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Farm boy turns heroic flamethrower at Battle of Iwo Jima

Feb 23 2020
Cathy Jett |

Japanese soldiers inside reinforced concrete pillboxes were machine gunning down Marines each time they tried to advance across open ground at an airfield during the Battle of Iwo Jima.

Artillery and bazookas had little effect. In desperation the commanding officer, who had two officers left, pulled the men out of the line of fire and called a meeting of his non-commissioned officers. Hershel “Woody” Williams, who was a corporal at the time, didn’t plan to go because he wasn’t an NCO. But his sergeant told him that he wanted him there.

“We were in a shell crater so we could stay out of the fire. They asked me, as being the only flamethrower and demolition expert left, would I do something about the pillboxes that had them stalled?” Williams during his talk Saturday as part of the National Museum of the Marine Corps’ commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Iwo Jima.

“I have no idea of my response,” he said. “One of the Marines, after the campaign when I was back in Guam, made the statement that my response was, ‘I’ll try.’ “

Williams, now 96, proceeded to single-handedly take out one pillbox after another, an act of valor that made him one of 22 Marines men to earn the Medal of Honor during the Battle of Iwo Jima. He is now the last living Medal of Honor recipient from a battle that saw some of the fiercest fighting of World War II.

Much of what happened on the afternoon of Feb. 23, 1945, remains a blank, he told a packed audience in the museum’s Medal of Honor Theater. But some are so vivid that they’re etched in his memory forever, like the Japanese soldiers that charged him with fixed bayonets as he got close to their pillbox.

“I had to get within 15 yards. Whether they ran out of ammunition, I have no idea. But all of a sudden several of them, and I don’t know the count, I wasn’t saying one, two, three, four or five, but they charged around the pillbox with bayonets fixed to get me, and I got them first,” said Williams.

He also remembers seeing smoke coming out of another pillbox, which he assumed was from the weapons they were firing. He jumped top of the hideout, spotted an air vent pipe and shoved the nozzle of his 70-pound flamethrower inside to deliver a blast of roaring, hissing flame.

“They didn’t give us any trouble after that,” Williams said.

Sadly, he later learned that two of the four men that he’d handpicked to help him had sacrificed their lives protecting him.

“Once I found out that this happened, this Medal of Honor took on a different significance,” Williams said, reverently touching the medal hanging around his neck. “I said from that 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.”

A farm boy from Quiet Dell, W.Va., Williams said he had no desire to join the military until the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. He said that he was taught that you didn’t kill unless it was for food or to protect yourself and your family. History, he said, had not prepared him for what war was really like. Then he witnessed its horrors for the first time in Guam as a member of the 21st Marines, 3rd Marine Division in 1944, and then lost his best friend at Iwo Jima.

“Then there was no choice,” he said. “If we are going to win, we must come out on top.”

These days Williams has a different goal. He’s created the Hershel Woody Williams Medal of Honor Foundation to pay tribute to Gold Star families, who have lost loved ones serving in the military. He said that it has helped to establish monuments to them in 45 states, primarily in communities. He’d like to see monuments in state capitals, and eventually the nation’s capital.

“We owe that to the Gold Star families of the past, the present and, unfortunately, the future,” he said. “We, as a society, must never forget that what we have is because of those who have gone before us and given their life for us.”