The 20–24 November 1943 battle for Tarawa Atoll’s Betio Island took the lives of more than 1,000 U.S. Marines, including Staff Sergeant William James Bordelon. A 22-year-old combat engineer from San Antonio, Texas, he was at the center of the assault—Red Beach Two—during the battle’s darkest hour, when Japanese machine-gun fire had pinned down the initial assault waves on the beach and was decimating reinforcements struggling to wade ashore across the island’s reef. But, after he assessed the grim situation, that’s when Bill Bordelon took matters in his own hands.
Born on Christmas Day 1920, Bill was the first of James and Carmen Bordelon’s five children and grew up in the blue-collar enclave of Harlandale on the southside of San Antonio during the Depression. As a boy, he embraced the virtue of hard work and the importance of family and faith. Even as a teenager he remained close to his parents and siblings: Peggy, Tommy, Raymond, and Bobby. “Billy watched over us,” remembered Peggy. “He shared everything with us. He was very strong, and a tough fighter. He never let anyone bother us.”
The Bordelons were devout Catholics, and in the fall of 1935 Bill entered Central Catholic High School, one of the oldest all-male private schools in Texas. He took to heart the teachings of his Marianist instructors: to love his classmates as brothers, to subordinate himself to others, and to strive to be a “servant leader.” The school’s Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps also profoundly influenced his development. By the time he graduated in 1938, he had achieved the rank of battalion major. No one was surprised by his class prophesy: “The Military, First, Last and Always.”
When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, Bordelon immediately tried to enlist in the Marine Corps but worried about being accepted. “He was nervous,” said his sister. “After high school he had tried to join the Navy but they turned him down. He had webbed toes, and they said it would affect his balance.” But Bordelon easily passed his Marine physical. With barely time to say goodbye, he boarded a westbound train destined for Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego.
Training and Guadalcanal
After graduating boot camp, Boredelon was ordered to nearby Camp Elliott, where he joined the 2d Engineer Battalion, 2d Marine Division and trained as an elite combat engineer whose main assignment would be to destroy enemy beachfront fortifications during amphibious assaults. He learned how to fuse and detonate improvised and standard explosives, including satchel charges and Bangalore torpedoes. Promotions came quickly, and by July he’d risen to sergeant. “Been taking a demolitions course here at Elliott,” he wrote his father in a lighthearted letter that month, “really have learned a lot about blowing stuff down. Take a ½ pound of TNT, strap it to a piece of 110-pound railroad iron and blow it to kingdom come—very interesting dope—hope we get to ruin the Jap luxury liner sometime.”
Bordelon visited home on furlough before departing on 20 October 1942 for Wellington, New Zealand, with the 2d Marine Division’s 18th Marine Regiment. The 2d Engineer Battalion had grown into the 18th Marines, a hybrid combat-support outfit comprised of an engineer, a pioneer (amphibious stevedore), and a naval construction (Seabee) battalion. Two months later he celebrated his 22nd birthday on board the troop transport USS President Hayes (AP-39), bound for Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands.
The protracted battle for Guadalcanal was in its fourth month when Bordelon arrived. Although the crisis had passed its peak, American forces still confronted several thousand veteran Japanese troops dug in on the western end of the island. During two months of bitter jungle fighting, Bordelon and his squad applied the assault engineering skills learned at Camp Elliott. They proved their mettle by reducing enemy strongholds with portable flamethrowers, which were new to most Marines, and explosives. In the process, Bordelon’s courage under fire and leadership abilities earned him promotion to staff sergeant. When Guadalcanal was declared secure on 9 February 1943, Bordelon and his company returned to the 18th Marines’ encampment outside Wellington. After fighting in the malarial tropics, the men found New Zealand’s cool climate reinvigorating.
In early August, Vice Admiral Raymond Spruance, commander of the newly created Central Pacific Force (soon to be redesignated the 5th Fleet), flew to Wellington to disclose a critical mission to Major General Julian Smith, commander of the 2d Marine Division, and his staff. Spruance explained that the United States would soon open a second front in the Pacific theater by launching an island-hopping thrust across the Central Pacific, assaulting the Japanese-occupied Gilberts, Marshalls, Marianas, and beyond. The campaign would open in November with the surprise seizure of the Gilberts, whose strategic prize was the Japanese bomber strip on Tarawa Atoll’s Betio Island. Spruance told Smith that the Joint Chiefs of Staff had picked the 2d Marine Division to assault Tarawa.
