This Day in History: Three Heroes at Iwo Jima
On this day in 1945, two Marines are killed in the Battle of Iwo Jima. Another Marine is seriously wounded and was lucky to survive. Each man would earn the Medal of Honor for his gallantry on this day so long ago.
They showed the same bravery and selflessness, but each Marine had taken a different path to that moment.
One of the men had enlisted in 1942, leaving behind an unfinished college degree at Texas A&M. A second had enlisted soon after his 18th birthday. The third Marine had been working on a milkman’s truck before his enlistment. He’d been giving most of his $25/week salary to his mom.
Unfortunately, only one of the three would make it back home.
Sergeant William G. Harrell was fortunate to survive. He’d been awoken in the evening by a surprise attack. Almost immediately, a grenade thrown by the enemy tore off his left hand and fractured his thigh.
He wasn’t about to be stopped by a little thing like a grenade—or the Japanese soldier who rushed his foxhole, wielding a saber! Harrell coolly took out the Japanese attacker with his pistol. By now, he was crippled and bleeding from saber wounds, but two other Japanese were coming upon him. He took out one with his pistol, but still needed to deal with the grenade that they’d dropped. With his one good hand, Harrell managed to push the grenade toward the second enemy soldier, who was crouching nearby and about to land a deadly blow. That soldier was instead destroyed by the grenade. Unfortunately, Harrell also lost his other hand in the explosion.
Shockingly, Harrell survived these experiences, but his two fellow Marines would not.
Corporal Charles J. Berry and Private First Class William Robert Caddy threw themselves on top of grenades that day, knowing those grenades were about to explode. They were killed instantly.
“Determined to save his comrades,” Berry’s medal citation notes, “he unhesitatingly chose to sacrifice himself and immediately dived on the deadly missile, absorbing the shattering violence of the exploding charge in his own body and protecting the others from serious injury.”
Caddy’s citation notes a similar feat. “Stouthearted and indomitable,” the citation continues, “he unhesitatingly yielded his own life that his fellow marines might carry on the relentless battle against a fanatic enemy.”
An inspiring postscript to all of these stories? These three Marines were not the only men to receive Medals of Honor for their actions on March 3, 1945. Two Navy men did as well.
Sometimes, the number of heroes among the Greatest Generation seems endless, doesn’t it? Perhaps Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz said it best: “Among the Americans who served on Iwo Island uncommon valor was a common virtue.”
James H. Hallas, Uncommon Valor on Iwo Jima: The Story of the Medal of Honor Recipients in the Marine Corps' Bloodiest Battle of World War II (2016)
Medal of Honor citation (Charles Joseph Berry; WWII)
Medal of Honor citation (George Edward Wahlen; WWII)
Medal of Honor citation (Jack Williams; WWII)
Medal of Honor citation (William George Harrell; WWII)
Medal of Honor citation (William Robert Caddy; WWII)
Tedd Thomey, Immortal Images: A Personal History of Two Photographers and the Flag-raising on Iwo Jima (Naval Institute Press; 1996)