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.
CitationFor conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as 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 lines in the early hours of dawn. Awakened by a sudden attack, he quickly opened fire with his carbine and killed 2 of the enemy as they emerged from a ravine in the light of a star shellburst. Unmindful of his danger as hostile grenades fell closer, he waged 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 challenge of 2 more enemy troops who charged his position and placed a grenade near his head. Killing 1 man with his pistol, he grasped the sputtering grenade with his good right hand, and, pushing 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 5 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.
29° 28.572, -098° 25.794
Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery