December 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. President Franklin D. Roosevelt requested from the United States Congress and received a declaration of war against Japan on December 8, 1941.
December 10, 1941, a young man named William James Bordelon from San Antonio, Texas, enlisted in the United States Marine Corps. A graduate of Central Catholic High School in San Antonio, he and two other graduates of the high school would lose their lives in the Pacific Ocean on an atoll known as Tarawa in the Gilbert Islands during the 76 hour Battle of Tarawa which took place from November 20 – 23, 1943.
On November 20, 1943, Staff Sergeant (S/Sgt) Bordelon was aboard the United States Ship Zeilin awaiting the order to begin the assault on Tarawa. The assault began just after 5 am. The Japanese had occupied Tarawa Atoll since 1941. It was heavily defended and fortified with pillboxes, bunkers, and barbed wire. Ocean tides and a coral reef caused extreme difficulties during the landings.
For his action during the Battle of Tawara, S/Sgt. Bordelon was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
The CONGRESSIONAL MEDAL OF HONOR CITATION:
For valorous and gallant conduct above and beyond the call of duty as a member of an assault engineer platoon of the 1st Battalion, 18th Marines, tactically attached to the 2d Marine Division, in action against the Japanese-held atoll of Tarawa in the Gilbert Islands on 20 November 1943. Landing in the assault waves under withering enemy fire which killed all but 4 of the men in his tractor, S/Sgt. Bordelon hurriedly made demolition charges and personally put 2 pillboxes out of action. Hit by enemy machinegun fire just as a charge exploded in his hand while assaulting a third position, he courageously remained in action and, although out of demolition, provided himself with a rifle and furnished fire coverage for a group of men scaling the seawall. Disregarding his own serious condition, he unhesitatingly went to the aid of one of his demolition men, wounded and calling for help in the water, rescuing this man and another who had been hit by enemy fire while attempting to make the rescue. Still refusing first aid for himself, he again made up demolition charges and single-handedly assaulted a fourth Japanese machine gun position but was instantly killed when caught in a final burst of fire from the enemy. S/Sgt. Bordelon’s great personal valor during a critical phase of securing the limited beachhead was a contributing factor in the ultimate occupation of the island, and his heroic determination throughout 3 days of violent battle reflects the highest credit upon the U.S. Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life for his country.
S/Sgt. Bordelon was initially buried in Lone Palm Cemetery on Betio Island, Tarawa Atoll. After WWII ended his remains were moved to the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu, Hawaii. In 1995, 52 years after his death on Tarawa, at the request of his family he was returned to his hometown of San Antonio, Texas.
Prior to his burial at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery, S/Sgt. Bordelon received an honor granted to only four people before him. He laid in state inside the Alamo Mission in San Antonio, Texas.
Gene Seng, Jr. and Charles Montague were the two other graduates of San Antonio, Texas, Central Catholic High School to lose their lives during the Battle of Tarawa.
Four Congressional Medals of Honor (MOH) were awarded for the Battle of Tarawa. In addition to S/Sgt. Bordelon, First Lieutenant Alexander “Sandy” Bonnyman, Jr. and First Lieutenant William Dean Hawkins were posthumous recipients of the MOH. Colonel David Monroe Shoup survived the Battle of Tarawa and was also awarded the MOH. He later became the 22nd Commandant of the Marine Corps.
The other individuals who have lain in state inside the Alamo Mission in San Antonio, Texas, were MOH recipient (Philippine-American War 1899 – 1902) Major General Frederick Funston, MOH recipient (WWI) Private David B. Barkley, Mrs. Antoinette Powers Houston Bringhurst (daughter of Samuel “Sam” Houston, the first President of the Republic of Texas), and Mrs. Clara Driscoll (philanthropist and historic preservationist who provided the money to preserve the Alamo Mission).
Thank you to Leslie Sitz Stapleton, Director, Daughters of the Republic of Texas Library at the Alamo.