William Leon Russell (1914–2000)

William Leon Russell, who served in World War II and the Korean War, ranks as the Arkansas National Guard soldier who has received the most Purple Hearts.

William Leon Russell was born on July 26, 1914, near Cecil (Franklin County) to the farming family of James W. Russell and Belah Eubanks Russell; he had five siblings. He was recruited by Coach “Peanut” Ralston to play high school football at Charleston (Franklin County), where he excelled as a lineman. Following graduation from Charleston High School, he attended Arkansas State Teachers College—now the University of Central Arkansas (UCA)—in Conway (Faulkner County) with a football scholarship. He became captain of the team for the 1940 season and was named to the 1940 All-State (NAIC) team.

During the 1930s, he worked at the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camp at Cass (Franklin County) before attending military camp at Fort Riley, Kansas. On March 2, 1937, he enlisted in Company G, Second Battalion, 153rd Infantry, Arkansas National Guard at Conway and rose to the rank of sergeant when the company was mobilized on December 23, 1940. After training, he went on the Aleutian Islands, where he earned a commission to second lieutenant on July 19, 1941; he was promoted to first lieutenant on July 4, 1942. In the Aleutians during World War II, Russell received his first Purple Heart in combat operations to remove Japanese forces from the islands of Attu and Adak.

In 1943, he was sent to Camp Croft, South Carolina. There, he met Gladys Opal English, whom he married on December 24, 1943, at Fort Benning, Georgia, where he was attending the Basic Officer Infantry Course; they had three surviving children.

In July 1944, after serving as an infantry training officer at Camp Rucker (now Fort Rucker), Alabama, Russell was sent to Saint-Lô, France, to be company commander of I Company, Third Battalion, 330th Infantry Regiment, Eighty-third Infantry Division of the Third Army. He was wounded at Saint-Lô and again at Brest, France. Later in the Hürtgen Forest near Aachen and at the Roer River, he suffered three more wounds in rapid succession. During the Battle of the Bulge, he was commanding an armored column and was hit twice more, with the last wound knocking him out of action. As his Purple Heart citation observes: “Only after he had successfully maneuvered his company around the roadblock did he permit himself to be evacuated for treatment.” He was also credited with a large part of the Strauss rescue of elements of the Eighty-third Division, which had been cut off from supplies and assistance by a sudden German counterattack. He returned to the United States in May 1945 with the original Purple Heart as well as a silver oak leaf cluster representing five additional wounds and two bronze oak leaf clusters representing two additional wounds—an equivalent of eight Purple Hearts.

Russell was also awarded the Silver Star, the Bronze Star, the Expert Combat Infantryman’s Badge, the Pre-Pearl Harbor ribbon, the American Theater ribbon, the Asiatic-Pacific ribbon with two stars, the Presidential Unit Citation Ribbon, and the European Theater ribbon with five campaign stars. Rising to the rank of captain, he was the second-most decorated soldier in the Eighty-third Division during World War II.

Russell was once ordered for trial on an AWOL (Absent Without Leave) charge after he and Major William G. White jumped off the convoy taking them to the hospital and returned to their units. During the subsequent court-martial, Major General Robert Macon congratulated the officers and explained that his court “didn’t penalize men for going AWOL toward the front.”

Following his last wound, Russell was medically evacuated to the United States via hospital ship and arrived in Warrenton, Georgia, in May 1945. He spent the remainder of 1945 at a military rehabilitation center in Hot Springs (Garland County) and Camp Joseph T. Robinson, where he was honorably discharged on February 11, 1946. Russell, who moved to Ozark (Franklin County), was elected county sheriff in November 1946.

Russell re-joined the Arkansas National Guard as a captain on February 3, 1947, after petitioning the Arkansas National Guard to establish Battery C of the 937th Field Artillery Battalion in Ozark; he was the first commander of the unit. He was reelected sheriff in 1948.

In August 1950, his unit was mobilized for the Korean War. His unit was assigned to the Eighth Army, I Corps. The unit moved to Inchon on March 14, 1950, and entered combat near Suwon on April 3. During the period, May 17–27, 1951, Battery C of the 937th earned the Presidential Unit Citation for playing a major role in halting a Chinese offensive at Hong’chon.

Russell served six months in Korea, returning home due to the illness and expected death of his father; he was assigned to Fort Chaffee. He subsequently attended missile school at Fort Bliss, Texas, and was ordered to Munich, Germany. Promoted to major on February 21, 1955, Russell completed his artillery assignment at the Will Kaserne. Afterward, he was assigned to Fort Campbell, Kentucky; Fort Ord, California; and Fort Sill, Oklahoma, where he received advanced artillery schooling. He was reassigned to Fort Chaffee in November 1957, remaining until August 1958. During this time, Russell found himself the Staff Duty Officer for the post on the night that Elvis Presley was inducted into the army. He was later assigned to Camp Leroy Johnson in New Orleans, Louisiana, as an advisor to an Army Reserve Command.

On July 15, 1960, he was promoted in the Army Reserves to lieutenant colonel. In February 1962, Russell was assigned to the 558th Artillery Group near the town of Elefsis, Greece. In early August 1964, he was assigned to Fort Lewis near Tacoma, Washington, with the Seventy-seventh Field Artillery of the Fourth Infantry Division. He retired on June 30, 1965.

In August 1964, Russell moved to Fayetteville (Washington County). Beginning in the 1970s, he worked for the Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration as a tax agent, retiring in 1986. He was also active in electing his Franklin County friend and fellow veteran Dale Bumpers to the office of governor of Arkansas.

In January 1990, Russell suffered a stroke and was placed in a nursing home in Prairie Grove (Washington County). He died on October 9, 2000, from pneumonia at Washington Regional Hospital in Fayetteville. He was buried with full military honors at Fayetteville National Cemetery. In 2011, he was posthumously inducted into the Arkansas Military Veterans’ Hall of Fame. In November 2013, UCA posthumously awarded him an Honorary Doctorate of Public Service.

For additional information:
Arkansas Military Veterans’ Hall of Fame. http://amvhof.org/ (accessed March 9, 2018).

“Franklin Officials Take Oath of Office at 9:30 Wednesday Morning.” The Spectator, January 3, 1947, p. 1.

“In Conway, Hall of Fame Inducts 15 Veterans Today.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, November 11, 2011, p. 3B.

Bill Russell
Maumelle, Arkansas

Last Updated: 03/09/2018

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