AAFD - Lt. Col. William J. O'Brien wb.jpgFort Drum’s O’Brien Readiness Training Center honors Lt. Col. William J. O’Brien, a Troy native and Medal of Honor recipient who served with the New York National Guard’s 1st Battalion, 105th Infantry Regiment, 27th Infantry Division, in the Pacific Theater during World War II. O’Brien enlisted in 1917 at the age of 18, and he later commissioned as an officer in 1926. His unit mobilized for active duty in 1940, and he led his battalion into combat during the Battle of Saipan in 1944. (Photo by Mike Strasser, Fort Drum Garrison Public Affairs)

Fort Drum honors NY National Guard officer 
who earned Medal of Honor during WWII

Mike Strasser

Fort Drum Garrison Public Affairs

FORT DRUM, N.Y. (Sept. 13, 2023) – When Soldiers from the New York Army National Guard’s 27th Infantry Brigade train at Fort Drum, their base of operations is the O’Brien Readiness Training Center – a complex that was named after one of their forebearers who served in the Pacific Theater during World War II.

William J. O’Brien, son of Timothy and Charlotte O’Brien, enlisted in the New York State Guard in 1917 at the age of 18. During World War I, the New York State Guard replaced members of the New York National Guard who were drafted into active-duty service.

The Troy native served for five years and eventually enlisted in the New York National Guard, earning his commission in 1926. In October 1940, the New York National Guard mobilized for active duty with the 27th Infantry Division as the U.S. would enter World War II a year later.

O’Brien had achieved the rank of lieutenant colonel by April 1943, when he took command of 1st Battalion, 105th Infantry Regiment, 27th Infantry Division. He was known as a confident and decisive leader who selflessly put the needs of his front-line Soldiers above his own.

His unit saw fierce fighting during the Battle of Saipan in the Mariana Islands. The fighting commenced when U.S. Marines landed there on June 15, 1944. The 27th Infantry Division arrived a day later and secured the island’s airfield within a day.

On June 21, 1944, O’Brien directed three tanks to fire on an enemy position that had immobilized one of his platoon’s assault elements. Under heavy fire and with their turrets closed, the tanks lost direction and began firing on friendly troops. O’Brien raced toward the lead tank and mounted it to direct an assault on the enemy.

A week later, he crossed through 1,200 yards of underbrush – defying sniper contact – to reach a platoon that was pinned down by intense enemy fire. He led four Soldiers into a narrow ravine behind the enemy’s position to seize it – capturing five machine guns and an artillery piece in the process. Afterward, O’Brien organized two platoons for a nighttime defense against counterattacks.

On July 7, thousands of Japanese banzai fighters descended upon the 1-105th Infantry in a final desperate attack on the island. The enemy overran the battalion’s forward positions, which led to hand-to-hand combat after most of their ammunition was depleted.

O’Brien stayed on the front lines, motivating his Soldiers while firing at the enemy with a pistol in each hand. He became seriously wounded, as did many of his Soldiers. O’Brien refused to be evacuated. He seized a .50-caliber machine gun mounted on a vehicle and continued fighting until his final breath. Afterward, O’Brien’s body was found surrounded by the enemy fighters he took out.

The Battle of Saipan ended two days later with nearly the entire Japanese garrison obliterated. The U.S. lost 3,000 service members to injury or death, with roughly 650 from the 1st and 2nd Battalions of the 105th Infantry Regiment, and the front line of the 27th Infantry Division. Roughly 3,000 Japanese fighters died in the battle.

O’Brien posthumously received the Medal of Honor during a ceremony May 27, 1945, at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy.

Army leaders and community members honored O’Brien’s courage and sacrifice at Fort Drum on Sept. 22, 2014, with the dedication of the Lt. Col. William J. O’Brien Readiness Training Center (Bldg. 5001), located on 42nd Infantry Drive, off the Main Tank Trail.