To earn our nation’s most honorable military decoration, the Congressional Medal of Honor, a soldier must “distinguish himself conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty.” Throughout America’s storied military history, only around 3,000 servicemen have done so audaciously enough to earn the prestigious award. Each of them bravely embodying the finest characteristics of a soldier. Even fewer have acted in such a brave, selfless and effective way as first lieutenant William D. Hawkins did in November of 1943 at the Battle of Tarawa during World War II. In two days of fevered, bloody fighting, Hawkins destroyed eight enemy machine gun pillboxes blocking the 2nd Marines amphibious landing in the Gilbert Islands, and seemingly by sheer will, he propelled his fellow marines on to victory in the Tarawa Atoll and eventually in the Pacific Theater.
Originally opposed to entering World War II, William D. Hawkins enlisted after the attack on Pearl Harbor. On January 5, 1942, he joined the 2nd Marine Division and completed scout sniper school. His division later deployed in July of 1942 while Hawkins was at the rank of private first class. However, he established himself as a natural leader and promoted quickly. He ascended to corporal and eventually sergeant on the island of Tulagi. He also established a reputation as a fearless and effective warrior and earned the respect and admiration of his pears in battles on Tulagi and Guadalcanal. This reputation for leadership and bravery on the battlefield earned “Hawk,” as his fellow Marines called him, a commission to second lieutenant in November of 1942. In the summer of 1943, he was promoted to first lieutenant and placed in charge of the 2nd Marines sniper platoon.
Following victory at Guadalcanal, the next stop on the Marine Corps’ island-hopping campaign was the Tarawa Islands. The Tarawa Atoll (a series of small islands separated by shallow waters) would prove to be one of the most challenging stops for Marines crusading across the Pacific toward Japan. Marine casualties rivaled the Guadalcanal campaign in only three days of fighting. Whereas most Pacific amphibious landings to this point, experienced little resistance. The Japanese on Tarawa prepared with artillery and machine gun positions heavily manned and linked by subterranean tunnels. The biggest island of the Tarawa Atoll, Betio, was only two miles long and 800 meters wide at its widest point, meaning Marines would have no choice but to land right in the teeth of the Japanese defenses. Fate would, of course, have it that Betio was where Hawkins’ platoon would land.
Hawkins’ scout force was to land 15 minutes prior to the primary wave of troops and clear out gun positions and secure Betio’s main pier to clear the way. Led by Hawk, the Scout Sniper Platoon was devastatingly effective. After burning multiple machine gun nests on the pier with flamethrowers, they turned their attention to the beach. Those who witnessed Hawkins during this battle claim he acted like a man possessed. Entirely fearless and on multiple occasions, Hawkins stood brazenly on top of cover Marines were seeking shelter behind. At one point, he reportedly stood upright atop a moving amtrak, firing at the enemy and yelling profanities. Those in his company reported being sure he would not survive the day.
Further inland, machine gun fire rained on Marines from numerous pyramid-shaped pillboxes. It was here that Hawk etched his story into the history books. Nearly single-handedly, he assaulted the pillboxes one by one. Seeking cover as he went and crawling and running where he had to, he approached each pillbox and fired on the enemy at point-blank range, killing sometimes as many as five machine gunners in a single pillbox. He destroyed sixpillboxes this way, killing an unknown but substantial number of enemy troops. Upon destroying the 6th pillbox he ran out of ammunition but refused to stop his rampage.
He approached a 7th in the same manner and destroyed it with grenades and high explosives but took a bullet to the shoulder from a Japanese rifle. Profusely bleeding, Hawkins received orders to retreat and board the first boat off the island. He refused saying, “I’m not doing it, sir. I came here to kill Japs, not go home!”. Not done yet, Hawkins charged an 8th pillbox, destroying it too. This time, however, he became wounded in the chest. Although many of his men couldn’t believe that he could be killed after what they had witnessed that day, Hawk succumbed to blood loss hours later.
The 2nd Marines went on to take Betio and the entire Tarawa Atoll. Nobody knows how many American lives Hawkins saved by sacrificing his own, but he played a bigger role in capturing the islands than any single man involved in the campaign. An inspiration to all the Marine Corps, the Betio airstrip was named Hawkins Field in his honor. In September of 1944, Hawk’s mother was presented with his Medal of Honor by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and his remains later transported to the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu, Hawaii.