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Medal of Honor Monday: Marine Corps Sgt. William Harrell

World War II’s Battle of Iwo Jima is considered one of the bloodiest ever fought by Marines. Marine Corps Sgt. William George Harrell’s story embodies the grim fortitude and exceptional valor put forth that day. Harrell lost both of his hands while fending off the Japanese. His fighting spirit despite those terrible wounds earned him the Medal of Honor.


Harrell was born June 26, 1922, in Rio Grande City, Texas, along the Mexico border, to parents Roy and Hazel Harrell. His father was a World War I cavalry veteran who, after the war, became a border patrol officer. Harrell had two older siblings, Dick and Virginia.  

When their father died in 1931, Harrell’s mother moved the family about an hour further east to Mercedes, Texas. Harrell thrived there, becoming a Boy Scout who loved to ride horses, something he picked up from his father. He liked to camp, hunt and boat, and he worked on a ranch during his high school summers before graduating in 1939.  

Harrell went to Texas A&M University to study animal husbandry, but after two years, he needed to take a break to earn more money so he could finish those studies. A few months later, the attacks at Pearl Harbor happened, and he decided to join the military instead. Harrell initially tried to join the Army Air Corps and the Navy, but he was turned away due to colorblindness. The Marine Corps accepted his enlistment on July 3, 1942.  

After boot camp, Harrell served in San Diego before leaving in February 1943 for Hawaii to serve as an armorer with Company A of the 1st Battalion, 28th Marines, 5th Marine Division. After spending about two years there, the division was deployed to Saipan and Iwo Jima in the push by the Allies to reach the Japanese homeland.  

Intense Battle 

The first Marines landed on Iwo Jima on Feb. 19, 1945, with Harrell’s unit being sent to the southern part of the volcanic island. By Feb. 24, Marines had taken Mount Suribachi, but elements of enemy resistance remained, hiding in terrain pocked with caves and ravines.  

On March 3, Harrell was the leader of an assault group that had been involved in hand-to-hand combat with the enemy. He and another Marine, Pvt. Andrew Carter, took turns standing watch overnight in a narrow two-man foxhole on a little ridge 20 yards in front the company command post. In front of their foxhole, the ridge fell into a ravine that was Japanese territory.  

At one point in the early morning, the pair had to repulse an attack. Carter killed four enemies while Harrell took out two. Carter’s weapon jammed afterward, so he had to go back to the command post to get another one.  

During that time, Japanese troops tried to take advantage. They quickly attacked with gunfire and grenades, forcing Harrell to open fire with his carbine rifle, killing two enemies who were emerging from the ravine. Harrell continued his one-man defense until enemy fire ripped off his left hand and fractured his thigh.  

Harrell was trying in vain to reload his rifle when Carter finally returned. Around the same time, an enemy with a saber rushed their foxhole in the darkness, injuring them both. Harrell was able to shoot and kill the Japanese man with his pistol. Carter’s knife wound was so serious that Harrell feared he might bleed out, so he ordered his comrade to fall back. Carter left, but only to get another rifle after his jammed again, according to the Marine Corps History Division.    

Pushing Through Pain 

Harrell himself was profusely bleeding, but he refused to give up. When two more enemy troops charged his position and put a grenade by his head, Harrell shot and killed one of them with his pistol. He then grabbed the live grenade with his right hand and, through pain, pushed it toward the second enemy soldier. It exploded, killing the Japanese assailant but also blowing off Harrell’s remaining hand.  

At dawn, when the fight had finally ended, fellow Marines found Harrell surrounded by 12 dead Japanese. He was credited with killing at least five of them while defending his post.  

Harrell was evacuated to various field hospitals until he was sent back to the U.S. for extensive treatment. According to an article in the Valley Morning Star newspaper out of Harlingen, Texas, Harrell theorized that the combination of explosions and volcanic ash helped seal his wounds and keep him from bleeding to death. 

The Battle of Iwo Jima lasted 36 days and is considered one of the bloodiest in Marine Corps history. The valor shown by Marines and Navy hospital corpsmen during the intense fighting led to the awarding of 27 Medals of Honor – the highest number of Medals of Honor ever received for one battle in U.S. history.  

Harrell was receiving treatment at the Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland (now Walter Reed National Military Medical Center) when he learned he would be one of those recipients. President Harry S. Truman bestowed it upon Harrell during a White House ceremony on Oct. 5, 1945. Thirteen other Marines and corpsmen were also on hand to receive the medal.  

Carter, Harrell’s companion in the trench during the battle, earned the Navy Cross. 

Learning to Adapt 

Harrell was discharged from the Marine Corps in February 1946. About a week later, he married Larena Anderson, a nurse he met while receiving treatment at Mare Island Naval Hospital in California. The pair went on to have two children, William and Linda. 

After losing both of his hands during the battle, doctors fitted Harrell with prosthetic metal hooks that his family said he adapted to brilliantly. Over time, he was able to ride horses again and even become a good marksman. In a Valley Morning Star article, Harrell’s nephew, Richard Harrell, said he was amazed at all the things his uncle could do with his hooks.  

“He could do anything. He could drive a tractor, type on a typewriter, light a cigarette or pick up a dime off the floor,” Richard Harrell said. 

Harrell and his wife moved back to Mercedes before transferring to San Antonio in October 1946 so Harrell could work as a contact representative for amputees for the Department of Veterans Affairs. He was later promoted to chief of the Prosthetics Division. Harrell frequently spoke at events on behalf of disabled veterans.  

Harrell and his wife eventually divorced. In 1951, he married again to a woman named Olive Cortese. They had two children, Christie Lee and Gary.  

Harrell died on Aug. 9, 1964, at age 42 under uncertain circumstances and was buried at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery in San Antonio. After his death, his family told the Valley Morning Star he was humble and generous “to a fault” with time and money to friends and strangers. 

Harrell’s Medal of Honor and awards were put on permanent display at the Sam Houston Sanders Corps of Cadets Center on Texas A&M’s campus in 2010, along with a bronze plaque of his military portrait. A dorm was also renamed for him in 1969.  

In his hometown of Mercedes, a section of a granite war memorial is dedicated to him. The town high school’s Junior ROTC building is named for him, as is the town’s middle school in 2015.  

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

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