, and release 1,000 toy GI Joes with numbers on them. If the toy soldier with your number on it is one of three closest to the bull’s-eye, you win a prize.

The foundation will hold the annual Basilone 5K Walk/Run on Sept. 19, a day before the 34th annual Basilone Parade.

Proceeds raised during these events go to the Steeplechase Cancer Center at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital – Somerset in Somerville and the Fischer House Foundation, a group dedicated to providing military families with free housing while their loved ones receive treatment.

Tozzi said the group is “thrilled about” partnering with the Fischer House Foundation, partly because you have to be accepted by them.

“We’re very, very happy to have them as charity partners because their rating is A+ on any charity website you look at,” he said.

The Fischer House has benefited more than 220,000 military families since it started in 1990, Tozzi said.

For more information and further details on the upcoming events, please visit the Basilone Memorial Foundation website at, www.basilonefoundation.com.

Alex Napoliello may be reached at anapoliello@njadvancemedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @alexnapoNJ. Find NJ.com on Facebook.