Harrell’s Valor Brings Mercedes Grad Highest Honor
Getting back from World War I, Roy Harrell became a Texas Ranger in South Texas.
A 1920 photo shows him on horseback, taking a moment with his mount looking to Harrell’s right, as horse and rider stand near the Ranger’s home in Mercedes. He wasn’t a Ranger for long. Harrell could make more money working for a new federal agency.
It was called the U.S. Border Patrol. Harrell became a federal officer.
He was put to the test early. A 1920s-era newspaper story reported that a murder suspect named Guadalupe Garcia was spotted in La Feria. Garcia was believed to have murdered local Constable Slim Billings. Somewhere between La Feria and Mercedes, Border Patrol officer Harrell came across suspect Garcia after leaving agency headquarters in Mercedes.
Harrell called for Garcia to stop. The suspect, the newspaper story reported, opened fire on Harrell. Fire was returned and Garcia was shot six times and killed.
It would seem hard to top that sort of tragic and gruesome adventure on the South Texas frontier. Years later, though, in World War II, Roy’s son, William, would do just that at Iwo Jima. The younger Harrell was born in Rio Grande City in 1922. The family moved to Mercedes as his father entered the law enforcement field.
Graduating from Mercedes High School in 1940, Williams Harrell enrolled at Texas A&M University, majoring in animal husbandry for two years. Then World War II came calling.
“On July 3, 1942, I voluntarily joined the Marine Corps after I had been turned down twice by the Air Corps, once by the Navy and once before by Marine Corps,’’ Harrell wrote in a firsthand account. “It seems that I was slightly color blinded. What that had to do with fighting ability I don’t know.’’
Military Service & Heroism Await
Harrell was off to boot camp in San Diego before going overseas in February 1943. He would spend a year in the South Pacific. He was then sent back stateside.
“I was one of the original men to form the now famous 28th Marine Regiment remembered as the Marine outfit which captured Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima and raised the U.S. flag over it,’’ Harrell wrote of the regiment that would also include Harlan Block of Weslaco.
It was on Iwo Jima where on March 1945, Sgt. William Harrell was alternating watch in an area on the island that included many caves and ravines. Japanese troops infiltrated the post’s line during the early morning hours of March 3. Harrell opened fire and killed two enemy soldiers.
“Unmindful of his danger as hostile grenades fell close, he waged a fierce lone battle until an exploding missile tore off his left hand and fractured his thigh,’’ an official military account stated.
Another enemy soldier wielding a saber rushed the Marine foxhole. Harrell, with his remaining hand, drew his pistol and killed the invading soldier. He was by now profusely bleeding and yet had to face more enemy soldiers who charged his position. Harrell shot and killed another enemy soldier. A grenade was thrown by his head. Harrell grabbed it with his good right hand and tossed it toward another enemy soldier. The blast killed the latter but it also blew off Harrell’s right hand after he had just lost his other hand.
“At dawn, Sgt. Harrell was evacuated from a position hedged by the bodies of 12 dead Japanese, at least five of whom he had personally destroyed in his self-sacrificing defense of the command post,’’ the military’s accounted stated.
Seven months later, the Mercedes High School grad was at the White House to be presented the Medal of Honor – the nation’s highest military decoration – by President Harry S. Truman. A photo from that day shows the president with one hand at Harrell’s elbow and the other just above a hook that now served as Harrell’s right hand.
After the war, Harrell initially returned to the Rio Grande Valley before moving to San Antonio and working for the Veteran’s Administration. It was in San Antonio where this decorated war hero died in 1964 after an incident that to this day remains a mystery.
After a party, Harrell, in his own residence, shot and killed a married couple who were described as being friends of his. He then turned the gun on himself and committed suicide. It was never determined why Harrell took these actions that ended his life and those of the married couple.
It was an unbelievable end to a life that, in part, was defined by incredible heroism on a Pacific Island where U.S. and Japanese forces fought to the bitter end, with the Americans prevailing after thousands of deaths suffered by both sides.
A middle school in Mercedes on Baseline Road is named in honor of Sgt. Harrell.
-Ricardo D. Cavazos