Last of the Greatest
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. During the Second World War, Williams had focused on getting back to his fiancée in Fairmont, Virginia. Once again, he has.
I had the privilege of interviewing Williams before he died. An ordinary American farm boy from Quiet Dell, West Virginia, he described growing up 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. His earliest memories were of milking by hand, glass quart or pint bottles, and the huge blocks of ice necessary to keep everything from spoiling. The family car was a Model A Ford (and later a very classy Model T).
Woody joined the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1940 at age 16 (as did his brothers), earning a whopping $21 a month. He was with the CCC in Whitehall, Montana when the Japanese hit Pearl Harbor. Like so many other American boys, he tried to sign up right away despite his age. He needed parental permission and his mother refused to give it. He knew what he was volunteering for—during the early days of the war, he delivered death telegrams to 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. His brothers were already in Europe.
Woody’s first stop was Guadalcanal, which the Americans had taken in 1942. “We stayed for six months, and then we shipped out to be support for the Second Marine Division—we were the Third—which was attacking Saipan,” he told me. “We were out in the ocean in case they needed more Marines. They didn’t.” It was on the beach on Guam that Woody first tasted combat. “It was probably one of the scariest moments of my time. We had to get off the boats out in the water, knee-high to waist-high, to wade ashore. The Japanese were shooting and dropping mortars on us. 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 2.4 miles by five—it couldn’t be much of anything.” They were told they were a reserve unit and would probably be back on Guam in a week without disembarking. 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 out on the ocean, and he couldn’t see or hear anything besides the occasional plane going by. Around midnight, the ship’s loudspeakers crackled to life, announcing that due to the number of casualties, the relief troops would be hitting the island before dawn. The men stuffed down chow at three in the morning, gathered their gear, and piled into the boats. After a full day on the water, they were forced to turn back. The 4th and 5th Marine Divisions had not captured a large enough beachhead for a landing. After another 3 a.m. meal, they headed back out. Woody Williams landed on Iwo Jima with the First Battalion, 21st Marines on February 21, 1945.
It was a brutal, bloody fight.
On the 23rd, we were still fighting for the first airfield. They had pillboxes protecting it. We tried to advance. They were inside of a concrete structure; we were out in the open, running from one position to another. We were a great target. We kept losing Marines and could not break through. Every time we’d try, they’d kill another group of us and we had to be retreat. I had six Marines under me when we landed. We were all flame-thrower and demolition trained—we could either burn it up or blow it up. My job in charge of the unit was to make sure the operators had whatever they needed. By the 23rd, those Marines were gone. I’ve never known whether they were wounded or killed, but I was the last flame-thrower in C Company.
What Williams did next would earn him one of the most prestigious military awards in the history of combat. Covered by four riflemen, he fought for four hours to clear the pillboxes under constant enemy fire, returning again and again to American lines to prepare more demolitions charges and fetch more flamethrowers. When I asked him to describe it, he sounded as if he were reciting a report: “I was able to eliminate the enemy in seven of those pillboxes. We couldn’t do anything about the pillboxes; they were built strong with concrete that had metal rods in it. Artillery, bazookas—it didn’t do anything to them. They were fully protected. They had an aperture across the front of every pillbox that was eight inches in height, and that’s where they could stick their rifles and machine guns out—and that was the only place we could hit.”
To clear the pillboxes, Woody had to get close enough to pour fire through the openings. “Much of that day I do not remember,” he told me with a chuckle.
It’s one of those things I’ve lived with all my life. How did I really do it? Why wasn’t I wounded or hit with shrapnel or bullets in those four hours? They never touched me. But some of those pillboxes are absolutely not in my memory bank at all. I can remember a couple of ‘em vividly. But one of the things that has absolutely bugged me—I’ve talked to a number of people and I haven’t been able to get a good answer: How did I get those other five flamethrowers? I remember the first one very well. Taking off; those four Marines who were assigned to me; and placing them where they could shoot at the pillbox I was going to broach. But how I got the additional flamethrowers is one of those things that has never been in my memory.
What Woody did remember was extraordinary. With 70 pounds on his back, he approached the enemy. “I was crawling towards that pillbox in a ditch that the Japanese had dug to enable them to go from one pillbox to another without going above ground,” he told me. “They were shooting at me with a Nambu machine gun. I remember bullets ricocheting off the back of my flamethrower. I saw smoke coming out of the top of the pillbox, so when they were reloading I jumped up and ran to the side to get out of their line of fire. That’s when I decided I’d go up on top of the pillbox to see where the smoke was coming from, because if there was a hole up there, I could put flame down through it.”
