Service members caught in a firefight will do whatever they can to protect their comrades. Marine Corps Pvt. Joseph William Ozbourn was one of those people during World War II. His loyalty led to his death, but his personal sacrifice also earned him a posthumous Medal of Honor.
Ozbourn was born on Oct. 24, 1919, in Herrin, Illinois. He grew up there with his parents, Thomas and Eva Ozbourn, and his older brother, James, who served in the Army during World War II.
According to Ozbourn’s father, who was interviewed in a 1963 South Bend Tribune article, his youngest son was well-liked by all who knew him and had quit school in the eighth grade to work at a factory. Ozbourn later worked as a coal mine trip rider for Old Ben Coal Corporation, like his father had, in nearby West Frankfurt, Illinois.
Ozbourn’s mother died in 1939. In December of that year, he married Helen Meacham, according to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society. They had a son named Ronald.
According to 1940 Census data, by 1940, Ozbourn was working as a laborer for the Work Projects Administration, a government agency formed under the New Deal.
Ozbourn enlisted in the Marine Corps on Oct. 30, 1943, right in the middle of World War II. He was assigned to the 4th Marine Division’s 1st Battalion, 23d Marines, a unit that was activated in July of 1942. By late January 1944, the unit was deployed to the South Pacific. Ozbourn’s father said it apparently happened with little warning, as his son had asked his family for funds to come home on furlough but was instead shipped overseas.
Pretty quickly, the 1st Battalion was thrown into battle at Roi-Namur, part of the Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. After defeating the Japanese there, the division island-hopped by May 1944 to the Mariana Islands, which were the last bastion of Japan’s Central Pacific perimeter. The Marines first took Saipan before moving onto Tinian Island.
On July 30, 1944, Ozbourn was on Tinian serving as a rifleman in a five-man platoon that was tasked with clearing out the remaining enemy troops from dugouts and pillboxes along a particular treeline. As Ozbourn was about to throw a hand grenade into one of those dugouts, an explosion from its entrance knocked him and the four other men backward, injuring them all.
Ozbourn quickly realized that his grenade was armed and ready to blow at any second. However, he was unable to throw it into the dugout, and he had no place else to get rid of it that didn’t endanger the other Marines with him.
Without hesitation, the 24-year-old selflessly pulled the grenade close to his body and fell upon it as it exploded. He absorbed the full impact of the blast and died where he lay. But his sacrifice saved his comrades.
The Marines succeeded in beating the enemy at Tinian, and the Allies eventually took over all of the Marianas. The win severed the Japanese’s southern supply lines and pushed their defense west of the Philippines while also opening the Japanese homeland to aerial assaults. Tinian later became the base of operations for the launch of the atomic bombs that ended the war.
Ozbourn was initially buried on Tinian, but his remains were later reinterred in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu.
His widow, Helen, received the Medal of Honor on his behalf, though the date on which that happened is unclear. She had received it by the time she christened the destroyer named for her fallen husband in March 1946. The USS Ozbourn was commissioned at the Boston Naval Shipyard.
Ozbourn has been remembered in many ways in his home state, including along a portion of a highway in his hometown, which was renamed in his honor.
This article is part of a weekly series called “Medal of Honor Monday,” in which we highlight one of the more than 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients who have earned the U.S. military’s highest medal for valor.
Source: Department of Defense