Bordelon's natural talents for leadership were quickly identified, and he was promoted rapidly as the units that would become the newly-formed 2nd Marine Division readied themselves for action in the Pacific. By July, 1942 he had already been promoted up to the rank of Sergeant.
This "natural Marine" was trained as an assault engineer with the 2nd Engineer Battalion, which was then redesignated as the 1st Battalion, 18th Marine Regiment. Seventy years ago today on November 20, 1943, our Leathernecks assaulted Betio Island, Tarawa Atoll, in the Gilberts. They faced the most intense Japanese resistance to a landing yet, and then Staff Sergeant Bordelon truly went above and beyond to insure that once ashore, his fellow Marines would stay there.
The landing at Tarawa was very nearly a complete disaster. Incorrect predictions of the tides and the ability to get landing craft over the coral reefs surrounding Betio could have destroyed the landing force before ever reaching shore. The pitifully small number of amphibious tracked vehicles available to the Marines which could cross the coral were also heavily damaged or destroyed due to their lack of armor.
One of those amphibious tractors ("amtracks") carried Staff Sergeant Bordelon to shore with his engineer platoon and crucial demolitions gear needed to take out Japanese defensive positions. Of the up to 24 Marines aboard that amtrack, Bordelon and just three comrades made it to shore. Taking no heed of the carnage that surrounded him, and completely disregarding his own safety and wounds he received, Bordelon persisted in attacking Japanese fortifications with his demolitions and even went back into the surf to rescue a wounded Marine.
While attacking a fourth enemy pillbox alone, he was killed by the Japanese defenders, but his awesome courage and example under fire inspired the Marines around him and assured that a grateful nation would later have him decorated with the Medal of Honor.
From Medal of Honor Citations for World War II (A-F):
*BORDELON, WILLIAM JAMES
Rank and organization: Staff Sergeant, U.S. Marine Corps.
Citation: For 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.
Bordelon's remains were recovered and initially buried in a temporary cemetery on Betio. His body was later reburied in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, Honolulu, Hawai'i. Over 50 years after his heroism, Bordelon's brother applied to have his remains repatriated to Texas home of San Antonio. In 1995, the heroic Marine lay in state at the Alamo before being laid to his final rest in Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery, fifty-two years to the day of his Medal of Honor actions.
The United States Navy honored their fellow naval service hero with the commissioning of the Gearing-class destroyer USS Bordelon (DD-881) on June 5, 1945. The ship served with the fleet until 1977.
Bordelon's World War II unit is today known as the 2nd Combat Engineer Battalion. They are part of the 2nd Marine Division and II Marine Expeditionary Force at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.