Born in West Virginia, Hershel "Woody" Williams grew up on a dairy farm. Before enlisting in the Marine Corps, Williams drove a taxi, and a truck for a construction company. Williams was trained in San Diego, California and entered into a tank battalion, then was eventually transferred to demolitions as a flamethrower operator. "Woody," as he is known, deployed overseas via the SS Weltey Reden in late 1943. In January 1944, he was assigned the 21st Marines of the 3rd Marine Division and landed at Guam, where he saw his first combat.
On February 21, 1945 Williams and the rest of the 3rd Marine Division landed on Iwo Jima. Two days later on February 23, Williams, with the help of a four other Marines, engaged several Japanese pillboxes with his flamethrower, in an action that lasted over four hours.
"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."
Woody Williams on first using his flamethrower in Iwo Jima
For his conspicuous gallantry in action, Woody was awarded the Medal of Honor. Woody fought through the remainder of the Iwo Jima campaign before he was wounded on March 6 and removed from the fighting.
Williams was awarded the Medal of Honor at a ceremony at the White House on October 1, 1945 after the cessation of hostilities. Shortly thereafter, Williams was discharged from the Marine Corps. Williams struggled with the symptoms of post traumatic stress (PTS) after the war, until finding religion in the 1960s. Woody served as the Medal of Honor Association’s chaplain for over 30 years.
Seth Paridon was a staff historian at The National WWII Museum from 2005 to 2020. He began his career conducting oral histories and research for HBO’s miniseries The Pacific and holds the distinction of being the first historian hired by the Museum’s Research Department. In the 12 years he was Manager of Research Services, Seth and his team increased the oral history collection from 25 to nearly 5,000 oral histories.