HARRELL, WILLIAM GEORGE
HARRELL, WILLIAM GEORGE (1922–1964). World War II Medal of Honor recipient William George Harrell was born on June 26, 1922, in Rio Grande City, Texas, to Roy E. and Hazel Marian (Culber) Harrell. His father served in the cavalry in World War I, worked as a ranch hand, and patrolled the Mexican border as an employee of the Bureau of Immigration. After the death of Roy Harrell in 1931, Hazel Harrell was left to support William, his older brother Dick, and his sister Virginia. As a youngster, Harrell attended school in Rio Grande City and in Mercedes. In junior high school, he was a member of the Boy Scouts. Like his father, Harrell developed a love for horses. He also enjoyed camping and hunting and spent much of his time boating at a local lake. He worked in the summer at various jobs including a stint on a ranch. In 1939 Harrell graduated from Mercedes High School and enrolled at Texas A&M University.
In September 1939 Harrell arrived at Texas A&M and remained there for four semesters. With an interest in the scientific breeding of horses and cattle, he selected animal husbandry as his field of study and selected the cavalry as his military science requirement. An aunt provided some financial support, but Harrell understood that he had to finance his own way. After two years in College Station, he decided to seek employment in order to pay for his the rest of his education. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, he sought to join the military.
After being rejected twice by the United States Army Air Corps due to color blindness and once by the United States Navy, Harrell enlisted in the United States Marine Corps in July 1942. He took basic training at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego and received training as an armorer at Camp Elliott. After completing the basic rocket course, Harrell was assigned to Company A, Twenty-eighth Marine Regiment, Fifth Marine Division in early 1943.
After additional training in Hawaii and then Saipan, Sergeant Harrell hit the beach on Iwo Jima with the Twenty-eighth in the early hours of February 19, 1945. The Fifth Division was ordered to the southern part of the island facing Mount Suribachi. The marines had taken Mount Suribachi and one of the two airfields by February 24. In the early morning of March 3, Harrell and fellow Texan PFC Andrew J. Carter of Paducah manned a foxhole in a perimeter defense about twenty yards in front of the company command post. At about 5:00 A.M., the enemy attacked. Carter shot first and killed four Japanese moving toward him. Sergeant Harrell rapidly fired his carbine and killed two Japanese that had emerged from a ravine. After Carter’s rifle jammed, Harrell ordered him to the rear to secure another one. Fighting alone and ignoring the dangers of enemy grenades landing near him, Harrell fought the Japanese and took enemy fire that shot off his left hand and fractured his thigh. After securing a rifle, Carter returned to aid Harrell. Unable to reload his rifle, Harrell drew a pistol with his right hand to kill a Japanese officer who slashed Carter’s hand with a samurai sword. Convinced his comrade might bleed to death, Harrell ordered him to the command post. Although exhausted and injured, Harrell found the strength to kill two more Japanese charging him; one with pistol fire and the other with a grenade that exploded and tore off his (Harrell’s) right hand. After the fighting, medics found Harrell and twelve dead Japanese by him. Harrell’s commander called the position the “two-man Alamo.” For their heroics, Harrell received the Medal of Honor, and Carter received the Navy Cross.
First treated for his wounds at the Army Hospital Station on Iwo Jima, Harrell was later moved to a U.S. Naval hospital at Pearl Harbor and then to the U.S. Naval Hospital at Mare Island, California. While undergoing treatment and rehabilitation at the Mare Island Hospital, Harrell met Larena Anderson, a clerical worker at the local naval base. They married on February 16, 1946. Their son William Carter was born in 1947 and daughter Linda Gail in 1948. President Harry S. Truman presented the Medal of Honor to Harrell in a ceremony at the White House on October 5, 1945.
With his new bride William Harrell returned to Mercedes, Texas, in early 1946 and was welcomed home as a hero. The local Kiwanis Club along with several other groups raised $25, 000 for the marine hero to purchase a ranch. Harrell accepted a job with the Veterans Administration as a contact representative and relocated to San Antonio where he purchased a home. Equipped with general hooks for hands, Harrell appeared to have adapted well after the war. He later served as the chief of the Prosthetic Appliance Group with the Veterans Administration, worked with disabled veterans, and was a frequent speaker to groups and an advocate for disabled veterans. Harrell’s first marriage ended in divorce. In 1951 he married Olive Cortese; they had two children—Christie Lee and Gary Douglas.
Tragically, William Harrell used a rifle to kill Ed and Geraldine Zumwalt and then himself in the early morning hours of August 9, 1964 at his home in San Antonio. Ed Zumwalt, who had lost part of his leg during the Korean War, had known Harrell for about a year. Friends of Harrell and the Zumwalts knew of no friction between them. Dr. Ruben Santos, the medical examiner, stated a motive “probably never will be established.” William Harrell was buried at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery on August 11, 1964.
Harrell has been honored in a various ways. In Mercedes, Texas, a monument of Harrell stands in the center of town, and the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps building is named for him. Texas A&M named a dormitory William G. Harrell Hall, placed a large bronze plaque of him in the Sam Houston Sanders Corps of Cadets Center, and hung an artist’s portrait of him with a specimen Medal of Honor and the citation for his medal in the Memorial Student Center. On December 11, 2015, the Mercedes ISD rededicated the new North Middle School as the William George Harrell Middle School in his honor.
Henry C. Dethloff with John A. Adams, Jr., Texas Aggies Go To War: In Service of Their Country (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2006). “Sergeant William G. Harrell, USMC (Deceased),” Who’s Who in Marine Corps History,United States Marine Corps History Division (https://www.mcu.usmc.mil/historydivision/Pages/Who%27s%20Who/G-I/Harrell_WG.aspx), accessed November 19, 2013. San Antonio Express, August 10, 1964. James R. Woodall, Texas Aggie Medals of Honor: Seven Heroes of World War II (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2010).
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The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.Handbook of Texas Online, Henry Franklin Tribe, "Harrell, William George," accessed March 28, 2017, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fhadx.
Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Modified on January 21, 2016. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.