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. SSgt. 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.
CitationFor valorous and gallant conduct above and beyond the call of duty as a member of an assault engineer platoon of the 1st Battalion, 18th Marines, tactically attached to the 2d Marine Division, in action against the Japanese-held atoll of Tarawa in the Gilbert Islands on 20 November 1943. Landing in the assault waves under withering enemy fire which killed all but 4 of the men in his tractor, S/Sgt. Bordelon hurriedly made demolition charges and personally put 2 pillboxes out of action. Hit by enemy machinegun fire just as a charge exploded in his hand while assaulting a third position, he courageously remained in action and, although out of demolition, provided himself with a rifle and furnished fire coverage for a group of men scaling the seawall. Disregarding his own serious condition, he unhesitatingly went to the aid of one of his demolition men, wounded and calling for help in the water, rescuing this man and another who had been hit by enemy fire while attempting to make the rescue. Still refusing first aid for himself, he again made up demolition charges and single-handedly assaulted a fourth Japanese machinegun position but was instantly killed when caught in a final burst of fire from the enemy. S/Sgt. Bordelon's great personal valor during a critical phase of securing the limited beachhead was a contributing factor in the ultimate occupation of the island, and his heroic determination throughout 3 days of violent battle reflects the highest credit upon the U.S. Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life for his country.
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Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery