William G. Harrell

Posted on Nov 15, 2015

William G HarrellWilliam George Harrell (June 16, 1922 – August 9, 1964) was a United States Marine who was awarded his nation’s highest military honor – the Medal of Honor – for his heroic actions in the Battle of Iwo Jima.

Early years

William Harrell was born in Rio Grande City , Texas on June 26, 1922 and later moved to Mercedes , Texas . He attended high school in Mercedes, graduating in 1939, and then went on to Texas A&M University for two years prior to his enlistment in the United States Marine Corps on July 3, 1942 in Harlingen , Texas .

Marine Corps service

Completing his recruit training at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego, California, he was temporarily in the 1st Guard Company at that base, prior to his transfer to Headquarters and Service Company, 2nd Battalion, Camp Elliott , San Diego , California , in September 1942. He was promoted to private first class upon his arrival at Camp Elliott , and while there was later advanced to corporal.

Following completion of the Basic Rocket Course, Cpl Harrell departed for overseas duty in February 1943 with Company A, 1st Battalion, 28th Marines,5th Marine Division, as an armored. He first served in Hawaii, and then went on to Saipan then to Iwo Jima .

Sgt Harrell earned the Medal of Honor during the Iwo Jima campaign for continuing to halt a Japanese advance toward his Command Post although suffering from the loss of both hands and several saber cuts on his legs. On March 3, 1945, Sgt Harrell and another man dug in for the night in a long narrow two-man foxhole on Iwo Jima , on a little ridge 20 yards forward of the depression where the company command post was established. Beyond the foxhole the ridge fell off into a ravine which was in Japanese territory. Because of their nearness to the enemy, the two men took turns standing one-hour watches throughout the night while the other slept.

An attack by the Japanese was repulsed, but the other Marine’s weapon jammed and he returned to the command post to obtain another. While he was gone, the enemy managed to get a grenade in the foxhole, which exploded, blowing off Sgt Harrell’s left hand.

The second Marine returned just as the Japanese were swarming up the foxhole and together he and Sgt Harrell drove them off. Thinking he was dying due to the severity of his wounds and saber cuts suffered in the last repulse, Sgt Harrell ordered his companion to retire to safety.

His friend left, but only to get another rifle. During his absence, two Japanese charged the foxhole, setting off another grenade. As Sgt Harrell attempted to push it out of the hole it exploded, tearing off his right hand. He was evacuated and treated at various field hospitals prior to his arrival in the United States . He was a patient at the Bethesda Naval Hospital, Bethesda, Maryland, while awaiting the presentation of the Medal of Honor.

He was presented the nation’s highest military decoration by President Harry S. Truman at the White House on Friday, October 5, 1945. Sgt Harrell was discharged from the Marine Corps at his present rank in February 1946 because of disability resulting from his wounds. Sgt. Harrell and Joe Hector Garza became best friends.

In addition to the Medal of Honor, Sgt Harrell was awarded the Purple Heart; Presidential Unit Citation; Good Conduct Medal; American Campaign Medal; Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with one bronze star; and the World War II Victory Medal.

Final days

After the war, Harrell worked for the Veteran’s Administration. He specialized in helping other amputees. He married and had children. Sergeant Harrell died on August 9, 1964 in San Antonio , Texas, and was laid to rest in Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery, San Antonio .

The tragic circumstances surrounding Harrell’s death remain a mystery. On the evening of August 8, 1964, Harrell had been at a party with friends. Sometime after midnight on August 9, in his own residence, Harrell shot and killed his friends, Edward and Geraldine Zumwalt, and then turned the gun on himself. The bodies were discovered the following morning by Harrell’s family when they returned from an out-of-town trip. The motivation for the killings was never determined

Medal of Honor citation

The President of the United States takes pleasure in presenting the MEDAL OF HONOR to


for service as set forth in the following CITATION:

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as Leader of an Assault Group, serving with the First Battalion, Twenty-Eight Marines, Fifth Marine Division, during hand- to-hand combat with enemy Japanese at Iwo Jima, Volcano Islands, on March 3, 1945. Standing watch alternately with another Marine in a terrain studded with caves and ravines, Sergeant Harrell was holding a position in a perimeter defense around the company command post when Japanese troops infiltrated our lines in the early hours of dawn. Awakened by a sudden attack, he quickly opened fire with his carbine and killed two of the enemy as they emerged from a ravine in the light of a star-shell burst. Unmindful of his danger as hostile grenades fell closer, he waged a fierce lone battle until an exploding missile tore off his left hand and fractured his thigh; he was attempting to reload the carbine when his companion returned from the command post with another weapon. Wounded again by Japanese who rushed the foxhole wielding a saber in the darkness, Sergeant Harrell succeeded in drawing his pistol and killing his opponent and then ordered his wounded companion to a place of safety. Exhausted by profuse bleeding but still unbeaten, he fearlessly met the challenge of two more enemy troops who charged his position and placed a grenade near his head. Killing one man with his pistol, he grasped the sputtering grenade with his good right hand and, pushing it painfully toward the crouching soldier, saw his remaining assailant destroyed but his own hand severed in the explosion. At dawn Sergeant Harrell was evacuated from a position hedged by the bodies of twelve dead Japanese, at least five of whom he had personally destroyed in his self-sacrificing defense of the command post. His grim fortitude exceptional valor and indomitable fighting spirit against almost insurmountable odds reflect the highest credit upon himself and enhance the finest traditions of the United States Naval Service.