Hershel “Woody” Williams, a dear friend of The National WWII Museum and the last surviving Medal of Honor recipient from World War II, passed away today at age 98.
Born in West Virginia, "Woody" Williams grew up on a dairy farm. Before enlisting in the Marine Corps, Williams drove a taxi and then a truck for a construction company.
Initially rejected by the US Marine Corps for being too short, Williams persisted and prevailed, eventually becoming a Marine. He trained in San Diego, California, and was assigned to a tank battalion. He was subsequently transferred to demolition detachment as a flamethrower operator.
Woody deployed to the Pacific Theater via the SS Weltey Reden in late 1943. In January 1944, he was assigned to the 21st Marines, 3rd Marine Division and landed at Guam, where he saw his first combat.
He recalled a lesson he quickly learned in combat, "I strapped a flamethrower on my back and started crawling toward the pillboxes....I can remember bullets ricocheting off my air tank. And I don't know why I was smart enough to figure out that if I crawled closer they couldn't get me. If I crawled backwards, they would have got me."
On February 21, 1945, Williams and the rest of the 3rd Marine Division landed on Iwo Jima. Woody served as a demolition sergeant. Two days later, on February 23—the same day as the flag-raising on Mount Suribachi— Williams, with the help of four other Marines, engaged several Japanese pillboxes with his flamethrower, in an action that lasted over four hours.
Williams would be awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions on Iwo Jima that day. For "conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty," Hershel “Woody” Williams received the Medal of Honor on October 4, 1945, from President Harry S. Truman.
That fateful day on Iwo Jima, Williams was 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," reads his Medal of Honor citation. "Corporal Williams daringly went forward alone to attempt the reduction of devastating machine-gun fire from the unyielding positions. Covered only by four riflemen, he fought desperately for four 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 one position after another.”
"On one occasion, he daringly mounted a pillbox to insert the nozzle of his flame thrower through the air vent, kill the occupants and silence 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 in enabling his company to reach its objective. Corporal Williams' aggressive fighting spirit and valiant devotion to duty throughout this fiercely contested action sustain and enhance the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service."
Williams also describes that day in his oral history for the Museum. An excerpt from the complete oral history is below. Woody fought through the remainder of the Iwo Jima campaign before he was wounded on March 6 and removed from the fighting.
Shortly after the Medal of Honor ceremony at the White House, Williams was discharged from the Marine Corps. Williams recalled that he struggled with the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after the war, until he found solace in his religious faith in the 1960s. He would go on to serve as the Medal of Honor Association’s chaplain for over 30 years.
It has been the Museum's honor to help share the stories of his wartime experiences with audiences of all ages and to award him its highest honor—the American Spirit Award—in 2008. Woody traveled back to Iwo Jima with the Museum's Educational Travel program and graciously delivered the keynote address of our 2017 International Conference. The archived video of the closing keynote address that he delivered may be found here: International Conference on World War II.
The Museum has been proud to work with him throughout the years in support of Gold Star families and to feature a Gold Star mural on our Louisiana Memorial Pavilion. The mural provides a lasting tribute to families who have lost a loved one in the service of the nation’s military and was made possible by a generous gift from Williams's Foundation. The Woody Williams Foundation honors Gold Star families by building Gold Star Families Memorial Monuments throughout the United States, offering scholarships to Gold Star Children, sponsoring outreach programs and events, and educating communities about Gold Star Families and the sacrifice they have endured.
The National WWII Museum joins his family, the Woody Williams Foundation, and the entire nation as we mourn his passing. As Williams and the last members of the WWII generation pass on, the Museum is reminded of its critical responsibility to keep their stories alive for generations to come.