From the frontline to the classroom: Iwo Jima veteran, Wolff founder on war and recovery
“Among the Americans who served on Iwo Island, uncommon valor was a common virtue.”
— Navy Admiral Chester W. Nimitz
When Bill Sherrill entered the Talento Bilingue de Houston Center Thursday, he was greeted with smiles and handshakes from military supporters, active duty Marines and veteran Marines, including another Iwo Jima veteran, Earl Culmer. The energy in the room was as if an A-list movie star had walked in.
Wolff Center for Entrepreneurship founder and co-chair Sherrill was one of the 70,000 Marines who set foot on the rough sands of Iwo Jima, Japan 70 years ago. It was one of the bloodiest battles in World War II history, with nearly 7,000 causalities and another 20,000 wounded.
Sherrill was of the latter. He was shot through the left arm with a rifle, which severed the nerve and left his arm paralyzed.
He recuperated at the Oakland Naval Hospital, but the healing process and physical therapy weren’t enough; the doctors could get back only partial movement in his arm.
It ended his short Marine Corps career.
“(It was) a very low point in my life,” Sherrill said. “I had planned to be a career Marine; I had signed for a four-year hitch, not just something for the war. As it turned out, the war lasted about four years. My enlistment would have ended in December of ’45, and I was finally discharged in May of ’46.”
Sherrill and the unit he was attached to, the 3rd Marine Division, floated around for seven days before landing on shore and stepping foot on the rough sand.
“We landed on the seventh day, and I lasted seven days,” Sherrill said. “I got off on the fourteenth day. Mine was a short war.”
“The raising of that flag on Suribachi means a Marine Corps for the next five hundred years.”– James Forrestal, Secretary of the Navy
On Feb. 23, 1945, the flag was famously raised at Iwo Jima on Mt. Suribachi.
“I was aboard ship and saw it from a ship,” Sherrill said. “The flag was actually raised on the fourth day. Many people think that the flag was raised as the end of the (Iwo Jima) campaign, but it was at the very beginning almost.”
Mama, mama can’t you see? What the corps has done to me?
They put me in a barber’s chair
They spun me around, I had no hair
They took away my beauty queen, now I’m humping an M-16
They took away my Cadillac, now I’m humping on just my flak
Sherrill was raised during the Depression and joined the Marine Corps at the age of 15 — two weeks after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
“The nation was in a different frame of mind than what we would normally be,” Sherrill said. “There was concern that the Japanese might land in California. So there was a feeling of some urgency. They didn’t look at it in a calm way.”
Sherrill said the military was “looking for anybody that could carry a rifle (and) know how to use it.”
“And I did, because youngsters were different in those days,” Sherrill said. “For a lot of reasons, besides that, I didn’t have to lie about my age. I’m a native Texan, so I exaggerated my age.”
He said boot camp was not hard on him as it was on the other recruits.
“I was a very active youngster, so the physical part about it, what bothered the other (recruits), really didn’t bother me that much,” Sherrill said. “And of course the discipline. I was used to being the bottom tier of society. Being yelled at and pushed around was part of what happened to me.”
His older brother had joined the Marines right after Pearl Harbor, and his oldest brother had been drafted into the Army before the war started. He said it was a natural follow-through for him.
So why did he choose the Marines rather than the Army or the Navy?
“That when things looked hopeless I did not stop trying I redoubled my efforts. It’s surprising how often hopeless turned to victory.” — Wolff Center founder Bill Sherrill
“Well, they’re the best,” Sherrill said with a smile.
He served from 1941 to 1946, and during his time in service, he participated in the island-hopping campaign, which included Bougainville, Guam and Iwo Jima. When he was discharged, his decorations included a Purple Heart for his wounds received in action in Iwo Jima as well as the American Campaign Medal and the Good Conduct Medal.
Gimme that old Marine Corps Spirit, it’s good enough for me.
It was good for Chesty Puller, so it’s good enough for me.
It was good on Iwo Jima, so it’s good enough for me.
