This World War II Hero Still Leads By Example 70 Years After He Served

Hershel “Woody” Williams accepted the dedication of a 68,000 square foot military training center in his name in Fairmont, W. Va. Oct. 18, 2012.
U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Michael Ito

In early December, I had the humbling honor of being connected with a former Marine named Hershel "Woody" Williams, a World War II Medal of Honor recipient. Williams, a man with blood ties to the American Revolution, participated in combat on a rock called Iwo Jima in 1945, and I might not have paid as much attention to his incredible story had it not been for my own roots in our nation’s birth. It turns out that as direct descendants of Revolutionary War soldiers, both Woody Williams and I are able to claim membership in the National Society of the Sons of the American Revolution.

Williams’ combat action on the black Iwo Jima sand nearly 71 years ago was of the same determined grit of our ancestors as they faced down the most powerful military on the planet in 1776 — the British — and achieved victory. His Medal of Honor citation can be found here, but the line that sticks out most to me is this one:

On one occasion, he daringly mounted a pillbox to insert the nozzle of his flamethrower through the air vent, killing the occupants and silencing 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.

Just think for a moment about what the odds of death were in such a situation. Williams did what he had to do, over and over again. In the relative comfort of our 21st century lives, it’s really hard for most of us to imagine the adrenaline, fear, and the frame of mind someone would have had to be in to pull off an action like Woody’s. At the heart of it all, it was really a suicide mission.

Harry Truman, president of the United States, congratulates Hershel "Woody" Williams, a Marine reservist and survivor of the battle of Iwo Jima, on being awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions during the battle of Iwo Jima during World War II October 5, 1945 at the White House in Washington.DoD Photo

Williams lived, though not unscathed. He received a Purple Heart after being wounded on March 6. Williams himself says he doesn’t remember much detail about the actions that garnered him the most significant medal awarded to our nation’s military members. The closest we can get is to picture what it might have been like if we had been in his shoes. For a writer like me that looks like this:

Japanese rounds thundered overhead as Williams prepared for his third foray into heavy fire during the Battle of Iwo Jima. He’d been on Guadalcanal and fought at Guam, but for him combat had never been this extreme.

Every few seconds, shots impacted near his position, kicking up black sand. Seashells and pebbles hit his helmet, flamethrower tank on his back, and went down his shirt. In moments, he’d get up and run directly at the enemy bunkers. A Marine next to him gripped his rifle, staring back with fear and anger, his face painted with sand. Williams noticed his thin wedding ring and knew there was someone back home he might never see again.

Earlier, Williams had taken several bunkers by himself — one by pointing his flamethrower through a vent, incinerating the occupants. Flames erupted out the front, surrounding him with the stench of napalm and charred flesh. The shrieks of his enemy as they burned to death would haunt him forever.

“GO!” a sergeant barked.

A machine gun in a nearby shell hole began firing as Williams raced across 50 feet of scrub grass that felt like miles. At his side, two men covered him. A third lay several yards behind, his helmet barely covering the gaping head wound that had just killed him. There, on the man’s left finger, was the gold wedding ring he had seen only moments before. Suddenly three enemy soldiers screamed toward them. He quickly squeezed his weapon, releasing a searing stream of fire. Heat radiated from his opponents as they were immediately engulfed, throwing down their rifles while screaming in a language none of the Americans understood.

Witness accounts confirm that Williams cleared a number of Japanese bunkers that Feb. 23, which also happened to be the same day the flag was raised on Mount Suribachi. For at least four hours, he braved intense hostile fire as he ran back and forth between concrete and steel-reinforced emplacements and the explosives and fresh flamethrowers that awaited him at his own lines. Earlier in the day, the Marines were having a difficult time clearing lanes of travel for tanks and infantry. All the other flamethrower operators that had been on hand — men Williams had trained — were dead. It would be up to him to get the job done. He did. On Oct. 5, 1945, he would stand in front of President Truman to receive the Medal of Honor.

On Dec. 6, 2015, I was able to spend a couple hours with Williams, now 92 years old and active as the leader of the Hershel Woody Williams Medal of Honor Foundation. Every year, our West Virginia-based Sons of the American Revolution chapter has an annual banquet in conjunction with other chapters in nearby Ohio, as well as local Daughters of the American Revolution chapters. This year, we brought Williams on as our guest speaker.

In my entire life, I’d only met two other Medal of Honor recipients, but throughout my 20 years in uniform I was steeped in their stories. Williams is the only living awardee in my state, and one of only six from World War II still living.

After inviting him to speak, we shot for the moon and checked to see if he was in any way eligible to join the Sons of the American Revolution himself. It required some genealogical research, but within a couple weeks, we had some leads, and eventually were able to prove his blood link to a Revolutionary War soldier named Jacob Helsley.

We met Williams in Parkersburg, West Virginia, in late November and he was speechless when we showed him his lineage. The only words from this usually jovial and outgoing man were, “Well, I’ll be…I never knew that.” Williams decided to join the organization, and when he did, he became a member of two very exclusive groups of people: Medal of Honor recipients and people with direct blood ties to the American Revolution.

Today, Williams is deeply involved in his namesake organization, which exists to further the legacy of the medal by educating about patriotism, courage, and selflessness. It also raises money to continue to promote American values through awareness, behavior, and leadership by example.

During his speech at the banquet, Williams discussed what he could recall of the events of February 1945, such as the flamethrower operators from his unit who had been killed, and the men who had covered him during his actions against the Japanese. He also talked at length about his foundation’s efforts, many of which focus on supporting the Gold Star families, and include erecting memorials in honor of the families of the fallen.

Williams’ foundation undertakes efforts across the nation to educate school kids through character development programs emphasizing service and selflessness, presenting Citizen Honors Medals to people who accomplish extraordinary acts on behalf of others, and erecting Gold Star Family memorials in honor of the families of the fallen.

It was indeed an honor to meet this humble, yet heroic man. Men like Williams serve as an example to all Americans, and there aren’t many like him left.

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