The chaos of the battle faded briefly from his mind.
William D. Hawkins bowed his head to pray from the edge of the boat he was standing on.
Heading to the island of Betio, in the Tarawa atoll, William and his men were at Betio to get the island back from the Japanese after they stole it from missionaries.
The warship fired round upon round of ammo into the water in the hopes to deter Japanese submarines from attacking their fleet. William and his platoon waited for the signal before jumping into the boats resting in the shallow water.
They were called amphibious tanks, the first of their kind to ever be used in battle. Then they headed to the shore.
As they approached the shore, aerial bombs were dropped by the U.S. on the Betio beachhead by the thousands.
Smoke was everywhere. Fire exploded on the shore.
The soldiers jumped out of the boats and swam the last few meters to the shore as the Japanese peppered the water with gunfire.
In the crossfire, William took a direct rocket hit to the shoulder — but he kept going.
He wasn’t willing to back down now. Even with 4,000 Japanese soldiers firing machine guns at them.
The island was full of dangerous machine gun bunkers — dug some 20 feet into the ground. On every hilltop, the Japanese were in trenches raining down gunfire on the oncoming U.S. Marines.
It was death every few steps as William and his men destroyed pillboxes with a flamethrower. He was in the middle of the bloodiest battle of World War II.
Over and over again, Japanese soldiers were taken out and the Marines pushed their way further into the island.
The trees looked like they were in the middle of a tropical storm, from the devastation of the battle.
The smoke of the gunfire settled on the island like a dense fog. The only two smells that existed that day were gunpowder and death.
He had been picked for this job and he had worked too hard to give up because he was dangerously wounded. Plus, it wasn’t the worst pain he had endured in his life.
When he was three, he came bursting out of his front door — straight into the wash lady holding a pot of scalding water. He suffered third-degree burns to his body — his arms, his back, and one leg and shoulder.
The water melted the skin on his little arm causing it to draw up and making it nearly impossible for him to straighten. Doctors wanted to cut the muscle in his arm to straighten it, but William’s mother wouldn’t let them.
It took him a year to figure out how to straighten out his arm.
As he got older, he endured endless questions about his scars. He loved swimming but was embarrassed when all the kids looked at him and pointed.
Eventually, his scars just became a part of who he was. And people accepted it. Except for the military.
William tried to enlist numerous times into the Navy, but they wouldn’t take him because of his deformity.
So he went to work instead for the railroad. A job that didn’t last very long. He was under a car when it fell on him — dislocating his vertebrate.
When he went to the railroad doctor, the doctor saw his previous scars and fired him immediately.
He was 18 with no job and no hope for a military career.
He bounced from job to job until he settled in a dark office in Texas, where he was miserable every single day. When he couldn’t take it anymore, William decided to try for the military again.
Pearl Harbor had just been bombed and William felt like he needed to do something.
So he went to the Marines and tried to enlist. It worked. He was their brand of crazy.
His comrades nicknamed him “Hawk” in boot camp and it stuck. He quickly rose up the ranks to First Lieutenant. And had his own squadron as he waded into the waters at Betio.
William and four of his remaining men along with another lieutenant were the first to set foot on the island.
His body still torn by shrapnel, Will took out sniper after sniper and burned bobby-trapped homes to the ground.
He insisted on pushing on.
At the beginning of the second day, William took a bullet to the shoulder. He refused to leave the fight. As long as he could shoot, he would. So the fight raged on.
Over the next day, William single-handedly took out more than six Japanese machine gun nests in the battle of Betio. Killing hundreds of Japanese warriors who sought to stop him.
But it came at a high cost. A few hours after his second wound, William was shot a final time. In his other shoulder. He died with his back to a tree, pistol in hand, encircled by enemy soldiers he had taken with him.
Over one thousand Marines lost their lives that in that short battle. Among them was William Hawkins the fearless boy from Kansas.
In recognition of his heroic behavior, the airstrip on Betio Island was named Hawkins Field. The bar at The Basic School, where Marine Corp officers are trained, is called The Hawkins Room.
Along with his men, William was awarded two Presidential Unit Citations.
Ten months later at the White House, President Franklin Roosevelt presented William’s mom with the Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest commendation awarded to the military, telling those gathered that: “To say that his conduct was worthy of the highest traditions of the Marine Corps is like saying the Empire State Building is moderately high.”
He was one man. But had a massive impact on his team and the war and the victory that followed shortly afterward.
Burned as a child. Mocked as a teen. Rejected as a young adult. He reached beyond all of that to make a difference. To achieve his goal.
He sacrificed his life in pursuit of his mission. He didn’t have to. He could have gone back home and told his story about his wounds from the deadliest battle of the war.
But he realized the power he had to make a difference in the battle ahead. Just one man. Flawed. Imperfect. Vulnerable.
And powerful beyond expectation.
That same power is available to you as well.
- Your flaws can’t stop you.
- Your fears can’t hold you back.
- Your failure can’t cripple you.
Not when you decide that you’re going to do whatever. Not when you decide to do that next thing — even though you’re in pain. Not when you make the tough decision to try one more time.
“THERE IS NOTHING MORE POWERFUL ON EARTH THAN A PERSON WHO IS WILLING TO DO WHATEVER IT TAKES TO ACHIEVE BREAKTHROUGH.”
You don’t have to be perfect to be awesome. You just have to be awesome.