Woody had to get close to the pillboxes—less than twenty yards, or the flame would disperse and fan out. “If I shot it in the air it wouldn’t go anywhere, and about three seconds of flame would roll for several yards until it hit a pillbox,” he told me. “When it hit, it was huge, ten or twelve feet in diameter, so it would just penetrate whatever opening was in that pillbox. That’s what I was trying to do when they came charging out. I never knew whether they were out of ammunition or just decided that the way to get me was to have several of them come with bayonets. I still had flame left, so when they came around the pillbox charging at me, I just hit them with a big old ball of flame. That burns bodies up and catches the clothes on fire, and it takes all the oxygen out of the air immediately and they die.” The smell of burning flesh would haunt Woody for decades.
It was a four-hour fight, and Woody Williams witnessed the event that would become an icon: The American flags being raised on Mt. Suribachi. He was 1,000 yards away from the volcano. “When the flag went up on Iwo, we were still at the edge of the airfield, trying to get across. 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. His war would last another five weeks, and on March 6 he was struck in the leg by shrapnel.
“They put a tag on you so that the people coming to help you get back to the rear to the aid station will know who you are and that you’re supposed to be taken back. A corpsman put one of those tags on me and told me that I had to go back. I said: I’m not going to go. He wasn’t very happy about that and said very forcefully: You must go. We’d been told before getting into combat that whatever the corpsman says is law. I tore the tag off and said: I don’t have a tag on me.” Williams chuckled. “Then he had to go somewhere else so he didn’t have a chance to put a second one on me. It wasn’t bad enough that I couldn’t continue to fight, and we were down to so few Marines that we needed everybody we could get. The day before that we were down to 17 in our company. We needed people.”
Woody found out in October of 1945 that he would be receiving the Medal of Honor. Despite all he’d been through on Guam and Iwo Jima, it was getting called to the general’s tent by his first sergeant (he was a corporal) that he found terrifying: “To a little ole country boy who was very shy and bashful and backward it was very nerve-wracking.” When he arrived at the tent, a colonel informed him that he’d need to go inside and stand at attention until the general told him what to do. “I was absolutely frightened. He told me to stand at ease, and then told me some words.” Those words included congratulations and the announcement that he was headed to Washington via Hawaii. There, he would receive the Medal from President Harry Truman himself along with thirteen others.
“I never dreamed I would ever see a president, let alone get that close to one,” and by the time Truman got to Woody, he was a nervous wreck. “My body was shaking and I could not control it. When I walked up to him, he shook hands with me, and then somebody handed him the medal to put around my neck. He did that, and then he laid his left hand on my right shoulder and said to me: I would rather have this medal than be president. He shook hands with me again and kept his hand on my shoulder, and jokingly said he did that so I wouldn’t jump out of my shoes.”
But when I asked Woody which memories stood out, it was none of those. “One of the most memorable experiences I’ve carried with me all these years was getting on that airplane from Guam to Hawaii with Americans who had been prisoners of war of the Japanese, some of them up to five years. Men that had at one time weighted 170 or 180 pounds now weighed 80 or 90 pounds. They looked like skeletons. They really did. Their cheeks were hollow, their eyes were sunken, you could see every bone in their body. That left a lasting impression on me that I’ll never forget. They were absolutely the happiest people that I think I’ve ever seen in my life because now they were free.” A former POW shared his experiences with Woody: the work schedule, the torture. In fact, Woody discovered that his seat on the airplane had been designated for another former POW who had died before he could make the flight. “And then he made a statement I’ve never forgotten: ‘You will never know what freedom is until you have lost it.’ I’ve never forgotten that.”
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Woody Williams struggled with post-combat stress until 1962, torturing himself over the men that he had killed. His father, he told me, wouldn’t even let his sons hurt a bird—and he had immolated men with a flamethrower. It was through conversations with a pastor that he came to the Christian faith and, eventually, healing. Like so many other heroes, Williams carried the war with him for the rest of his life, and he set up a foundation to erect memorials for Gold Star Families to preserve the memory of the dead.
He was one of the last ones, and in a few more years, Woody’s war will have passed from human memory into the shadow of history. As Marine Corps Commandant General David Berger said: “As the last of America’s ‘Greatest Generation’ to receive the Medal of Honor, we will forever carry with us the memory of his selfless dedication to those who made the ultimate sacrifice to our great Nation. The Marine Corps is fortunate to have many heroes, but there is only one Woody Williams. Semper Fidelis, Marine.”
Jonathon Van Maren is a public speaker, writer, and pro-life activist. His commentary has appeared in National Review, The European Conservative, the National Post, and elsewhere. Jonathon is the author of The Culture War and Seeing Is Believing: Why Our Culture Must Face the Victims of Abortion as well as the co-author with Blaise Alleyne of A Guide to Discussing Assisted Suicide.