Bob Bordelon was only 5 when his oldest sibling, Medal of Honor recipient William James Bordelon, was killed on Nov. 20, 1943, during the U.S. invasion of Tarawa in World War II.
While Bordelon has no memory of his brother, he grew up hearing stories about him from family members whose lives were never the same after he died.
“My father stopped living for about five or six years after Bill died,” Bob Bordelon said, blinking back tears. “It was very, very hard on our family.”
A 1938 Central Catholic High School graduate, Marine Staff Sgt. William James Bordelon was awarded the nation’s highest military honor for his heroic actions in the first hours of one of the bloodiest battles of the Pacific Theater.
Bordelon, who served in an assault engineer platoon, single-handedly destroyed four Japanese machine-gun emplacements with demolition charges and rescued two wounded Marines before he was cut down.
Bordelon, born on Christmas Day 1920, was 22 when he died. The first native San Antonian to receive the Medal of Honor, Bordelon is buried at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery.
“Even though I was very young when he died, it still hurts when I think about Bill and what my family went through when he was killed,” Bob Bordelon said. “It was a shock and a wound that never went away.”
Two other Central Catholic graduates, Charles Montague and Gene Seng, were killed during the Battle of Tarawa, incredibly, on the same day as Bordelon.
Bordelon is one of two native San Antonians who have received the Medal of Honor. Army Lt. Col. Robert G. Cole, killed in action Sept. 18, 1944, in Best, the Netherlands, was awarded the medal posthumously for his heroics in Normandy, France, five days after D-Day.
Part of Interstate 37 in S.A named after Bordelon
Bordelon was the first Marine from Texas to receive the Medal of Honor during World War II. The destroyer USS Bordelon was commissioned in 1945 and part of the Navy fleet until 1977.
A section of Interstate 37 in San Antonio, between I-35 and I-10, was named in Bordelon’s honor in 2009. The Navy-Marine Corps Reserve building in San Antonio was named after Bordelon in 1994.
“I’m very proud of my brother,” Bob Bordelon said. “A lot of what I know about Bill is what I heard growing up or what I’ve read, and it’s hard to differentiate sometimes.”
Now 72, Bob Bordelon was the youngest of five children born to Carmen and William Jennings Bordelon, who settled on the South Side and lived in a home at the corner of South Flores and Clutter streets.
Bob Bordelon, a 1956 Central Catholic graduate, lives in San Antonio. He and his sister, Carmen “Peggy” Imhoff, who lives in Santa Clemente, Calif., are the only survivors of William James Bordelon’s immediate family. The other children were Tom and Ray.
Bordelon visits his brother’s grave on Veterans Day and Memorial Day each year, but he won’t make the trip to the cemetery this year because he’ll be in New Orleans for a family reunion.
Still, Bordelon plans to spend the day sharing his brother’s story with relatives through newspaper and magazine articles, photos and scrapbooks.
“Memorial Day has become more and more significant as I’ve gotten older,” Bordelon said. “My family kept a lot about Bill’s death from me as I was growing up. They didn’t really discuss it a whole lot.
“They either didn’t want to talk about it or people just didn’t discuss those things as much as they to
today. They just didn’t want to bring it back up.”
Bordelon reburied at Fort Sam Houston
Bordelon recounted a story about the day his mother received the telegram informing the family of his brother’s death.
“I always heard that she hid it from the family,” Bordelon said, choking back tears. “She just put it away because she didn’t want to face the fact. I don’t even know if she opened it.
“She knew what it was. She didn’t even tell my father at first. Finally, someone found the telegram in the linen closet or something, and that’s when she told the family.”
Bordelon initially was buried on Tarawa, but his remains were reinterred in 1947 at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu, Hawaii.
“My parents were asked if they wanted Bill’s body sent back to San Antonio after it was moved from Tarawa, but I was told that they decided against it because they thought it would too tough for the family emotionally. It would open up everything again. So they decided to have him buried in Hawaii.”
Marine Staff Sgt. William James Bordelon finally came home in 1995. After lying in state at the Alamo, he was reburied at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery on Nov. 20, 1995, the 52nd anniversary of his death.
By then, Bordelon’s parents and all his siblings except Bob and Peggy had passed away.
“Peggy and I just felt it was the right things to do,” Bob Bordelon said, referring to their decision to rebury their brother in San Antonio. “We felt it was important to do this.”
Even after all this time, Bordelon has a difficult time when he visits his brother’s grave.
“It’s very emotional,” he said.
Such are the ties that bind.