Smith and his operations officer, Lieutenant Colonel David M. Shoup, knew that the bomber strip was heavily fortified and that Betio was surrounded by an apron-like coral reef. They asked Spruance about the availability of shallow-draft landing craft and the extent of the preliminary naval bombardment. The admiral was not encouraging. No new boats were available, and time would be of the essence. Japanese naval forces based in the Caroline Islands could reach the Gilberts in three days.
Admiral Chester Nimitz, commander-in-chief of the Pacific Fleet, had told Spruance, “Get the hell in, then get the hell out.” There would be no time for a protracted bombardment, nor could they wait for the next spring tide to ensure the passage of landing craft over the reef. D-day was set for 20 November 1943. When the Marines checked their tidal tables they realized the moon would be in its third quarter on that date, presaging a neap tide.
A sense of urgency pervaded the Marine training camps following Spruance’s visit. Shoup thought to have the division’s logistical cargo haulers—LVTs (landing vehicles, tracked)—converted into beach assault craft, while General Smith’s chief of staff, former 1st Marine Raider Battalion commander Colonel Merritt A. Edson, took charge of training the division for the difficult task ahead.
The Marines had learned at Guadalcanal, Tulagi, and Gavutu that rifles and grenades were inadequate to neutralize Japanese strongpoints. Teams of assault specialists with supporting arms were needed to do the job. Trained to seize a beachhead under fire and then methodically destroy inland bunkers and pillboxes, the 18th Marines’ combat-engineer platoons were thus in high demand and trained intensively with the units they would accompany ashore. For Sergeant Bordelon’s platoon, this was the 2d Battalion, 2d Marines (2/2).
Colonel Shoup’s complex Betio landing plan reflected the uncertainties of the naval bombardment’s effectiveness and of the tide. The division expected to have more than 100 Marine LVTs available for the landing, enough to transport 1,500 Marines in the first three assault waves. The tracked amphibians could traverse the reef in any tide, but the fourth and fifth waves, consisting of another thousand troops along with most of the heavier infantry weapons, would have to ride in Navy LCVPs (landing craft, vehicle, personnel) and LCMs (landing craft, mechanized), whose drafts were likely too deep to cross the reef in a neap tide.
The Marines decided to land on Betio’s lagoon-side northern shore, where there would be no surf, fewer mines, and a sturdy pier jutting out 500 yards to the reef’s edge. Shoup divided the 1,700-yard shoreline (designated “Red Beach”) into three parts, each assigned to a separate battalion landing team (BLT). He assigned BLT 2/2, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Herbert Amey, to Red Beach Two, which extended 500 yards from the west side of the pier. Amey assigned his rifle companies to the LVTs of the first three assault waves. Bordelon’s platoon of combat engineers, along with their flamethrowers and explosivies, would be scattered among BLT 2/2’s third wave.
Transit to Shore
On 1 November, the 2d Marine Division embarked aboard the ships of the Southern Attack Force and sortied from Wellington for Tarawa. Bordelon and his engineers were on board the attack transport USS Zeilin (APA-3), along with BLT 2/2 and Colonel Shoup, recently assigned to command the 2d Marines.
The Southern Attack Force arrived off Tarawa shortly after midnight on 20 November. As the transports dropped anchor, overhead a gibbous moon glowed in the star-filled sky. Betio lay ten miles distant, dark and still.
Reveille on board the Zeilin sounded at 0200, and the Marines received a special breakfast of steak and eggs, fried potatoes, and strong coffee. By 0320 they were geared-up and over the ship’s side, down the damp cargo nets into bobbing LCVPs. Sailors on deck carefully lowered flamethrowers and demolition equipment to engineers in the crowded boats. The Marines in the first three waves then had to transfer with their equipment into the LVTs, a chaotic and harrowing ordeal as the boats and vehicles pitched and rolled in the darkness. Divided into small groups, the engineers shared space with the rifle companies they would accompany ashore. The noisy amphibians next assembled into assault waves. By then the Japanese garrison had discovered the U.S. armada and added to the confusion by opening fire with their 8-inch coast-defense guns.
