To everyone else, Sgt. William Harrell was a war hero. He was the recipient of the Medal of Honor, “…for conspicuous gallantry at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty” at Iwo Jima during World War II. To Gary Harrell he was just dad.
“What made my father neat, when I was a kid growing up, were his hooks,” Gary said. “ He lost both hands in World War II.
“Heroes are young kids that are put in bad situations and react as a young kids do,” he explained.
“A lot of these guys who received the Medal of Honor don’t have big heads. It was just something they did in their lives and someone recognized them for their heroism. But they felt like they were just doing their duty.”
Sgt. William Harrell was a member of the 1st Battalion, 28th Marine Regiment, 5th Marine Division on May 3, 1945, during the closing months of the war. He was on guard duty at night when Japanese soldiers infiltrated American lines around his command post. Hand-to-hand combat ensued. Harrell was seriously wounded. A dozen dead Japanese soldiers were found the next morning around the Marine’s post.
“I was 10 years old when my dad died in 1964,” Gary said. “I was starting to understand that the medal he received during World War II was something very different. A lot of my friends had dads in World War II and they had harrowing war stories. “I just kinda assumed everybody got a medal, but the one my dad got was a little higher than my friends’ dads. It didn’t occur to me until much later how rare it was for a person to receive the Medal of Honor.
” Today Gary is principle planner for the Charlotte County, Fla. Metropolitan Planning Organization, a position he has held for three years. It was his father’s Marine division that took Mount Suribachi away from the Japanese.
More Medals of Honor were awarded for the 36-day battle of Iwo Jima than in any other battle in U.S. history. During this period, 20,038 American casualties were sustained, one in three Marines were killed or wounded in the five-week fight. The American dead totaled 6,821 and 13,217 wounded. Almost all of the 22,000 Japanese defenders were killed. The U. S. was intent on capturing Iwo Jima to provide a base for disabled B-29 bombers flying home from their raids over Japan. By war’s end, 2,400 B-29s carrying 27,000 crewmen made emergency landings on the island. When William returned from the war, he was awarded this country’s highest military decoration for heroism by President Harry S. Truman in a White House ceremony.
After World War II, he became chief of prosthetic and sensory aids at the San Antonio Veterans Administration regional office in 1948. The facility provided medical services for veterans in south central Texas. It was the perfect job for Gary’s father. He could show other disabled veterans that being disabled didn’t mean they couldn’t lead productive lives. The fact that he was a Medal of Honor recipient helped him open doors for other people who needed a hand up to get started again.
“Everybody else’s dad had hands,” Gary recalled thinking when he was young. “My dad was different. He didn’t have hands. It was kind of a source of pride for me because dad was different. He could do things with those hooks I couldn’t do with my hands.
“My dad was a big hit with the kids that came over to my house after they got to know him. At first they were a little afraid of the hooks, but after a while they called him Captain Hook. They’d have a lot of fun with him,” Gary said. “He could pick up a cigarette ash in his hooks without crushing it. He could write and do just about anything you can do with your hands.”
Despite the fact they did things together, his father didn’t talk to Gary about his time in the service or what he did to receive the Medal of Honor. Over the years the boy pieced together the fact that his father was in a special flame-thrower weapons squad on Iwo Jima. Years afterward his dad would complain he didn’t like the smell of anything his mother was cooking. During the first year back from the war, reporters frequently asked William about his exploits. But when Gary would ask his father about the incident, he would tell him funny war stories.
“Like the one he told me about being on Iwo and ‘spider traps’ (a machine-gun nest connected to an underground tunnel) being all over the place. He threw a grenade in what he thought was a ‘spider trap,’ but it turned out to be a Japanese latrine. He got everybody nearby covered with the contents of the latrines which didn’t set well with his fellow Marines,” he said.
“My dad and other people who received the Medal of Honor are quick to point out there are lots more heroes who did much more heroic stuff than they did. But nobody saw what they did, so they didn’t get a medal and they’re dead now.”
A while after Gary told me his story about growing up with a father who received the Medal of Honor for the part he played at Iwo Jima Island, he found his dad’s account of his exploits during the battle.
