Hershel Williams: A Hero Has Left Us. Honor Him.
Hershel Williams: A Hero Has Left Us. Honor Him.
America has lost a national treasure: Hershel “Woody” Williams passed away on Wednesday, and America bid farewell to the last surviving Medal of Honor recipient from World War II. But his legacy goes much further than his extraordinary service to the nation in that war.
The irony of Hershel Williams’s story is that he almost didn’t become a Marine.
The youngest of 11 children, Williams was born in 1923 in West Virginia. However, he never got to know six of his older siblings; they had died in the 1918 flu pandemic. Growing up in rural West Virginia presented children with hardships right from the start.
Williams helped his parents run their dairy farm, but later left high school to work in Montana on Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps projects. But he had always admired those Marine dress-blue uniforms. So he went to enlist in the Marine Corps at 18, as World War II was raging.
“Go home,” the recruiter told him. “You’re too short.”
But as the war went on, the Marines changed their height requirement, and the 5’6,” 135-pound Williams enlisted in 1943. Hershel Williams may have been small, but he was well-muscled from a life of hard farm work.
Corporal Williams first arrived on Guam a year later, where he saw combat. Then he left for Iwo Jima with the 21st Marines of the Third Marine Division.
It was on Iwo Jima that Hershel Williams performed service of exceptional courage for which he received America’s highest military honor.
In later years, Hershel Walker recalled laying on his back in the volcanic ash of Iwo Jima on the morning of February 23, 1945. Voices of men cheering and shooting their rifles startled him.
“Suddenly, the Marines around me starting jumping up and down, firing their weapons in the air. My head was buried in the sand. Then I looked up and saw Old Glory on top of Mount Suribachi.”
Wikimedia Commons/public domain.
But the iconic flag-raising occurred on only the fifth day of the 36-day campaign. The battle, in fact, was just beginning for Hershel Williams.
Williams had gone to Iwo Jima as one of several demolition sergeants, whose jobs were to take out pillboxes guarding Japanese airfields. But before long he was the only one left. And it fell to Hershel Williams and his trusty flame-thrower to attack the pillboxes, because nothing else was successful.
As Williams said in a 2017 interview:
“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.”
So with four riflemen as escorts, Hershel Williams went forth and took out not one, or two, but seven Japanese pillboxes. Meanwhile, the rest of the men in his company perished.
He recalled in a 2008 oral history “Iwo Jima:”
“… you had to get within 20 yards of a pillbox, with machine-gun bullets kicking up.”
“One time, the men in one pillbox came out. As they came running toward me with their rifles and bayonets poised, they ran straight into the fire from my flamethrower. As if in slow motion, they just fell down.”
For these heroic actions, President Harry Truman awarded Williams the Congressional Medal of Honor. His medal citation reads:
“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.”
However, Hershel Williams wasn’t the only Iwo Jima veteran to receive the award: a total of 27 Marines and Navy received the Medal of Honor, 14 of them posthumously. Meanwhile, more than one-third of the 70,000 Marines who invaded Iwo Jima were killed or wounded.
All these men were heroes, too.
Hershel Williams was discharged in 1945, but that didn’t stop his service to America. He remained in the Marine Corps Reserve until he retired after 20 years of service. Not only that, he also worked as a veterans’ service representative at the Department of Veterans Affairs for over 30 years.
And then there’s the Woody Williams Foundation.
Because so many of his fellow Marines lost their lives at Iwo Jima, Williams turned his efforts to honoring families of the fallen. So he established the Woody Williams Foundation, which hosts outreach programs and awards scholarships to children of a parent lost to war. The Foundation also worked to construct 103 monuments honoring Gold Star families across all 50 states.
For his courage and devotion to veterans and their families, in March, 2020, the Navy honored Hershel Williams by commissioning the USS Hershel Woody Williams, an expeditionary sea base.
In May, 2021, just over a year before Williams’s passing, CBS interviewed him for “Sunday Morning:”
Upon his death on Wednesday at the age of 98, Hershel Williams received accolades from the likes of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, the Gary Sinise Foundation, actor James Woods, and the US Marine Corps. But despite all the honors he received throughout his life Williams maintained the humility that epitomized the men who fought World War II. Men who would tell later generations that “well, we were just doing our job.”
Speaking of his Medal of Honor at a ceremony marking the 66th anniversary of Iwo Jima, Hershel Woody Williams said:
“I claim to be only the caretaker of the medal. There were 27 medals awarded, but there were countless others who did as much, if not more.”
Fair winds and following seas. Rest easy, Marine.
Featured image: Hershel Williams, USMC, Medal of Honor recipient. Wikimedia Commons/public domain.