The passage to Betio must have seemed endless. The heavily laden LVTs wallowed against a punishing headwind that slowed their speed to less than 4 knots. Rear Admiral Harry W. Hill, commanding the attack force, had to postpone H-hour three times. Meanwhile, the Marines waiting to go ashore were able to observe the war’s greatest preliminary assault-landing bombardment to date. Admiral Hill’s gunnery officer had vowed to “obliterate Betio.” As the first wave of LVTs crossed the line of departure, it appeared that the cannonade had done just that. Now with the target canopied in flames and dark smoke, Hill ordered a cease-fire lest the Marines be endangered as they landed.
On Betio, just west of the long pier, 28-year-old Japanese Warrant Officer Kiyoshi Ota and his squad of gunners struggled to clear the ringing from their ears. Although traumatized from the bombardment, they, like many other members of Betio’s elite naval infantry force, were unhurt. Of that strangely quiet moment before the assault, Ota would write: “We took advantage . . . to position ourselves carefully. . . . If the Americans should try to land here we were in a good position to give them a hot reception.”
As the LVTs approached the reef, the Japanese were astounded to see the “little boats with wheels” shift into overland gear and slither across the coral shelf. But then the defenders opened fire from every point along the north coast. Ota recalled that “The Americans appeared to be surprised and confused. Many of the landing boats collided with each other or became stranded . . . we could see the Americans jumping overboard into the water. We directed a great volume of fire at the enemy troops struggling in the water.”
Chaos on the Beach
The first Marine LVTs touched down on Red Beach One at 0910, but BLT 2/2’s leading LVT did not reach Red Two for another 12 minutes. Heavy fire, barbed-wire obstacles in the shallows, and a strong lateral current diverted many of the vehicles. BLT 2/2’s Company E, minus one platoon that was driven off course, landed but was only able to secure a foothold. Company F took heavy casualties as it fought its way about 50 yards inland. Company G, minus one platoon, landed between the lead units but was also only able to grab a foothold. Most of the battalion’s Marines who made it ashore took shelter behind the beach’s coconut-log seawall, disorganized and out of contact.
Amid the smoke and chaos, Bordelon’s LVT doggedly had chugged ahead while taking tremendous fire. Forty yards from the beach a series of direct hits knocked out the vehicle, killing the crew and two-thirds of the Marines on board. Bordelon led three engineers, PFCs Jack Ashcroft and Oliver Bange and Sergeant Eldon Beers, out of the burning wreck and shoreward. Japanese machine-gunners firing from emplacements just beyond the seawall killed Private Bange. The others reached the shelter of the structure, gasping for breath and trying to get their bearings. The trio was about 125 yards west of the pier.
Looking back, Leathernecks ashore could see the fate of the fourth and fifth waves. The water over the reef had proved too shallow for their landing craft. Hundreds of Marines were jumping out of the boats and wading to shore with their rifles held above their heads. Enemy machine guns just inland from Red Two lashed the water around them and mowed down many of the Marines. A few empty LVTs tried picking up as many men as they could. Colonel Amey and his command group climbed aboard one vehicle. Thirty yards from the beach it lurched to a halt, snagged by a mass of barbed wire. Amey led his men over the side and into the shallow water, brandishing his pistol and shouting: “Come on! Those bastards can’t stop us!” A second later, a Japanese machine-gunner fired a burst that caught Amey in the throat, killing him instantly.
The time was not yet 1000, and the great Central Pacific drive had ground to a halt. No one seemed in charge of the Marines ashore, many of whom were in a state of shock. Most of the Japanese machine-gun bunkers along the beach had survived the naval bombardment and were firing with impunity at the Marines wading ashore. For Bordelon and his men, their training as an assault-engineer team must have seemed fruitless, especially because they had arrived on the beach without flamethrower, smoke grenades, or pole charges. All they had were two satchels of dynamite that Beers and Ashcroft had salvaged from their burning LVT.
