By Robert Sherrod - Originally Published April 1944
Editor's Note: The landing strip on bloody Betio Island in the Tarawa had been named Hawkins Field before the bulldozers had finished scooping up the dead Japs and filling the bomb craters. Here is the story of how and why it was given this name, written for The Marine Corps Gazette by a reporter who lived through that bitter engagement. Mr. Sherrod's new book, "Tarawa-The Story of a Battle" is reviewed at length elsewhere in this issue. In the book he pays tribute to the gallant fighting spirit of the entire Marine Corps. In this story he proffers a wreath to the memory of one brave Leatherneck who gave his life in the winning of that battle.
William Deane Hawkins was born April 19, 1914, in Fort Scott, Kansas. He died of wounds, a first lieutenant of the United States Marine Corps Reserve, November 21, 1943, on Betio Island, Tarawa Atoll.
Anyone who has ever been in combat knows that it is almost impossible to grade bravery. Who can judge that one man who risks his life is more courageous than another? Who can say that a man is braver if he kills many of the enemy than if he lost his own life on the beach before he ever had a chance at the enemy?
The effectiveness of acts of bravery is something else. By this standard, I would say that the bravest man I have seen in two years of the Pacific War was William Deane Hawkins. When the going was toughest, when it was touch and go whether the Marines would take Tarawa, the figure of "Hawk" loomed above all the others I saw. The inspiration he instilled into other men was the essence of heroism. Hawk killed a lot of Japs-one of his men told me he knew Hawk personally accounted for six enemy machine gun nests-but the example he furnished his own men, as well as the other Marines on our perilous beachhead, was, in my opinion, a deciding factor in the most violent battle we Americans have seen. One colonel and one lieutenant colonel told me that Hawkins came as near winning a battle as any first lieutenant ever did.
After Hawkins died, on the second day of the three and one-half days' battle for Tarawa, Major General Julian C. Smith, the Second Marine Division's commanding officer, named the airfield on Betio for him. This was a rare honor: most airfields are named for flyers. But as General Smith said, "It is the least I can do in tribute to a man like that."
Deane Hawkins' father was from Louisiana and his mother was the daughter of a Missouri doctor. When he was three years old, and his family was living in Los Angeles, the most important event of his life occurred: a neighbor, using the Hawkins' kitchen to do her washing, walked out a door holding a pan of scalding water; little Deane Hawkins ran into her and upset the pan. He suffered severe burns on a third of the surface of his body-his arms, his back, a shoulder, a leg.
One of the baby's legs was drawn and an arm was crooked so that he could not straighten them. The doctors wanted to cut the muscles, but the boy's mother was not sure. For a year she massaged the arm and leg every day for two or three hours. Finally, to the amazement of the doctors, the muscles lived again. A year after he was burned Deane Hawkins was cured, was learning to walk once more.
When he was five, the Hawkinses again lived in Kansas. En route to Phoenix, they stopped in El Paso where his father, an insurance claim adjuster, was persuaded to settle. When Deane Hawkins was eight, his father died, His mother went to work, first as a secretary to the high school principal, then as a teacher of commercial subjects in El Paso Technical Institute.
Deane Hawkins' scars were always with him. By the time he was ten he was a line swimmer, but one day he came home from the Y.M.C.A. unhappy and brooding. "Aw, mom," he said, "I don't think I'm going to the Y any more. When I take off my clothes, the kids all look and say, 'Oh, look at Deane!' " His mother reassured him. "Son, it's not your fault; you have nothing to be ashamed of." He went back to his swimming pool.
He wanted to get into the Navy, to study aeronautical engineering; he was always making plane models with doped cloth fuselages and rubber-hand power plants. But he had no influence; he knew no congressman who would appoint him to the Naval Academy. So he persuaded two friends, James Colley, later of the Marines, and William Abbott, later a Navy pilot, to enlist with him with a view to taking the merit examination for Annapolis. The two friends got into the Navy. Deane Hawkins did not; he had scars. Said the recruiting chief: "I never hated to turn down anyone so much in all my life. You're the kind of boy the Navy wants." Deane went home. "They made it," he sobbed to his mother, "it was my idea and I didn't."
When he was eighteen he had a railroad job. He was working under a car when an engine bumped it. In scrambling from beneath the car, he dislocated a vertebra. When he took a physical examination before returning to work, the railroad doctor saw the scars and said, "Nothing doing; you are not a good risk." Later he tried to enlist in the Army Air Corps. The scars kept him out.
Deane Hawkins was a smart boy-at El Paso's Lamar and Alta Vista Schools and at El Paso High School. He skipped the fifth grade. He won the state chemistry essay contest, graduated from high school at sixteen, and was awarded a scholarship to the Texas College of Mines where he studied engineering. Like most sons of the poor, he worked. After school and during summer vacations, he sold magazines and delivered newspapers; he was a bank messenger and he made photostats for an abstract company. He was a ranch hand, a railroad hand, a bellhop. At seventeen, he was skinny and six feet tall. He met a hotel guest who told him laborers were needed to lay a pipeline in New Mexico. In New Mexico the hiring boss laughed: "Sonny, two-hundred-pound men are collapsing on this job." But he gave the kid a chance, and Deane Hawkins worked twelve hours a day lifting, with the help of one full-grown man, four hundred-pound creosoted pipe. When his mother saw her son a week later, she was horrified at the skinny boy, burned by wind, sun, sand, and creosote. "I'm all right now, mom," he said, "but the first day I thought I'd die."
