Staff Sergeant William Bordelon: First US Marine from Texas to be awarded MOH

"Tarawa, South Pacific, 1943" painting by Sergeant Tom Lovell, USMC

Were it not for the epic battles fought there, many people would likely have gone through their lives never having heard of any of the small Pacific islands. The Tarawa Atoll in the Gilbert Islands is such a place. 

During WWII, due to its strategic location, it was host to all sorts of military activity. Japan made Korean laborers work hard to fortify the main island of Betio emplacing nearly 500 machine-gun pillboxes which were manned by over 2,600 soldiers. To dislodge the seemingly small sized force from the tiny 2-mile long island, it took the combined efforts of some 35,000 US troops. Among them was Marine William Bordelon. 


William James Bordelon was born on Christmas Day, 1920 in San Antonio Texas. He enlisted in the Marines on December 10, 1941, three days after the Japanese Pearl Harbor attack out of a sense of duty. Displaying maturity and the ability to lead, Bordelon quickly rose to the rank of sergeant. By the time the Battle of Tarawa commenced, he was an assault engineer whose responsibilities included battlefield construction and demolition. His skills were an asset to his fellow Marines. To the Japanese defending the island, he would help bring about their undoing.

The Battle of Tarawa in November 1943 occurred at the beginning of America’s attempt to take back the Pacific from the Japanese. The architects of the landing had planned their tactics, and it was time to test their strategies. All did not go as planned.

An M4 Sherman rests in the lagoon.
An M4 Sherman rests in the lagoon.

They miscalculated the tide, failing to realize that the position of the moon caused a neap tide that made the sea too shallow for their landing craft to get over the coral. After the successful but costly Guadalcanal Campaign, it was the first time the Americans faced a ferocious opposition to their amphibious assault. Only the amtracks reached the beach and many, including the tanks going ashore, were hit by fierce gunfire or sank in holes in the coral made by the naval bombardment before the battle. The lack of men, supplies and heavy fire support left the troops who reached the beach in dire circumstances. Staff Sergeant and Marine engineer William Bordelon rose to the occasion and earned his place in the US Marines history.

Leaping Into Action

The battle was quickly turning into a disaster. They were pinned down by searing and accurate machine-gun fire from the Japanese fortifications, and it became evident the US naval bombardment had largely failed.

All but four of the men from Bordelon’s landing craft were dead. The ocean was turning red from blood as bullets riddled the waves above the coral. Bordelon knew the pillboxes had to be destroyed. Pinned on the beach, he hurriedly made demolition charges as the incredible noise of combat raged around him. He took the first set of charges and hurled himself over the embankment, then charged toward the enemy machine-gun fire. Slinging the charge inside the first pillbox, he heard the explosion as he ran to the next one. While under heavy fire with what seemed like remarkable ease he also destroyed it.

Japanese 8-inch gun emplacement on Tarawa.
Japanese 8-inch gun emplacement on Tarawa.

Bordelon’s success had cut the hailstorm of enemy gunfire, and again with a third charge, he attacked another pillbox. He was hit by enemy machine-gun fire, and the charge exploded in his hand. With his adrenaline pumping and critically wounded Bordelon made it back to the beach. There he found a rifle and provided covering fire for a group of Marines climbing the seawall. Disregarding his own injuries, he retrieved a wounded fellow demolition man and another Marine from the ocean. Bordelon then began constructing demolition charges and again single-handedly assaulted a fourth machine-gun pillbox but died instantly from a withering burst of machine-gun fire.

A Due Honor

The Battle of Tarawa was one of the most bloody battles ever fought on such a small piece of land in the Pacific. It ended with an American victory, but a costly and controversial one. Almost all the Japanese defenders were killed with only 17 captured. Over 1,000 Marines died, and over 2,000 were wounded. In America, people asked whether the tiny parcel of land was worth it.

William Bordelon was the first US Marine from the state of Texas to earn a Medal of Honor in WWII. He rests at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery in San Antonio. He was just 22 years old when he died, but his name lived on. In 1945 the destroyer DD-881 was named the USS Bordelon and was part of the occupation of Japan after the war. San Antonio’s Navy-Marine Corps Reserve Center is also named after him. He gallantly gave his life for his country.

Jeff Edwards

Jeff Edwards is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE