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William Deane Hawkins--Hero of Tarawa

Updated on July 2, 2012

William Deane Hawkins was born in Fort Scott, Kansas, on April 18, 1914. Very early in life, he received his first injury when a neighbour's clumsiness caused a can of scalding water to be spilled on top of him, causing muscular damage that prevented him from walking for a year. In 1919, his family moved to El Paso, Texas, where his father died three years later. His mother went to work as a high school principal's secretary; she later became a teacher at El Paso Technical Institute.

Young William turned out to be highly intelligent, and skipped Fifth Grade, graduated from El Paso High at age 16. He was admitted on a scholarship to the Texas College of Mines and studied engineering. He paid his way by working several jobs during the summers, including delivering magazines and newspapers and working as a railroad laborer, which undoubtedly helped him in his studies. After he graduated, he moved to Tacoma, Washington, and in 1937 he became engineer for a title-insurance company in Los Angeles.

Following American entry into World War II, Hawkins enlisted. After being rejected by the Army and the Navy Air Corps because of his childhood injury, he successfully entered the Marine Corps Reserve and became part of the 7th Recruit Battalion, Recruit Depot, San Diego; then was accepted as a Marine and assigned to the 2nd Marines, 2nd Marine Division. After finishing Scout Snipers' School at Camp Elliott, San Diego, he he left in July 1942 for the Pacific Theatre.

Hawkins started as a Private First Class, but meritorious service led to quick promotions to Corporal and then Sergeant. He received a prompt promotion to 2nd Lieutenant, but before receiving this commission, he was sent to the Pacific, where he participated in the battles of Guadalcanal and Tulagi Island during the Soloman Islands campaign (1942). He was promoted to 1st Lieutenant in June 1943, and appointed to form and command a sniper platoon, the Marine Corps first such unit.

The maiden mission of this new unit turned out to be to help lead the opening assault of Betio, an island in the Tawara Atoll of the Gilbert Islands, which had a Japanese-held airfield that was a major target of the Allied force in this particular campaign. Their mission was to hit the beach andattack enemy sniper emplacements, destroying weapons believed to be hidden within a long wooden pier that almost divided the island in half--weapons that could make serious trouble for the main Marine invasion force. The Hawkins platoon was to capture the pier, possibly to provide loading facilities for later use. After taking the pier, then, they were to set up a position to support the infantry as it arrived.

The assault on Betio began on the morning of November 20, 1943. Hawkins, according to later accounts, was the first to disembark from the jeep lighter that carried his platoon. He led a small, four-man contingent along the pier, which succeeded in disposing of much of the heavy Japanese resistance until forced to seek shelter from mortar fire. Hawkins finally captured a track-laying vehicle, and his platoon managed to rejoin the Marine infantry.

During the day-long period in which Hawkins participated in the Battle of Betio, he performed his leadership role with great courage, at one point personally launching an assault on an enemy stronghold defended by five machine guns. On November 21, he was severely wounded by grenade shrapnel, but continued fighting, destroying three more Japanese pillboxes before being mortally wounded by a bullet to the shoulder that severed his brachial artery. Buried initially where he died on Tawara beach, Lt. Hawkins was ultimately laid to rest in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu, Hawaii.

Lieutenant Hawkins received several posthumous honours. The highest was the presentation of the Medal of Honor to his mother by President Roosevelt in September of 1944--today he is only one of three military snipers to be so honoured. But there have been other, smaller, but no less important, distinctions. The airstrip on Betio was renamed Hawkins Field after the island was captured after the three-day battle; he and his unit shared in the two Presidential Unit Citations awarded the 1st Marine Division for service in Guadalcanal and Tawara. The Basic School, training ground for new Marine 2nd Lieutenants and Warrant Officers, has a bar named the Hawkins Room after Hawkins, who ironically never attended the school due to his battlefield commission. Camp LeJeune in North Carolina named a winter camp after Hawkins; anda small camp on Camp HM Smith in Honolulu is named Camp Hawkins, and was used for Marine training and recreation, and is now mostly used by the Boy Scouts. Finally, El Paso, Texas, has Hawkins Road and Hawkins Elementary, named after its hometown son.

Lieutenant William Deane Hawkins is a true war hero, because he offered himself to the military when, because of his childhood injuries, he clearly didn't have to; because of his leading role in the establishment of an elite sniper platoon that contributed to an important strategic Allied victory; and because of his personal conduct, above and beyond the line of duty, that also played an important part in the victory. Sadly, in an age that throws the word "hero" around to the point where it has practically ceased to have real meaning, Hawkins has been almost forgotten by history, in spite of his many honours. Maybe its time to rectify that mistake.

For further reference--Rocky and Norm Chandler, "Final Resting Place of 1stLt William Deane Hawkins, " in Follow Me, The Official Publication of the Second Marine Division, pp. 1 and 6; from http://www.2marine.com/FollowPDFs/Follow06-Nov-Dec02.pdf

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