It is Memorial Day weekend, a time to remember those who answered the call and paid the full price.
So pick a battle. I’ll choose Tarawa. Three miles long, a half mile wide. In 1943 it seemed like a strategic island as we fought our way across the Pacific. The Japanese thought so, too. They had garrisoned 4,700 troop on the island and dug in deep, building layered defenses and bunkers that would allow them to survive a naval bombardment. It’s mostly forgotten now, the years have swept it out of time and memory.
It was our first amphibious landing against a fortified position. It’s where we learned how and combat learning is always paid in blood. If you want the details you can start here. It was men stranded on the reef when the tide turned and wading into the beach while being fired on by Japanese machine guns. Men pinned in the water unable to get off the beach. 988 died, either on the island or of the effects of their wounds after being evacuated. Almost all of those losses were in the first 76 hours of battle.
But you need to drill down further, because 988 is a statistic, so pick one man. It’s hard, 71 years later, to find a story. So many of them just died. Machine gunned in the water, blown apart by shell fire, drowned when they stepped into a shell hole in the surf and unable to get out of their gear.
Again, I chose one. Staff Sergeant William Bordelon, born on Christmas Day 1920 in San Antonio, Texas. We know some of his story because Pr. Roosevelt awarded him the Medal of Honor. He enlisted on December 10th, 1941, went to boot camp in San Diego. He was assigned to 1st Battalion, 18th Marines, and made the landing at Tarawa on November 20th 1943. His Medal of Honor citation reads as follows:
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 machinegun 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.
He was buried on Tarawa, then later re-interred in Hawaii. His brother had his body brought home to Texas in 1995 and he is now buried in Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery along with 120,000 others.
He was 22.