On this Independence Day, remembering the life of an American hero: Hershel Woodrow “Woody” Williams (1923-2022).
The last surviving World War II Medal of Honor recipient died at 3: 15 a.m. on June 29, 2022, at the age of 98, surrounded by his family, who reported that Hershel Woodrow Williams–Woody, to those who knew him–“went home to be with the Lord.” The hero of Iwo Jima, Williams was one of the greatest members of the Greatest Generation. His wife Ruby had predeceased him in 2007 after 62 years of marriage. Williams was determined to find his Fairmont, Virginia fiancee after the Second World War. He has done it again.
I had the honor of speaking with Williams just before his death. He was an ordinary American farm boy, Quiet Dell in West Virginia. Williams described his childhood during the Great Depression. Things were harder for his family than most after his father died of a heart attack when he was 11 and several siblings died during a flu pandemic. He recollects his earliest memories of hand milking, pint or glass bottles and large blocks of ice to prevent everything from spoiling. A Model A Ford was the family’s car, and later a more elegant Model T.
Woody joined the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1940 at age 16 (as did his brothers), earning a whopping $21 a month. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, he was in Whitehall Montana with the CCC. He tried, like many American boys his age, to join the CCC right away. His mother wouldn’t give him permission to sign up without parental consent. He was aware of what he was doing, and during the first days of war, he sent death telegrams for Gold Star Families. He had to wait until he was 18, and in May 1943, after training in California, he shipped out for the Pacific. He was already with his brothers in Europe.
Woody’s first stop was Guadalcanal, which the Americans had taken in 1942. He said that they remained for six months and then shipped out to support the Second Marine Division, which was fighting Saipan. We were there in the sea in case they required more Marines. “They didn’t.” Woody was first to experience combat on Guam’s beach. It was one of the most terrifying moments in my life. To get ashore, we had to jump from the boats, about knee to waist high, and then wade into the water. We were being attacked by the Japanese who shot and dropped mortars. Once we got ashore we could start digging a foxhole or get behind something.”
When they left Guam for Iwo Jima, Woody and his fellow Marines had no idea where they were going until they were out on the ocean. “We had just gone 19 miles from coastline to coastline on Guam, and my squad, including me, couldn’t figure out why we would go take such a little place,” he recalled. It was only 2.5 miles by five–it could not be much.” He recalled that they had been told they were part of a reserve unit, and would likely be back in Guam within a week. They had no intelligence on Iwo Jima and did not yet know that the island was crisscrossed by miles of tunnels and 22,000 waiting Japanese.
On February 19, 1945, the first division hit the island. Woody was still on the sea, but he could not see or hear any other than the occasional plane passing by. The ship’s loudspeakers rang out around midnight to announce that the relief troops were coming to the island to help with the many casualties. After eating a meal of chow, the men loaded up their equipment and got into the boats. They were eventually forced to return home after a long day of hard work on the water. They had failed to capture a sufficient beachhead to allow for landing. They headed out again after another three-hour meal. Woody Williams landed on Iwo Jima with the First Battalion, 21st Marines on February 21, 1945. It was a bloody, brutal fight.
On the 23rd, we were still fighting for the first airfield. It was protected by pillboxes. We attempted to move. We were running in open spaces, not inside a structure. They were an excellent target. It was impossible to break through because we kept losing Marines. We had to retreat every time they tried. When we landed, I was accompanied by six Marines. All of us were flame-throwers and demolition trained, so we could burn it or blow it up. As the commander of the unit, my job was to ensure that the operators were stocked with the necessary supplies. By the 23rd, those Marines were gone. Although I don’t know if they were killed or wounded, I was their last flame-thrower.
What Williams did the next time would win him one the most distinguished military awards in combat history. He was surrounded by four riflemen and fought four hours under continuous enemy fire to remove the pillboxes. Later, he returned to American lines again and again, to fetch more flamethrowers and prepare for more demolitions charges. He described it as though he was reading a report. The pillboxes were made of concrete with metal rods inside. We could not do anything about them. They were not affected by artillery or bazookas. Their protection was complete. The front of each pillbox had an eight-inch opening. This was where their machine guns and rifles could be positioned. To clear the pillboxes Woody needed to reach the top and pour fuel through the holes. He chuckled and said, “Much” of the day he didn’t remember.
It is one of the things that I have lived with my whole life. It’s amazing how I did it. Why didn’t they hit me with bullets or shrapnel in the four hour period? I was not touched by them. Some of the pillboxes I have never seen are not even in my memories. A few of those pillboxes are still vividly etched in my memory. One thing that really bugs me is the question: how did I obtain those five flamethrowers, despite talking to many people. The first flamethrower I saw is one that I still remember very clearly. The four Marines assigned to me, and their placement where they could fire at the pillbox that I was trying to reach. However, I have never forgotten how I obtained the flamethrowers.