“In 1948 my father decided to write his autobiography,” Gary said. “By then I think he had told his story so many times he wanted to put it down on paper for the record. These four typewritten pages are all that remain of the start of my father’s life story.”
Here is what he wrote:
“I was born in Rio Grande City, Texas in 1922, attended public schools at Mercedes, Texas and was graduated from high school and enrolled at Texas A & M College majoring in animal husbandry for two years.
“On July 3, 1942, I voluntarily joined the Marine Corps after I had been turned down twice by the Air Corps, once by the Navy and once before by the Marine Corps. It seems that I was slightly color blind. What that had to do with fighting ability I don’t know. It never has bothered me before and hasn’t since.”
“After boot training in San Diego, Calif. I went overseas on the 20th day of February, 1943. I spent a year in the South Pacific area attached to the 2nd Marine Division. “I was sent back to the States and was one of the original men to form the now famous 28th Marine Regiment remembered as the Marine outfit which captured Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima and raised the U.S. flag over it.
“I was wounded on March 3, 1945 after a short but furious battle between my buddy Andy Carter and myself and a dozen or more Japs which resulted in the loss of both of my hands. “In active battle for about two weeks, I became closely associated with ‘Duke’ Carter, who shared his experiences in the ‘Two Man Alamo’ that earned our fighting and killed 12 Japs. As members of Company A, 1st Battalion, 28th Marine Regiment I and Pfc. Andrew Jackson Carter dug a foxhole large enough for the two of us on a little ridge about 20 yards in advance of company headquarters.
“The ridge dropped away on our side to a small ravine. We took turns standing hour watches, thus one man was always fully alert. The night was uneventful, but about 5 a.m. Carter heard a soft scraping sound which came through the velvety darkness and I was awakened by the bark of a Garrard rifle close by. I grabbed my own rifle and the weird light of a slowly descending flare showed a pile of crumpled Jap bodies not more than six feet from the foxhole which had been Carter’s target.
“There were groans from the darkness. I fired and the noise ceased. Another flare burst drifted downward, its pale light showing the advance of more Japs. I killed two close to our foxhole. Carter fired at another and then cursed, his rifle had jammed and he was out of the fight temporarily. He told me he was going back to the command post for another rifle. He slipped out of the foxhole.
“Japs were throwing grenades but due to their bad marksmanship none reached its mark. It was quiet in the foxhole for a moment as I laid there tensely staring into the stench of burned explosives. I tried to pull myself together, but couldn’t. I felt a strange scratching finger on my left forearm. When I looked down I realized the finger was mine. My left hand had been blown off and was dangling by tendons and shreds of muscles, the fingers touching my forearm. I realized my left thigh was also shattered and blood oozed from shrapnel wounds along my body.
“As another flare burst Carter was back in the foxhole, but enemy figures were moving in again. They wasted no time.
“With my good right hand I struggled with my carbine trying to insert a fresh clip of cartridges. I couldn’t make it so I threw the rifle aside and drew my .45 caliber pistol from my belt.
“At his side Carter cranked out two rounds at the Japs then cursed in helpless anger, his second rifle jammed. The Japs were coming. Two of them reached our foxhole. Carter snatched up a souvenir Jap rifle and I saw him stand up and impale a Jap on its bayonet.
“The second Jap lashed at Carter with a saber. The blade came down on his head. I fired my pistol at arm’s length and got that one. It was quiet again for a minute. I thought I was dying, so I ordered Carter to get out and make a run for it. He did for another rifle.
“Then two more Japs reached the crest of the ridge and one dropped into the foxhole and lay facing me. The other squatted on the foxhole edge. They chattered wildly for a moment. Then the one in the foxhole took a grenade, tapped it on his helmet to arm it and leaped madly out of the foxhole.
“I freed my .45 and shot him as he jumped and then with the pistol struggled to push the grenade away from me toward the Jap on the edge of the foxhole. I only got it to arm’s length when it exploded. It killed the Jap squatting on the side of the hole, but it also blew up my pistol and right hand. “By this time my buddy Carter returned with help moments after the second grenade burst blowing off my second hand. He helped lift me from our foxhole and jealously guarded the Jap officer’s saber for me.”
