WWII MOHR USMC Cpl. Hershel Williams
by Katie Lange, DoD News
May 24, 2023
The Battle of Iwo Jima in the Pacific
during World War II is one of the most famous battles of all time. A
photo of U.S. Marines raising the American flag there on February 23,
1945, is iconic, and it was the inspiration behind the Marine Corps
War Memorial near Arlington National Cemetery.
Also, iconic is Hershel "Woody"
Williams ... a Marine, who passed away on June 29, 2022 at the age
of 98 ... was the last surviving Medal of Honor
recipient to have fought in that battle. And while he wasn’t part of
the flag-raising, his actions were crucial to the
Thrown Into The Mix
Williams joined the Marines
in May 1943 and was shipped off to the Pacific Theater three months
later. The dairy farmer from Quiet Dell, West Virginia, was trained
to be a demolition sergeant, which meant he knew how to use
flamethrowers and detonate explosives. He took part in the battle to
retake Guam in the summer of 1944 before being sent to Iwo Jima, a
tiny island in the Volcano Islands chain. The two were vastly
''Guam was more jungle-type fighting ... a lot of
creeping and crawling ... but when we got to Iwo Jima, everything
had been wiped off that island,'' Williams explained in a Veterans
History Project Library of Congress interview. ''About the only
protection you could find would be a shell crater, or try to dig
your own hole.''
The Battle Begins
The Battle of Iwo
Jima began Feb. 19, 1945. Winning there was crucial, because the
U.S. needed the island’s airfields. Other U.S.-occupied islands were
too far away for fighter jets to be able to escort bomber missions
to Japan’s mainland.
Williams’ reserve unit was sent ashore
two days after the battle started, and the scene was chaotic. He
said they found out quickly that the land was incredibly difficult
"Trying to dig a hole in that stuff was like
trying to dig a hole in marbles," Williams explained of the volcanic
black sand. "Trying to run on it was almost impossible. You couldn’t
get a foothold."
It was also incredibly hot.
could take a C-ration can of food and dig a hole and bury it, and
the next morning, you could have hot food," he said.
The tanks had
trouble opening up a lane for the infantry through the sand, too,
but the biggest problem was the many steel-reinforced "pillboxes,"
now known as bunkers, that were protecting the Japanese airfields.
"Bazookas and that sort of thing had no effect on them, because
they were so thick and well built," Williams said in a 2017
interview. "The only way to actually eliminate the enemy inside
those pillboxes was by flamethrower."
Just Doing His Job
Marines were dropping like flies during the battle. Williams had
initially been one of several demolition sergeants, but by Feb. 23,
1945, he was the only one left. So, he bravely volunteered to go
forward as the last flamethrower to try to quell the devastating
machine-gun fire from the pillboxes.
In four hours, with only
four riflemen to protect him, Williams managed to wipe out seven
pillboxes. He repeatedly prepared explosives in a safe area,
struggled back to where the enemy was, and then set the charges off.
One time, he jumped onto one of the pillboxes from the side,
shoved the nozzle of his 70-pound flamethrower into an air vent pipe
and fired, killing everyone inside. Another time, he charged
bayonet-wielding enemies and killed them with one burst of flame.
"That made a hole big enough that [the company] could go through
and get behind any other pillboxes that were in that area," Williams
said. "Once you got behind the pillboxes, then we had the
Williams’ efforts massively
helped to neutralize one of the most fanatically defended Japanese
strongholds his regiment had encountered. For his actions, he
received the Medal of Honor from President Harry S. Truman during a
group ceremony at the White House on Oct. 5, 1945. Ten other Marines
and two sailors also received the honor that day.
Williams was discharged in 1945, but he
stayed in the Marine Corps Reserve until his retirement. He also continued to serve through his foundation, the Hershel Woody
Williams Medal of Honor Foundation, which honors families who have
lost a loved one in service to their country.
it’s those men ... the ones who died protecting him ... who really
deserve the honor.
Retired U.S. Marine Corps Chief Warrant Officer 4 Hershel "Woody" Williams, a Medal of Honor recipient, gazes at Mount Suribachi from the black sand beach of Iwo To, Japan, after the 73rd Reunion of Honor ceremony
on March 24, 2018. Williams was a part of the initial landing force that stormed the island during the Battle of Iwo Jima. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by
Lance Cpl. Jamin Powell)
"This medal doesn’t belong to me. It belongs
to them, because they gave their lives for me," he said, trying to
hold back tears. "I was just doing a job that I was trained to do."
However, Williams continued to be honored with the USNS Hershel "Woody" Williams, an expeditionary sea
base ship, named after him.
without impacting facts.
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