What Woody actually remembered was amazing. With 70 pounds on his back, he approached the enemy. He said that he was walking towards the Japanese pillbox, which was in a ditch they had dug. This allowed them to move from one pillbox without having to climb above ground. They were firing at me with their Nambu machine guns. Bullets were ricocheting from my flamethrower’s back, I recall. When they were loading, I noticed smoke rising from the top of my pillbox. I ran up to the side and jumped to escape their flames. Then I decided to climb up onto the top of the box to check for smoke. If there was, I could light it Woody needed to be close enough to the pillboxes (less than 20 yards) to ensure the flame didn’t disperse or fan out. He said that if I shot the flame in the air, it would not go anywhere and it would continue rolling for several miles until it struck a pillbox. It was enormous, measuring ten to twelve feet by twelve feet. Therefore, it could just pass through any opening in the pillbox. This is what I tried to do, when they charged out. They didn’t know if they had enough ammunition, so I decided to make sure that several came with bayonets. So when the men came charging towards me from the pillbox, I used my remaining flame to hit them with a huge ball of flame. It burns the bodies and sets the clothes ablaze, so they quickly die.” Woody would be haunted by the stench of burnt flesh for many decades.
It was a long fight that lasted four hours. Woody Williams saw the moment that would be etched in his memory: American flags being hoisted on Mt. Suribachi. He was 1,000 yards away from the volcano. He said, “When the flag was raised on Iwo we were still trying to cross the border at the edge. That was prior to the time that we had gotten across.” The island, Woody remembered, was a nightmare of 800 pillboxes, constructed very closely together with interlocking fields of fire. The war would continue for five more weeks and he was hit in his leg with shrapnel on March 6.
” They put a tag on your body so the personnel coming to assist you in getting back to the front to an aid station know you and what you need to do. One of the tags was placed on my body by a corpsman who told me I needed to return. I replied I don’t want to go . He wasn’t very happy about that and said very forcefully: You must go. Before we entered combat, we were told that the law is whatever the corpsman tells us. The tag was torn off by me and I said I don’t have one .” Williams laughed. He had to leave me to get another one. The fact that I was unable to continue fighting wasn’t enough. We had so few Marines, we desperately needed everyone we could. The day before that we were down to 17 in our company. We had to have .”
Woody. He found out that in October 1945 he was going to be awarded the Medal of Honor. He was shocked to learn that the Medal of Honor was coming to him despite all the hardships he had endured on Guam, Iwo Jima and Iwo Jima. I was terrified. “He told me to relax and told me some words.” These words were congratulations, as well as the announcement that he would be traveling to Washington via Hawaii. He would be presented with the Medal by President Harry Truman, along 13 others.
” I never imagined that I’d ever meet a president. My body was shaken and it became unbearable. He greeted me when I approached him and handed the medal around his neck. After he did this, a person handed him the medal to put around my neck. After shaking hands, he kept his left hand on mine and joked that he was doing it so that I would not jump from my shoes .”
. But when I asked Woody what memories stand out to him, he said none. One of my most unforgettable experiences was flying from Guam to Hawaii together with Americans who were prisoners of war by the Japanese. Some of these men stayed there for up to five years. Men that had at one time weighted 170 or 180 pounds now weighed 80 or 90 pounds. These men looked like skeletons. It was true. You could clearly see all the bones in their bodies, and their cheeks were hollow. It left an impression on me that will never be forgotten. Because they were now free, they were the most happy people I have ever seen.” Woody was able to share his stories with a former prisoner of war. He also shared the details about the working hours and the torture. Woody found out that the plane’s seat had been reserved for another POW, who died prior to Woody being able to fly. He then made an observation that I will not forget: “You won’t know what freedom means until you lose it.” .”
Woody Williams suffered from post-combat stress and ended up 1962, torturing his family over the deaths of those he had killed. He told me that his father wouldn’t let his sons harm a bird, and had even immolated people with a flamethrower. Through conversations with a pastor, he discovered the Christian faith, and eventually healing, Williams, like many others, carried the war throughout his entire life. He also established a foundation for Gold Star Families memorials in order to keep the memories of those who died.
He is one of the few remaining heroes, and Woody’s war in Vietnam will be forgotten by the human eye. Marine Corps Commandant General David Berger stated that he was the last of America’s “Greatest Generation” to be awarded the Medal of Honor. We will always remember his unselfish dedication to the sacrifices made for our Nation. While the Marine Corps has many great heroes, there’s only one Woody Williams. Semper Fidelis, Marine.”
Jonathon Van Maren is a public speaker, writer, and pro-life activist. His comments have appeared in National Review ,, The European Conservative, the National Pos t and other publications. Jonathon is also the author of The Culture War , and Seeing is Believing: Why our Culture Must Face Abortion Victims . He was also the co-author of A Guide for Discussing Assisted Suicide ..