Harrell received first aid at the company command post and later was flown to Hawaii for further hospitalization. Besides the loss of both hands, his left thigh was shattered by one of the enemy grenade blasts. For the defense of his portion on the line, Sgt. William Harrell, 1st Battalion, 28th Regiment, 5th Marine Division was awarded the Medal of Honor, this nation’s highest commendation for valor under fire. His buddy, Pfc. Andrew Jackson Carter, received the Silver Star. But there was a problem. For months he couldn’t muster enough courage to let his parents know he had lost both his hands. It was a Marine friend of his who told Harrell’s mother about his injuries.
“It took all the courage I could muster, the same courage I inherited from my grandfather, Roy Harrell, who used to civilize the Texas border, to sustain me at that time. I was transferred to Mare Island Hospital nearest home,” William said.
Born in 1892, Roy grew up in Muskogee Indian Territory in what is now Oklahoma. He moved to Texas when he was 17 and worked as a ranch hand near Alice. He joined the Cavalry about six months before the armistice was signed ending World War I. By then, he was married with one son, Dick, an older brother of William. Shortly after the war Roy briefly became a Texas Ranger, but quit to become a U.S. Border Patrol officer because he could make more money. In those days, the Wild West was still a little wild.
A 1920s newspaper story reported, “Guadalupe Garcia, confessed murderer of ‘Slim’ Billings, La Feria constable, was killed Friday night in a gunfight with Roy Harrell, a boarder patrol officer with headquarters in Mercedes. “Garcia was hit six times by bullets from a high-powered rife after he opened fire on the officer when Harrell called to him to halt.”
Gary Harrell has kept the treasured memento of his grandfather along with the Japanese sword and the memoir his father passed along to him. Because Gary’s father was a Medal of Honor recipient, Gary was admitted to the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Md., where he graduated in 1976. Gary flew P-3s, Navy four-engine reconnaissance planes, and retired after 24 years of service as a commander. Unlike his father and grandfather before him, Gary never fired a shot in anger. He’s just as happy it turned out that way.
Sgt.William H. Harrell’s Medal of Honor Commendation
Sgt. William H. Harrell, U.S. Marine Corps, 1st Battalion, 28th Marines, 5th Marine Division, Iwo Jima
“For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as a leader of an assault group attached to the 1st Battalion, 28th Marines, 5th Marine Division during hand-to-hand combat with enemy Japanese at Iwo Jima, Volcano Islands, on 3 March 1945.
“Standing watch alternately with another Marine in a terrain studded with caves and ravines, Sgt. Harrell was holding a position in a perimeter defense around the company command post when Japanese troops infiltrated our line 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 close, he wage a fierce lone battle until an exploding missile tore off his left hand and fractured his thigh. He was vainly attempting to reload the carbine when his companion returned from the command post with another weapon. Wounded again by a Japanese who rushed the foxhole wielding a saber in the darkness, Sgt. 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 challenges 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 pushed it painfully toward the crouching soldier, saw his remaining assailant destroyed, but his own hand severed in the explosion.
At dawn Sgt. Harrell was evacuated from a position hedged by the bodies of 12 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 U.S. Naval Service.”
Name: William H. Harrell
Birth 16 June 1922
Death 9 August 1964
Hometown: Mercedes, Texas
Entered Service: 3 July 1942
Discharged: 9 Feb. 1946
Rank: Platoon Sergeant
Unit: 1st Battalion, 28th Marine Regiment, 5th Division
Commendations: Medal of Honor, Purple Heart, World War II Victory Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Ribbon with one Bronze Star, American Campaign Ribbon, Good Conduct Medal
Spouse: Olive Cortese (Deceased)
Children: William Carter Harrell, Linda Gail Harrell Dodson (Deceased), Christine Lee Harrell Denton and Gary Douglas Harrell
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida and is republished with permission.
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