It was good at the Frozen Chosin, so it’s good enough for me.
After his discharge from the Marine Corps, Sherrill said he was suicidal. Going into the service, he had nothing. However, he said it was a dream that helped him overcome.
“I had a dream that had a plant guard in it,” he said. “He was dressed sharply in khaki and had a pistol at his belt. I woke up thinking I could be a successful guard. I only had the use of one hand, but a pistol only requires one hand and I was good with a pistol. So I didn’t have to go back to being nothing.”
During his stay at the Naval Hospital, he approached a WAVE (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency) worker who was crying. As they spoke, he discovered she was in charge of the hospital’s education unit and was about to be transferred.
“I said, ‘That’s sort of what the service does, transfer people,’” Sherrill recalled. “She said, ‘No, they’re transferring me because no one would use the unit.’”
She then asked him if he would take a course.
He had left the eighth grade and said he was either failing or passing, but the WAVE worker assured him that the course would not be about grades, but participation. So he gathered about 12 other service members to take the test. It turned out to be not one, but four two-hour general education development tests.
“Of course, the guys chewed me out,” Sherrill said. “But Marines stick to what they finish.”
She ended up staying at the Naval hospital. A few weeks later, the WAVE worker returned, running excitedly into the ward. In her hands were the test results.
Two of his tests were of the 97-percentile, and the other two were of the 96-percentile. Sherrill said he thought it was a miracle, especially when she asked him if he’d like to attend the University of Houston.
College was not something he’d thought of. However, Sherrill went on to receive his bachelor’s in business administration from UH in 1950 and his master’s from Harvard School of Business in 1952.
Sheryl said one thing he learned from the Marine Corps was to not stop trying.
“When things looked hopeless, I did not stop trying; I redoubled my efforts,” he said. “It’s surprising how often hopeless turned to victory.”
After holding several administrative positions for the City of Houston, Sherrill was picked by President Lyndon B. Johnson to serve as interim director of the board of directors of the Federal Insurance Corporation. In 1990, he became an executive professor at Bauer College of Business, and in 1993 he founded the Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, serving as co-chair for the Wolff Center.
“When I think about the options that were open to me as result of education, it made life much more attractive. And I became a believer in that things happen like they’re supposed to happen.” — Sherrill
“He is a very knowledgeable man,” said entrepreneur junior Luu Vo. “Whenever Bill adds his input in class, you could hear a pin drop. He’s very successful but very approachable.”
While the Wolff Center is no longer in his hands, Sherrill said he’ll be sure that whoever leads the center knows that student education is the primary purpose.
“It’s amazing that the same way the veterans of old feel about this country and our brothers in arms is directly identical to as it is today,” said exploratory studies sophomore and Marine veteran William Harper III.
“The camaraderie, the instant obedience to order, the way their training set in, the way they gladly lay down their lives for each other… it still holds true to this day, and (it) is what makes us great,” Harper said.
After the Q&A that night, Culmer received a coin, while Sherrill received a Commendation award from Sgt. Maj. Michael P. Barrett, the former top staff non-commissioned officer of the Marine Corps.
“When standing on the stage while the Marine Hymn was played, I was filled with great pride for being a part of an organization that is the ‘first to fight’ for our wonderful nation and that has ‘kept our Honor clean’ throughout its history,” Sherrill said.
As the room stood up, the hymn played over the speakers. Many people in the audience, active duty and veteran, stood at attention, looking straight ahead. Sherrill, with his award by his side, mouthed the words of the song.
Here’s health to you and to our Corps
Which we are proud to serve;
In many a strife we’ve fought for life
And never lost our nerve.
If the Army and the Navy
Ever look on Heaven’s scenes,
They will find the streets are guarded
By United States Marines.
“When I think about the options that were open to me as result of education, it made life much more attractive,” Sherrill said. “I became a believer in that things happen like they’re supposed to happen.”
“I think the way this life works is you play the cards the way they’re dealt. You do not complain about the deal, and don’t complain about the cards; don’t complain about the dealer. Just play them the best you can.”