Marine Corps 1st Lt. William Hawkins > US Department of Defense > History

William Deane Hawkins, 1st Lt. of the Marine Corps, gave everything he had to help the Allies wrest control of the strategic Tarawa Atoll from the Japanese during the second half of World War II. Although he never returned home from this small island, his efforts earned him a posthumous Medal of Honor.

Hawkins was born on April 19, 1914 in Fort Scott, Kansas to parents William and Clara Jane Hawkins. When he was 3 years old, Hawkins suffered serious injuries after accidentally scalding himself on a pot of boiling water. According to a 1986 article in the El Paso Herald-Post, burns covered a third of his body, leaving “a leg that was pulled up and an arm so crooked that doctors wanted to cut the muscle to straighten it.” However, the boy persevered, learned to walk again and recovered better than expected.

Within a few years of the incident, Hawkins’ parents moved to El Paso, Texas. According to a 1980 El Paso Times article, his father died when he was 8 years old, so his mother, who was a nurse, went back to school to become a teacher to better support him.

Hawkins was an excellent student. His sharp intellect allowed him to skip fifth grade and, according to the El Paso Historical Society, he once won the state chemistry essay contest.

After graduating from El Paso High School at the age of 16, Hawkins went to the Texas College of Mines—now the University of Texas at El Paso—on a scholarship to major in engineering. During that time, he worked many odd jobs to make money, including laying a pipeline in New Mexico when he was 17, the historical society said.

When the United States was plunged into World War II, Hawkins felt compelled to serve. He was denied entry into the Army and Navy, so on January 5, 1942 he enlisted in the Marine Corps. He attended Scout Sniper School in July 1942 and was later sent to the Pacific with the 2nd Marines, 2nd Marine Division.

Hawkins’ superiors noticed that he was a born leader, so he got promoted a couple of times pretty quickly. He accepted a battlefield assignment in the Solomon Islands on 18 November 1942 during the Guadalcanal Campaign. In June of the following year he was again promoted to Oberleutnant.

In the fall of 1943 he was appointed commanding officer of a scout sniper platoon attached to the Assault Regiment preparing to attack Japanese-held Tarawa Atoll. The small island of Betio on the southwest side of the atoll had a strategic airfield that the Allies wanted to take control of.

On November 20, Hawkins’ platoon was ordered to land on Betio ahead of the first wave of troops to make room for them. The island, which was only 2 miles long and about 800 yards wide, was well defended by the Japanese to the point that they immediately faced heavy fighting – a first for any Pacific campaign.

Hawkins got out of the van first. He moved through heavy enemy fire without hesitation and quickly worked to neutralize enemy positions. Day and night, he led his men to join other Marines attempting to gain a foothold on the nearby beachhead, repeatedly risking his life to direct and lead attacks on bunkers and other enemy strongholds.

At dawn on the 21st, the platoon continued its efforts to clear the small bridgehead from enemy resistance. Hawkins initiated an attack on a position fortified by five enemy machine guns. During a moment of withering fire, he crawled towards the position, fired his weapon at point-blank range, and then destroyed it with shells.

Hawkins was seriously wounded five times during the battle, including in this last attack in the chest. However, he refused treatment and continued to fight. Hawkins destroyed three other bunkers before being seriously injured by Japanese shells.

He died that evening aboard a hospital ship, according to the El Paso Herald-Post. However, his daring tactics during a crucial phase of the battle inspired the men around him, which was instrumental in the 2nd Marines seizing the island and conquering the entire atoll.

“It’s not often that a first lieutenant can be credited with winning a battle, but Hawkins came as close as anyone could get,” Assault Commander Col. David M. Shoup said after the battle. “He was really an inspiration.”

On August 30, 1944, Hawkins’ mother received the Medal of Honor on behalf of her son from President Franklin D. Roosevelt during a White House ceremony.

Hawkins was originally buried at Tarawa, but his remains were reinterred at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu in 1949.

In honor of the brave first lieutenant, a naval destroyer originally named USS Beatty was renamed USS Hawkins and commissioned in February 1945. As recently as 2020, Hawkins’ alma mater, the University of Texas at El Paso, created a scholarship for deserving students in his name.

Hawkins’ Medal of Honor is housed at the El Paso County Historical Society in El Paso.

This article is part of a weekly series called Medal of Honor Monday in which we highlight one of the more than 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients who have received the U.S. military’s highest medal for bravery.