Initiative Under Fire
Keeping his head and taking charge, Bordelon ordered Beers and Ashcroft to form and fuse the explosives into four charges. Then the sergeant calmly stood up and, despite receiving a bullet wound in his left arm, flung a charge into each of the two closest bunkers, destroying them both. The explosion of the second charge spattered the left side of his face with shrapnel.
Cradling the remaining two charges, Bordelon crawled forward from the seawall to attack a third strongpoint. Its machine-gun crew, which was firing steadily across the reef, spotted his approach, swung their weapon around, and shot him a second time in his left arm. Yet Bordelon managed to heave a charge through the emplacement’s firing slit, silencing the gun. The fourth charge blew up in the sergeant’s hand just as he threw it, injuring him further.
Bleeding profusely, Bordelon returned to the seawall. Beers and Ashcroft implored him to seek medical aid, but instead he dashed into the water to assist a wounded Marine who was calling for help, pulling him and another engineer to safety with his one good arm.
Unrelenting fire still blazed from a fourth nearby bunker that was farther inland. Beers offered to team with Bordelon for the next assault, but as they scrambled forward through the loose sand, an enemy grenade exploded, wounding Beers in the stomach and knocking him unconscious. Bordelon pulled him to safety and stumbled down the beach in search of a corpsman to help his friend.
Finding none, the sergeant picked up a Springfield rifle with a loaded grenade launcher on its muzzle and returned to the seawall. Another Marine stepped up to help him attack the inland Japanese emplacement. Its machine-gun crew swiveled their weapon and fired, wounding Bordelon in the shoulder as well as injuring the other man. After pulling the Marine to safety, Bordelon stood up and fired the grenade through the bunker’s slit. It exploded just as Japanese bullets ripped into the sergeant, who slumped to the sand, dead.
An Inspiration to Others
Although parts of Red Beach Two remained a hornet’s nest, Bordelon’s initiative came at the most critical point of the battle. By destroying the four Japanese bunkers closest to the west side of the pier, he unknowingly carved out a relatively safe corridor for reinforcements. Within the hour, two companies of the regimental reserve, BLT 1/2, streamed onto the beach close to the pier. An hour later, a wounded Colonel Shoup limped ashore in the same channel, establishing his command post in the ruins of a Japanese bunker close by the swath cleared by Bordelon. Later, cannoneers waded in carrying the disassembled components of four 75-mm pack howitzers; artillery fire was soon helping defend the beachhead.
Further, Bordelon’s action galvanized scores of other Marines to rise up and continue the attack. Lieutenant General Holland M. Smith, commanding the V Amphibious Corps, spoke of the sergeant’s exemplary leadership in his positive endorsement of General Smith’s nomination of Bordelon for the Medal of Honor, writing, he “served as an outstanding inspiration to his comrades at a highly critical time in the battle.” Later, President Franklin D. Roosevelt approved Bordelon’s posthumous Medal of Honor for his “valorous and gallant conduct above and beyond the call of duty.” He was the only enlisted Marine at Tarawa to receive the nation’s highest award.
Col. Joseph H. Alexander, USMC (Ret.), Utmost Savagery: The Three Days of Tarawa (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1995).
Author interviews with Colonel Joseph H. Alexander, U.S. Marines (Retired), (3 December 2012) and Peggy Bordelon (23 March 2012).
William Bordelon, letter home from Camp Elliott, California, 24 July 1942.
CG [Commanding General], V Amphibious Corps, 19 January 1944, Second Endorsement of CO, 2d Marine Regiment recommendation of SSgt William Bordelon for Congressional Medal of Honor, 23 December 1943, Reference Section, History Division, Marine Corps University, Quantico, Virginia.
Kiyoshi Ota, Tarawa, My Last Battle (1964), David Monroe Shoup papers, the Hoover Institution, Stanford University Library.
Henry I. Shaw Jr., Bernard C. Nalty, and Edwin T. Turnbladh, Central Pacific Drive, vol. 2 of History of U.S. Marine Corps Operations in World War II (Washington: Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps, 1966).
Capt. James R. Stockman, U.S. Marine Corps, The Battle for Tarawa (Washington, Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps, 1947).
Donald Tyson, “All Might Not Go As Expected,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, November 1999.