He left Texas when he was twenty-one. He worked two and a half years in Tacoma, Washington, in a dank, underground office so unlike the Texas outdoors he was used to. He was married there and divorced. Then he went to work as an engineer for a Los Angeles title insurance company. He was there when Pearl Harbor happened. Before the war he had said, " I hate war. I don't see why the United States ought to get into it." But when the United States was forced into it, Deane Hawkins said, "I've got to go. I'm going to see if the Marines will have me." That was when he was at home, Christmas 1941. He enlisted in Los Angeles. He was very proud when "the toughest outfit of them all" accepted him, scars and all.
"Hawk" was what all the Marines called him, from the time he entered boot camp until he died-when he died nobody from his own outfit could tell me his first name. When the Second Marines went overseas in June 1942, Hawkins was a p.f.c. On shipboard he was promoted to corporal; by the time he landed on Tulagi in August, he was a sergeant, and before the Battle of the Solomons was a month old, he had been commissioned a second lieutenant. A Marine Sergeant wrote to his mother after Hawk's death: "When he was a sergeant, I knew he would make a fine officer. . . . Your son was born to lead and I would have followed him anywhere. . . . You see, 'Hawk' loved trouble. If there was a tough job to do, he'd ask for it."
From Tulagi and Guadalcanal, Hawkins sent his mother high-spirited, amusing letters; "I heard the darndest argument last night. I woke up and was being carried into the jungle by two bugs. I heard one bug say, 'Shall we eat him here or carry him a little farther?' And the other bug said, 'Hell, no, let's eat him here before some big bug comes along and takes him away from us.' "
The first time I saw Hawk was on a transport going to Tarawa from the South Pacific rendezvous. One afternoon we stood topside alter chow, watching the miracle of the equatorial sunset: gold and flaming red, slate gray and solid blue streaks and green streaks in the sky. To the west, between our ships and the sunset, the outlines of some forty American ships of war grew dimmer. Hawkins was talking about his Scout and Sniper platoon. He was proud of that platoon. He said, as though he were announcing what time it was, "I think the thirty-four men in my platoon can lick any two-hundred-man company in the world." He continued:
"You know, we're going in first. We are going to wipe every last one of the bastards off that pier and out from under that pier before they have a chance to pick off the first wave. But one man had to stay behind to take care of our equipment. I asked for volunteers. Not a man in the platoon would volunteer to stay. My men are not afraid."
The Scout and Sniper platoon consisted of troops chosen after Guadalcanal. They were, devoted to Hawkins, and he to them. After Tarawa, his second in command, Gunnery Sergeant J. J. Hooper, wrote to Mrs. Hawkins: "Lieutenant Hawkins' job on Guadalcanal was leading patrols behind the enemy's lines to gather information concerning the enemy; this information materially helped to terminate that campaign. . . . The whole platoon wants you to know that Lieutenant Hawkins was the best officer we ever did duty with."
The Scout and Sniper platoon came from eighteen different states-Wisconsin and California, with five each, were best represented. Their racial background was a ladleful from the American melting pot. Hooper from Milford, N.J., Davis from Tennessee, Gillis from Ipswich, Mass., Deka and Krzys from Cleveland, Leseman and Kloskowski from Wisconsin, Selavka from Connecticut and Allred from Sopuia, N. C., Putz from Forest Hills, N. Y., and Collins from Chatham, N. Y. Besides Hooper, there were three other sergeants, nine corporals, the rest privates first class. Of the thirty-four, six were killed, three wounded.
Going into Tarawa the platoon was divided into two groups, one commanded by Hawkins, the other by Gunnery Sergeant Hooper. Hawkins, accompanied by Lieutenant Leslie of the 18th Marines and four enlisted men, was first to set foot on the pier. The ramp they secured quickly. They set fire to two houses with flamethrowers and cleaned out half-sunken Jap landing craft. As soon and his section could make its way ashore, Hawkins and his men landed and started over the seawall, going after the Japs who were killing Marines from succeeding waves.
The first time I saw Hawk ashore was the middle of the first afternoon. There was plenty of fire from machine guns and snipers, and the only relatively safe position was crouching behind the seawall. "Get down, Hawk, or you'll get shot," somebody shouted at the S & S lieutenant. The Hawk, who had come back for more ammunition, snarled, "Aw, those bastards can't shoot. They can't hit anything." Then he and the men with him leaped back on top of the seawall. "Hawk and his platoon have knocked out a hell of a lot of machine guns," an officer told me.
Lieutenant Hawkins had been wounded slightly during the landing. He got a bullet through one shoulder early the second morning, but he refused to be evacuated. "I came here to kill Japs; I didn't come here to be evacuated," he said. He and his men were busy that morning. Another lieutenant told me: "He is a madman. I'll never forget the picture of him standing on that amphtrack, riding around with a million bullets a minute whirling by his ears, just shooting Japs." Said a corporal: "I think the Scout and Sniper platoon must have more guts than anybody else on the island." He added: "We were out front and Morgan was shot in the throat. He was bleeding like hell and saying in a low voice, Help me, help me.' I had to turn my head."
Hawkins got his third and final wound later in the morning. It was in the other shoulder, and lower down, according to one of his men who told me about it. We thought for a while he would live. But he had already lost too much blood. He died during the night before he could rally enough to be evacuated to a ship.
If ever a man gave his life's blood for his country, it was William Deane Hawkins. His last words were, "Boys, I sure hate to leave you like this."