Hershel “Woody” Williams, the last surviving World War II Medal of Honor recipient, died on Wednesday at the age of 98. The legendary Marine veteran was awarded his nation’s highest military honor for taking out Japanese pillboxes on Iwo Jima with a flamethrower. 

Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger and Sgt. Maj. of the Marine Corps Troy Black announced on Wednesday that they were “heartbroken” to learn about Williams’ death.

“From his actions on Iwo Jima to his lifelong service to our Gold Star Families, Woody has left an indelible mark on the legacy of our Corps,” Berger and Black said in a joint statement.  “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.”

On Feb. 21, 1945, Williams was a 23-year-old Marine corporal landing at Iwo Jima with the 3rd Marine Division. Two days later Williams, armed with a flamethrower and demolition charges, repeatedly assaulted a series of heavily fortified concrete pillboxes, helping clear a path forward for his fellow Marines pinned down by withering enemy fire. 

Marine Corps photo

Covered by four other Marines, Williams over several hours engaged the enemy at point-blank range as they charged toward him with bayonets. He climbed atop a bunker and used his flamethrower to unleash a burst of fire, killing the enemy soldiers inside. 

Williams received the nation’s highest award for bravery by President Harry S. Truman on Oct. 5, 1945. 

For the rest of his life, though, Williams was emphatic that he had not fought alone. 

“Two Marines gave their life that day, on February the 23rd, 1945, protecting mine. I say almost every time I begin to speak: This medal does not belong to me. I wear it in honor of those Marines who gave their life protecting mine,” Williams told Task & Purpose in 2016. “I do it for them. Without them I could not have achieved what I did. I don’t do it for me.”

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Williams continued serving in the Marine Corps after the war, retiring in 1969 as a chief warrant officer four. 

He was also a lifelong tireless advocate for veterans and military families, working for 33 years as a counselor with the Department of Veterans Affairs. Through the Woody Williams Foundation, he continued working with Gold Star families, advocating for education benefits and helping erect monuments to Gold Star families around the country. 

Williams has long been a legend inside and outside of the military. The Navy christened an expeditionary mobile base ship named after him in October 2017.

“The Marine Corps mourns today in learning that Hershel ‘Woody’ Williams has passed,” Marine Corps spokesman Maj. Joshua Larson said. “Woody was the last surviving Medal of Honor recipient from our ‘Greatest Generation’  of WWII veterans and he captured the warfighting spirit of all Marines — a combat-proven leader whose lifelong dedication to all service members and Gold Star families began with his heroic actions on Iwo Jima. His legacy as a warrior and an advocate for veterans will live on among all Marines. He will be missed.”

On Wednesday, The Congressional Medal of Honor Society paid tribute to Williams in a statement that honored his bravery on Iwo Jima along with his work with veterans and Gold Star families.

“We, his fellow Medal of Honor Recipients, knew him as our friend and one of our heroes,” the statement said. We will miss him greatly. Semper Fi and Godspeed, Woody.”

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