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How a West Virginia farm boy became a fearsome warrior with a flamethrower at Iwo Jima

Feb 182020
Michael E. Ruane | Stars and Stripes

ONA, W.Va. —The Japanese soldiers came out of their concrete "pill box" with bayonets fixed, determined to get the Marine who had been killing them all afternoon with a flamethrower.

Their target was Hershel Williams. He was 5-foot-6, the youngest of the 11 children of a dairy farmer from Quiet Dell, West Virginia. He had a nice smile, and a girl back home named Ruby whom he planned to marry when the war was over.

He was 21, and known as "Woody."

But 75 years ago this month, on a Godforsaken volcanic island in the Pacific called Iwo Jima, he was a terrifying destroyer of the Japanese, incinerating men in their hideouts with jets of blazing diesel fuel and high octane gasoline.

They had to stop him.

But he saw them coming, and pulled the two triggers on his fearsome weapon.

He still remembers how they slowed down and fell, their clothes ablaze.

He had no remorse at the time. The Japanese were killing Marines. They would soon kill his best friend. The battle, the war, had to be won. "I had no qualms," he said.

He moved on to the next enemy fortification. By the end of the day he had destroyed seven pill boxes, acts for which, months later, he was given the Medal of Honor for valor.

The anniversary of the start of the World War II Battle of Iwo Jima is Wednesday. The battle is probably best remembered for the Feb. 23 flag raising atop Mount Suribachi, immortalized in a news photograph and a famous statue in Arlington, Virginia.

The Marine Corps plans a ceremony at the Iwo Jima memorial on Feb. 27. And the National Museum of the Marine Corps, in Triangle, Virginia, is hosting events and a concert on Saturday and Sunday. Williams is scheduled to speak on Saturday.

But for those like him who fought there - and a few are still alive - remembering Iwo can be frightful.

After the war he had nightmares in which he was not shooting fire, but fighting it. "I put out a lot of fires," he said.

Once, while dreaming, he terrified his wife when he jumped up, pushed their bed out of the way and began pounding on the wall at an imaginary wave of fire.

"I'm fighting this wall of fire," he said. "Trying to put (it) out."

The battle of Iwo Jima came as World War II had turned decisively against the Japanese, who had suffered several major defeats, and whose homeland was being pounded by U.S. bombers.

Fought for 36 days over an apocalyptic landscape of blasted volcanic sand and rubble, the combatants used swords, pistols, rocks, rifle butts, and bamboo lances as the Marines tried to dislodge Japanese soldiers from warrens of bunkers and caves.

A massive U.S. bombardment from land, sea and air had done little to roust the enemy, so that much of the fighting was done at close quarters. Some was at arms length.

One Japanese soldier attacked a Marine with a Samurai sword, slicing his arm from his hand to his elbow.

At one point, a Marine said, he was so close to the enemy that he couldn't lower his rifle to aim.

A Japanese soldier clutching an explosive charge ran up against a U.S. tank and blew himself up.

Hand grenades were thrown back and forth like baseballs before they blew up. One Marine threw back seven.

Pfc. Jacklyn Lucas, 17, of Plymouth, North Carolina, was surprised when he suddenly saw two enemy grenades at his feet. He forced them into the sand with his rifle butt and his hands, and covered them with his body. He didn't even have the chance to shut his eyes, he wrote later.

Only one grenade went off. It blew him sky high. But he lived to be 80 and was also given the Medal of Honor.

The battle went on long after the flag was raised on Suribachi. It devoured Marines and Japanese soldiers alike. They fought over places on the island called the "Meat Grinder," "Death Valley," and "Bloody Gorge." The terrain was littered with smashed banyan trees, blasted rock and mechanical and human wreckage.

At night the scene was illuminated by star shells.

War correspondent Robert Sherrod said he had never seen so many dismembered soldiers. "Nowhere in the Pacific war have I seen such mangled bodies," he wrote in LIFE magazine. "Many were cut squarely in half. Legs and arms lay 50 feet away from any body."

In one case a Marine's severed foot was recovered still in its boot. The serial number on the boot was noted and the foot was buried in a formal grave, according to author Richard F. Newcomb's classic account of the battle. Later, the owner of the foot was found alive in a hospital in Saipan.

- - - For the Marine Corps, Iwo Jima was one of its most epic battles.

It was front page news across the country. A Marine general likened it to the Civil War's Battle of Gettysburg, and said it assured that there would be a Marine Corps forever. (The famous flag raising photograph, by Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal, reinsured it.)

The battle saw one of the largest Marine Corps forces ever fielded - 70,000 men - and the largest casualty toll in its history. Roughly 6,800 Marines, sailors, and one Coast Guardsman were killed, according to "Investigating Iwo," a Marine Corps study published last year.

For the Japanese, Iwo Jima was home territory, about 700 miles from Japan and part of the prefecture of Tokyo. No foreigner had ever set foot on it, Newcomb wrote.

It had two airfields, which is why the Americans wanted it, and why the Japanese were determined to hold it, or exact a deadly price on the Marines trying to take it.

