BORDELON, WILLIAM JAMES
BORDELON, WILLIAM JAMES (1920–1943). Medal of Honor recipient, William James Bordelon, was born on December 25, 1920, in San Antonio, Texas. He was the son of William Jennings and Carmen Josephine (Pereira) Bordelon. As a youngster, Bordelon attended the local schools and served as an altar boy at Mission San José. In 1938 he graduated from Central Catholic High School where he had served as the top-ranking cadet in the Reserve Officers Training Corps. On December 10, 1941, three days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Bordelon enlisted in the United States Marine Corps.
Bordelon excelled in his military training in 1942 and 1943. During recruit training in San Diego, he recorded a score of 214 in rifle fire to qualify as a Marine “marksman.” Following recruit training, Bordelon was assigned to the Second Engineer Battalion, Second Marine Division, in San Diego where he underwent additional training, achieved rapid promotions, and attained the rank of sergeant on July 10. On October 20 his unit departed San Diego for New Zealand for six weeks of additional training in late 1942. Sergeant Bordelon witnessed his first combat on Guadalcanal during the period from January 4 to February 19, 1943. After the brutal Guadalcanal campaign, Bordelon returned to New Zealand for additional training and was promoted to staff sergeant (SSgt) on May 13, 1943.
With members of his Assault Engineer Platoon, First Battalion, Eighteenth Marines (attached to the Second Marines during the invasion of Tarawa), Staff Sergeant Bordelon landed on the beaches of the Japanese-held atoll of Tarawa in the Gilbert Islands on November 20, 1943. Taking intense enemy fire, Bordelon was among only four Marines from his LVT (landing vehicle, tracked [also known as amphibious tractor]) to survive the landing. Along with a comrade, Bordelon moved out of the vehicle and immediately found himself caught in barbed wire while under heavy fire. After extracting themselves, the four men found some safety behind a four-foot-high seawall.
Having lost most of their equipment, Staff Sergeant Bordelon took charge of the desperate situation. He secured two packages of dynamite, made demolition charges, and then eliminated two pillboxes. Bordelon threw a charge at a third pillbox but was hit by machine gun fire in the process. Wounded by enemy fire and from the backlash of the charge, he secured a rifle and provided cover for a number of men attempting to climb the seawall. Hearing two wounded Marines in the water calling for help, Bordelon proceeded to rescue them in spite of his own serious injuries. Though injured from multiple wounds, the Texan assaulted a fourth Japanese position that he managed to destroy with a rifle grenade just before he was killed by a burst of hostile fire. Against enormous odds, the wounded Marine had destroyed four Japanese machine gun positions and rescued two Marines.
Bordelon’s actions at Tarawa were described as “valorous and gallant.” His heroic effort came “during a critical phase of securing the limited beachhead [and] was a contributing factor in the ultimate occupation of the island.” In a ceremony at Alamo Stadium in San Antonio, William and Carmen Bordelon were presented their son’s posthumous Medal of Honor by Marine Maj. Donald Taft on June 17, 1944. June 17 was proclaimed “Bordelon Memorial Day” in San Antonio, and Governor Coke Stevenson designated the week “Statewide Bordelon Week” in Texas. A destroyer, the USS Bordelon (commissioned in 1945), Veterans of Foreign Wars William J. Bordelon Post 4700, and American Legion Post 300 were named in honor of the Texan. The San Antonio native was the first Texas Marine to earn the Medal of Honor during World War II and the first man and only enlisted man to earn the Medal of Honor at Tarawa. He was also the first native-born San Antonian ever to receive the Medal of Honor. His other posthumous awards included the Purple Heart, Presidential Unit Citation, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, and World War II Victory Medal. In 1994 the Navy-Marine Corps Reserve building in San Antonio was named in Bordelon’s honor.
Bordelon was first buried at Tarawa in the Lone Palm Cemetery. After the war, his body was reburied in Hawaii in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Honolulu in 1947. In early 1995 Bordelon’s surviving siblings Robert Bordelon and Carmen Bordelon Imhoff, assisted by San Antonio Express-News staff writer J. Michael Parker and others, sought and were granted permission to return Bordelon to San Antonio. On November 19, 1995, the Texas hero’s flag-draped casket flanked by two Marine honor guards lay in state for public viewing at the Alamo—the shrine of Texas liberty. He was only the fifth person to lie in state in the Alamo up to that time. An estimated 2,500 people or more came to view the casket. On November 20, Rev. George Montague of St. Mary’s University concelebrated with Auxiliary Bishop John Yanta and nine other priests a funeral Mass in Mission San José. Sgt. William James Bordelon was reburied with full military honors at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery exactly fifty-two years after his death at Tarawa. In 2007 Central Catholic High School in San Antonio dedicated a new memorial in the lobby, and in 2009 a section of Interstate 37 that ran between IH 35 and IH 10 in San Antonio was named to commemorate Bordelon.
Douglas R. Pricer, Cornerstones of Courage: The Story of SSgt. William J. Bordelon, USMC (Xlibris, 2014). David Flores, “Legacy of S. A.’s first Medal of Honor recipient kept alive by brother,” Kens5.com, May 30, 2011, (http://www.kens5.com/news/heroes/Legacy-of-SAs-first-Medal-of-Honor-recipient-endures-70-years-later-122753049.html), accessed April 8, 2014. Eric Hammel & John E. Lane, Bloody Tarawa: The 2d Marine Division, November 20-23, 1943 (St. Paul, Minnesota: Zenith Press, 2006). San Antonio Express-News, May 29, 1995; November 19, 20, 21, 1995. “Staff Sergeant William James Bordelon, USMC (Deceased),” Who’s Who in Marine Corps History, United States Marine Corps History Division (https://www.mcu.usmc.mil/history division/Pages/Who’s%20Who/A-C/Bordelon_WJ.aspx), accessed September 11, 2013. William J. Bordelon, Medal of Honor Recipient, Memorial Ceremonies, memorial program booklet, November 20, 1995.
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Uploaded on June 12, 2010. Modified on May 9, 2018. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.