Hershel “Woody” Williams died Wednesday. He was 98 years old. Woody died of natural causes, surrounded by family as he passed into glory, joining his wife Ruby who preceded him in death by several years. Things weren’t always so peaceful for him. Woody was the last surviving Medal of Honor recipient from World War II.
Williams enlisted in the Marine Corps in the spring of 1943. He was twenty years old. He fought in the battle to retake Guan in the summer of 1944. By the time he landed on Iwo Jima on February 21st, 1945, two days after the Marines forced their ashore, he was a demolition sergeant with the 1st Battalion, 21st Marines, 3rd Marine Division, trained to operate flamethrowers and detonate explosives to take out enemy infrastructure and fighting positions.
Despite hitting the beach a full two days after the initial assault, Williams’ unit was greeted by chaos across a terrain over which maneuver was extremely hampered. Tanks, essential elements of the US fight, had difficulty opening up lanes for the infantry through the black volcanic sand that steeply sloped up the beach from the shoreline. “Trying to dig a hole in that stuff,” Williams recalled, “was like trying to dig a hole in marbles. Trying to run on it was almost impossible. You couldn’t get a foothold.”
The distinctions between fighting on Guam and Iwo Jima couldn’t have been starker. “Fighting on Guan,” Williams said, “was more jungle-type fighting — a lot of creeping and crawling.” Iwo, he continued, could not have been more different: “When we got to Iwo Jima, everything had been wiped off that island. About the only protection you could find would be a shell crater or try to dig your own hole.” Besides the topography, the many Japanese steel-reinforced bunkers that protected the battlespace wreaked havoc on the Marines’ ambitions. The Americans would quickly learn that rocket launchers and similar weapons were essentially useless against the fortifications. Williams noted:
Bazookas and that sort of thing had no effect on them, because they were so thick and well built. The only way to actually eliminate the enemy inside those pillboxes was by flamethrower.
With this being true, all the pieces necessitating Williams’ extraordinary heroism were nearly in place. While it’s sometimes said that a single bullet can change the battlefield, it’s unlikely that battles ever truly turn on single events. And yet the case is strong that Williams’ actions on Iwo Jima were crucial to the American victory.
The Marines had been trying to get across Iwo Jima’s airfield, but Japanese pillboxes had stopped them and they were taking heavy casualties. Williams’ commander called an impromptu meeting in a shell crater to keep them out of the line of fire. “They asked me,” Williams recalled, “as being the only flamethrower and demolition expert left, would I do something about the pillboxes that had them stalled?” he said. “I have no idea of my response,” he added. Others would later tell him that his reply to the harrowing proposition was simple: “I’ll try.'” And try he did. Williams hoisted the 70-pound flamethrower onto his 5-foot-6 frame and moved forward.
His Medal of Honor citation deserves to be read in full:
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as demolition sergeant serving with the 21st Marines, 3d Marine Division, in action against enemy Japanese forces on Iwo Jima, Volcano Islands, 23 February 1945. Quick to volunteer his services when our tanks were maneuvering vainly to open a lane for the infantry through the network of reinforced concrete pillboxes, buried mines, and black volcanic sands, Cpl. Williams daringly went forward alone to attempt the reduction of devastating machine-gun fire from the unyielding positions. Covered only by four riflemen, he fought desperately for four hours under terrific enemy small-arms fire and repeatedly returned to his own lines to prepare demolition charges and obtain serviced flamethrowers, struggling back, frequently to the rear of hostile emplacements, to wipe out one position after another. On one occasion, he daringly mounted a pillbox to insert the nozzle of his flamethrower through the air vent, killing the occupants, and silencing the gun; on another he grimly charged enemy riflemen who attempted to stop him with bayonets and destroyed them with a burst of flame from his weapon. His unyielding determination and extraordinary heroism in the face of ruthless enemy resistance were directly instrumental in neutralizing one of the most fanatically defended Japanese strongpoints encountered by his regiment and aided vitally in enabling his company to reach its objective. Cpl. Williams’ aggressive fighting spirit and valiant devotion to duty throughout this fiercely contested action sustain and enhance the highest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service.
Williams believes he used a total of six flamethrowers and destroyed upwards of seven strongholds through the bloodstained afternoon. But his mind, even in the immediate aftermath of his heroic ordeal, abandoned most of his memories of that day. Much of what happened, Williams insists, “is just a blank.”
Filling in the gaps of memory have sometimes been difficult. He would later learn that two of the four Marines that had supported him in his efforts to get within range of the enemy had been killed giving him covering fire. Williams’ response to this knowledge is indicative of the man he was:
Once I found out that this happened, this Medal of Honor took on a different significance. I said, from the point on, it does not belong to me. It belongs to them. I wear it in their honor. I keep it shined for them, because there is no greater sacrifice than when someone sacrifices their life for you and me.
Always faithful, Williams service to his nation and comrades in arms did not end with his military service. He worked for more than 30 years with what was, after the war, the Veterans Administration. And he continued to the end serving to establish memorials for Gold Star families with help from his Hershel “Woody” Williams Medal of Honor Foundation. Currently, there are 86 monuments standing, with plans for 74 more.
Reading the many testimonies to Williams’ life, I’m tempted to imagine that we shall not look upon his like again. Woody, I suspect, would be the first to disagree. It is apt that this weekend’s observation of the Fourth of July is proximate to Woody’s death as it, too, is somewhat proximate to Memorial Day, a month or so past. Taken together, these observances remind us that we have always had giants among us. We recall, as well, that freedom is not free. We openly admit that all are free because a few were brave.
The heroism of American warriors like Williams is appropriately celebrated. Their stories ought to be recalled frequently. They should be recited to our children and our children’s children. We lose veterans like Hershel Williams to our peril. Freedom, we have been reminded, is always only a generation away from extinction. It is not in our bloodstream by default. It must be fought for, protected, taken from those who have secured it for us, and it must be passed on to those who follow us. As those of the WW2 generation pass into glory, to those streets of paradise guarded by those like Williams, we must become, ourselves, the new generation of witnesses.
On this 4th of July weekend, I am proud to know that Americans like Woody exist.