Each Japanese soldier was instructed to kill 10 Americans.

Back in Japan, people sang the rousing "Song of Iwo Defense," and it was broadcast to the island's defenders. But the Japanese general in command, Tadamichi Kuribayashi, wrote to his wife: "No one here expects to return alive."

Of the roughly 20,000 Japanese defenders, only 1,083 survived, according to the Naval History and Heritage Command. Two of those survivors remained in hiding until 1949.

Iwo Jima was an old volcano, shaped like a pork chop, about five miles long and 2½ miles wide. Viewed from the air on the first day, United Press war correspondent William F. Tyree said it looked like it was sizzling.

And into the inferno, on Feb. 21, 1945, "scared half to death," stepped Hershel Williams.

Now 96, Williams sat on the edge of his easy chair in this rural community outside Charleston one day last month and told of his part in the battle. A dignified man, he wore glasses, a black leather vest, gray slacks and black "Medal of Honor" cowboy boots.

Of the 27 Marines and sailors who earned the medal at Iwo Jima, he said he is the last one still living.

In the kitchen, vials of Iwo Jima sand sat on a shelf, near an old photo of President Harry Truman giving him the medal. A duplicate medal hung from its powder blue ribbon on a coat stand in his bedroom. (The original is in the Pritzker Military Museum and Library in Chicago.)

A picture of Jesus hangs on a wall, a symbol of the profound religious awakening 58 years ago in the Pea Ridge Methodist Church that Williams said ended his nightmares and transformed his life. He went on to have a career with Department of Veterans Affairs and established a successful horse farm.

He said as a Christian he now regrets having killed people.

"It's one of those things that you put in the recess of your mind," he said. "You were fulfilling an obligation that you swore to do, to defend your country. Any time you take a life ... there's always some aftermath to that if you've got any heart at all."

- - - Williams weighed 3½ pounds at birth and was not expected to live. His mother, Lurenna, named him Hershel for the local doctor who reached the farm three days later.

By the time he was born in 1923 several of his siblings had already died in the 1918-1919 flu pandemic. His father, Lloyd, died of a heart attack when Williams was 11.

As World War II neared, he said he was impressed by the snappy "dress blues" uniform of local men who were in the Marine Corps. The Army's "old brown wool uniform ... was the ugliest thing in town," he said. "l decided, 'I do not want to be in that thing. I want to be in those dress blues."

Aside from that, he said, "I knew nothing about the Marine Corps."

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, he tried to join, but the Marines said he was too short.

Later, the requirements were eased, he said, and he got in. He thought he would never have to leave the country, just defend it against invaders.

He wound up 8,000 miles from home on the island of Guadalcanal in the Pacific.

There, in early 1944, he and some other Marines received crates of flamethrowers, which they had to figure out how to operate. The weapon was mysterious. It had two tanks to hold the flammable liquid to be fired, and a third tank of compressed air to push the liquid out.

The nozzle contained a barrel with phosphorous matches that ignited the liquid as it spurted out. He said the Marines experimented with what type of flammable liquid to use and settled on a mix of diesel fuel and high-octane aviation gas. The weapon weighed 70 pounds and the tanks were virtually bullet proof, he said.

There was no guidance on how the weapon was to be used. "We had to learn that ourselves," he said.

Coming ashore on Iwo Jima a year later, Williams said, he supervised six other flame thrower/demolition men in his "special weapons unit," he said. But as the hours of fighting passed they vanished one by one. Dead or wounded, he didn't know.

About midday on Feb. 23, he and his comrades had been stopped cold by a cluster of impenetrable Japanese fortifications called "pill boxes." Enemy gunners fired from small slits in the concrete walls and were almost impossible to hit as they mowed down Marines.

Williams said his company commander, Capt. Donald Beck, held a meeting in a shell hole to figure out what to do. He asked Williams if he thought he might make progress with his flamethrower.

Williams said he would try.

He was assigned several Marines to cover him, and a "pole charge man," armed with a long piece of wood that had an explosive taped to the end. His job was to stick the charge into the fortification and set it off after Williams had fired, "to make sure that everybody in there is dead," he said.

But the pole charge man was struck in the helmet by a bullet and knocked silly. The covering Marines were killed. And Williams was on his own. He doesn't remember a lot of what happened, but a few scenes have stayed with him.

He remembers crawling toward one pill box where he could see the barrel of a Japanese machine gun protruding from a slit. Bullets ricocheted off his flamethrower tanks. He got within 20-25 yards and "rolled a big ball of flame" at the enemy gunner, silencing him.

He recalls crawling toward another pill box when he noticed a wisp of smoke escaping from a ventilation hole in the top. He crept up, stuck the nozzle of the flame thrower into the vent and fired. "Got 'em all," he said.

He remembers killing the Japanese soldiers who tried to get him with bayonets.

He does not remember that over the course of four hours one afternoon on Iwo Jima he went back to his lines five times for fresh weapons, and five times returned to the battle.

But that's what he did.