Sgt. William George Harrell, class of 1943
Medal of Honor recipient
Born June 26, 1922
Died Aug. 9, 1964
Sgt. William George Harrell was born in June 1922 in Rio Grande City, about 41 miles west of McAllen, along the Texas-Mexico border. Harrell's father, a World War I veteran and former Texas Ranger, was a border patrol officer. The elder Harrell had "a reputation for shootouts with banditos and 'bootleggers,'" according to Texas Aggie Medals of Honor by James R. Woodall. The family moved to Mercedes, about 21 miles east of McAllen, after Harrell's father died. Harrell graduated from Mercedes High School in 1939.
He enrolled at Texas A&M that fall to study animal husbandry, because he was "interested in the scientific breeding of cattle and horses," according to Texas Aggie Medals of Honor. Harrell sought membership in a cavalry unit for his ROTC requirement, according to his Distinguished Alumni profile. He attended for two years, and left after the spring of 1941, to work and save enough money to later finish his education. That changed when the United States entered World War II.
Military service and the Medal of Honor
Harrell enlisted with the Marine Corps in July 1942, and went to basic training in California. He was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 28th Regiment, 5th Division, according to the Texas State Historical Association. In September 1944, the regiment shipped out to Hawaii for training and assault exercises, before being transported to Japan for combat. The 28th Regiment crossed the Pacific in 73 transport ships to Iwo Jima in January 1945.
Iwo Jima is about 660 miles south of Tokyo. The volcanic island was important to the Japanese because an airbase there protected the mainland of Japan from long-range bombing missions, according to the Naval Heritage and History Command. The island was fortified with underground tunnels and artillery bunkers. The U.S. needed control of the island to minimize Japan's aviation capabilities and to support American bombers in assaults over Japan's main island.
The 3rd, 4th and 5th Marine Divisions invaded Iwo Jima on Feb. 19, 1945. Harrell's regiment (the 5th) was tasked with securing Mount Suribachi and the southern region of the island. Five Marines in Harrell's regiment raised the U.S. flag at the summit on Feb. 23, which was captured in an iconic battlefield photo.
Harrell was on guard duty in a foxhole near a command post with another Marine, Pvt. Andrew Carter, during the night of March 2. In the early morning of March 3, the 12th day of the battle, Japanese soldiers infiltrated American lines. Carter killed four of the enemy soldiers, and Harrell killed two. Carter's rifle jammed, so he went to the command post to retrieve another. After he left, Harrell was injured when a grenade exploded. Shrapnel nearly severed his left hand and fractured his thigh. But he continued fighting.
Carter returned and was charged by a Japanese soldier. The Marine impaled the enemy with a bayonet while another Japanese soldier charged Carter with a samurai sword, according to Carter's Navy Cross award citation. Harrell drew his pistol with his right hand and shot the attacker, saving Carter. (Carter saved the sword, and it is on display in the Sam Houston Sanders Corps of Cadets Center.)
Harrell ordered Carter to save himself, according to the exhibit at the Corps Center. While Carter went for help, two more Japanese soldiers entered the foxhole. One of them set a grenade next to Harrell's head, but the Marine was able to kill that soldier and push the grenade toward the remaining soldier as it exploded, according to the Texas State Historical Association. The Japanese soldier died and Harrell lost his right hand. Carter returned and carried Harrell to safety. Harrell killed five of the 12 Japanese soldiers whose bodies surrounded the Marine command post.
Harrell was evacuated, but the battle would continue. Iwo Jima was secured on March 16, making possible the invasion of Okinawa, and later Japan. The battle is regarded as one of the bloodiest in the history of the Marine Corps, according to the National World War II Museum. Of the 70,000 Marines who fought, 7,000 were killed in action and 20,000 were wounded. Admiral Chester Nimitz remarked, "Among the men who fought on Iwo Jima, uncommon valor was a common virtue." Twenty-seven Marines were awarded the Medal of Honor for action at Iwo Jima.
Life after the war
Doctors treated Harrell's wounds, and had to amputate his left hand, before he was evacuated to the Naval hospital at Pearl Harbor. He was transferred to the Naval hospital at Mare Island, Calif., for his recovery and rehabilitation. Harrell was equipped with prosthetic metal hooks. According to his son Gary in an article with Don Moore's War Tales, Harrell learned to adapt. Harrell could pick up a coin off the ground or hold a cigarette without crushing it. As he did before the war, Harrell regularly rode horses and was considered an expert marksman.
Seven months after the battle, President Harry S. Truman presented Harrell with the Medal of Honor on October 5, in a ceremony at the White House. Harrell received the award for "his grim fortitude, exceptional valor, and indomitable fighting spirit against almost insurmountable odds [that] reflect the highest credit upon himself and enhance the finest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service," according to the medal citation.
Harrell was discharged from the military in early 1946, with the rank of sergeant. He married and moved to San Antonio to work as a contact representative with the Veterans Administration. Harrell and his wife had two children before they divorced. He remarried in 1951 and had two more children. He was was eventually promoted to chief of the prosthetic division. He worked with amputees and veterans who were blind and deaf. He also was a frequent speaker at events on behalf of disabled veterans.
Harrell was found dead at 3 a.m. on Aug. 9, 1964, according to an article in The Eagle. The San Antonio medical examiner said Harrell "killed himself and a married couple [Mr. and Mrs. Ed Zumwalt], by triggering a rifle with hook-like artificial hands." The three had attended a cookout together at a friend's house that night, according to the 1964 Eagle article.
Harrell's wife and two children, returning from visiting relatives in New York, found Harrell and Zumwalt dead in the driveway around 3 a.m. Mrs. Zumwalt was found in the kitchen. Neighbors said they heard four or five shots shortly before 2 a.m., according to The Eagle. Harrell's Army carbine was found next to him. The killings were considered a murder-suicide, but detectives could not find a motive, according to The Eagle.
"I don't think we will ever be able to determine a motive," Ruben Santos, the medical examiner, said. "Everyone involved is dead. There were no signs of argument in the house."
Harrell was buried at the Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery.
Honoring an Aggie
A Corps dorm was renamed for Harrell in 1969. His Medal of Honor and awards were put on permanent display at the Sam Houston Sanders Corps of Cadets Center in 2010, along with the Japanese officer's sword that Carter kept for Harrell. There is also a bronze plaque of his military portrait. Harrell is recognized in the Hall of Honor at the Memorial Student Center. An artist's rendering of his military portrait is accompanied with his citation and a reproduction of the Medal of Honor. In his hometown of Mercedes, a section of the granite All Wars Memorial is dedicated to him.
-- Compiled by Claire Heathman