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Remembering Hershel ‘Woody’ Williams, The Last WWII Medal Of Honor Recipient

Woody Williams.jpg
Eric Douglas
/
West Virginia Public Broadcasting
Woody Williams at his Ona, West Virginia home. The painting behind him depicts him on Iwo Jima using his flamethrower.

West Virginia native, U.S. and state hero Hershel “Woody” Williams died on June 29. He was 98 and the last surviving recipient of the Medal of Honor from World War II.

Williams was born in the northern West Virginia community of Quiet Dell in Marion County on Oct. 2, 1923. He was 18 when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and was serving with the Civilian Conservation Corps at the time. He attempted to enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps, but was rejected because of his height.

Williams stood at 5 feet 6 inches.

“I handed him my paper. He was sitting behind the desk. He didn't look at my paper, he just looked at me and shook his head and said, ‘Sorry, I can't take you.’” Williams said in a 2013 interview with Eric Douglas, who at that time was working on an oral history project.

“I said ‘why?’ I was a pretty good specimen of an individual at that time,” Williams said. “I'd worked on a farm all my life, I had some muscles and you know, pretty well built at that point, 30 inch waist and 5 foot, 6 inches tall. And that's what he told me. He said, ‘You're too short.’”

In 1943, the Marines changed their requirements and he got in.

“They took the height requirement off in the Marine Corps, they needed bodies. So then they began taking anybody 5 foot or better,” Williams said. “So then I went back and went into the Marine Corps in May of 1943.”

Service Above And Beyond

Williams served in the 21st Marines, 3rd Marine Division on Iwo Jima on Feb. 23, 1945. It was the same day that the iconic image of the rising flag on Mt. Suribachi was captured. He remembered seeing the flag go up, but was too busy to recall much else.

The fighting was brutal. Williams was a demolitions expert and was trained to use the recently developed flamethrower. An officer asked him if he could use the device to take out the enemy pillboxes — machine gun stations protected by concrete bunkers.

“The word is that he asked me if I thought I could do something with the flamethrower on those pillboxes,” Williams said. “I've said this all my life, I have no idea what my response was. Some of the fellows who survived and were in the hole that day, reported that I said, ‘I'll try.’”

The officer assigned four riflemen to protect Williams as he did his job. His actions that day earned him a Medal of Honor which he received from President Harry Truman on Oct. 5, 1945.

The Medal of Honor commendation notes: “Cpl. Williams daringly went forward alone to attempt the reduction of devastating machine gun fire from the unyielding positions.”

For Williams, memories of the day remained a blur.

“I have so little memory of the four hours that I spent knocking out, and burning out, seven pillboxes,” Williams said. “There's two or three things that are just so vivid you can almost reach out and touch them. And there are others, like how did I get my flamethrowers? Nobody brought them to me, I know that, but there are times that I can't remember how I went back and got a flamethrower.”

When he told the story of that day, Williams always spoke of the four men who were assigned to protect him that day. Two of them didn’t make it home.

“The Medal of Honor, to me, is a very precious thing. It is like a gem, a valuable gem,” Williams said. “Because you can't buy it. And you really can't earn it. Somebody must recommend you for it, based on something that you accomplished.”

Williams explained that more than 40 million men and women have served the United States in uniform. But only 3,530 of those soldiers, sailors and Marines have received Medals of Honor.

“When I wear the medal, it has an effect on me as it does my fellow recipients that you don't wear it just to show it off,” he said. “You wear it for a cause and a purpose. And when you do, those who recognize it, recognize it for what it is. As I've said many times, I do not wear it for what I did, I wear it in honor of those Marines who never got to come home. And especially the two of them who gave their lives protecting me.”

Williams did eventually learn the names of the two men who died protecting him at Iwo Jima.

He was the last of nearly 500 World War II veterans to wear the medal.

Woody Williams Gold Star.jpg
Eric Douglas
/
West Virginia Public Broadcasting
Woody Williams standing beside the first Gold Star Families memorial in the country, at the Donel C. Kinard cemetery in Dunbar, West Virginia. There are more than 100 memorials around the country now.

After The War

While many would say Williams earned a quiet life back home after the war, he didn’t see it that way. In the years following, Williams worked for the Department of Veterans Affairs for 33 years as a Veterans Service Representative, allowing him to continue serving veterans and their families.

He said having the Medal of Honor changed his life.

“It gave me an appreciation of life that I didn't have before,” Williams said. “How very valuable it is and how very quickly you can lose it. I was a farm boy, very shy and bashful. I always wanted to be in the background, not in the forefront. And all of a sudden, I am a public figure.”

Williams had his own personal struggles with the things he saw and did during the war, but the Medal of Honor helped him cope, because it forced him to talk about his experiences.

“So it was a therapy to me,” he said. “I had all kinds of nightmares and those things that go with that. But since I was forced to talk about it, I didn't hold it in. I let it out. That it really helped me adjust back to where I was before.”

That experience and realization drove him to work with other veterans to convince them to open up.

“I talk to veterans and speak to veterans conventions and that sort of thing. I tell them, ‘Don't hold it in. Talk to somebody about it,’” Williams said. “Somebody that you can have confidence in [and] get it out of your system.”

Williams retired from the military after serving 20 years in the Marine Corps and the Marine Corps Reserves. He served as the Commandant of the Veterans Nursing Home in Barboursville, West Virginia for nearly 10 years, helping veterans who were, often in their last years of life.

Woody Williams Distinguished WVian.jpg
Eric Douglas
/
West Virginia Public Broadcasting
Woody Williams receiving a distinguished West Virginian award from Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin in 2013.

The West Virginia Legislature included Williams in the West Virginia Hall of Fame and named him a Distinguished West Virginian in 1980 and in 2013.

Recently, the Secretary of the Navy named Expeditionary Sea Base Ship 4, the USS Hershel "Woody" Williams mobile base sea vessel. It entered Navy service in early 2018.

That year, the Huntington VA Medical Center, near Williams’ home in West Virginia, was renamed in his honor. In his hometown of Fairmont, West Virginia, the Hershel “Woody” Williams Armed Forces Reserve Center is the only National Guard facility in the country named after a Marine.

The Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Hershel “Woody” Williams Post 7048 in Fairmont, and the main bridge in Barboursville, are named for him as well.

Williams’ work will continue through his foundation. To date, the Woody Williams Foundation is responsible for establishing 103 Gold Star Families Memorial Monuments across the United States with more than 72 additional monuments underway in 50 states and one U.S. territory.

His Medal of Honor Citation reads: 

During the Battle of Iwo Jima, Mr. Williams displayed “valiant devotion to duty” and service above self as he “enabled his company to reach its objective”. Mr. Williams’ actions, commitment to his fellow service members, and heroism were recognized on October 5, 1945, when he received the Congressional Medal of Honor from President Truman at the White House. Mr. Williams is the sole surviving Marine from WWII to wear the Medal of Honor.

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 machinegun fire from the unyielding positions. Covered only by 4 riflemen, he fought desperately for 4 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 1 position after another. On 1 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 strong points 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.

Rank: Corporal

Organization: U.S. Marine Corps

Company:

Division: 21st Marines, 3d Marine Division

Born: 2 October 1923, Quiet Dell, W. Va.

Departed: No

Entered Service At: West Virginia

G.O. Number:

Date of Issue: 10/05/1945

Accredited To: West Virginia

Place / Date: Iwo Jima, Volcano Islands, 23 February 1945

News Director, edouglas@wvpublic.org, 304-556-4946, @AppalachiaEric

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