Hershel Williams Recalls Iwo Jima 76 Years On

“There are some recollections that you’d simply like to eradicate out of your thoughts – and may’t,” Hershel “Woody” Williams instructed HistoryNet. “After which there are different recollections that you just want you might convey again – and you may’t.”

On the morning of February 21, 1945 – two days after the preliminary assault started – the 21-year-old from West Virginia ran towards the prehistoric panorama of Iwo Jima.

The assault was anticipated to final solely 10 days with 30,000 Marines attacking the Japanese-held island. With poor to no intelligence on what confronted them, these males waded into withering hearth from a community of caves, tunnels, and concrete pillboxes bolstered with rebar – an intricately designed fortress that created lethal interlocking fields of fireside. The Marines referred to as it “the Meat Grinder.” With 21,000 fanatical Japanese troopers vowing to kill no less than 10 Individuals earlier than being killed themselves, Marine casualties shortly started to mount. One veteran recalled that they have been dropping so many males “we couldn’t inform if we have been profitable or dropping.”

A Marine receives a plasma transfusion whereas sheltered in a bomb crater. (USMC)


After the primary 24 hours, with the scenario dire, Admiral Raymond Spruance despatched in one other wave of 20,000 extra males – of the eventual 70,000 – to affix the battle. Inside that reserve power was Williams. 

Operating out from a Higgins boat on February 21, Williams recalled the gap from the water to the seashore appeared like eternally. Coming into a maelstrom of snapping bullets, he was shaken by the horrible sight of the our bodies of fellow Marines, stacked 5, six toes excessive. “We had no place to place our lifeless, so the burial individuals…had rolled them into their ponchos…Simply rows of them. That reminiscence will simply by no means, ever go away.”

By means of the concussive barrage and confusion of battle, Williams and the six different males from his firm within the third Marine Division, ran, crawled, and dug their manner towards the entrenched Japanese. The suffocating scent of rotting flesh, mingled with explosives and the volcanic sulfur odor of the island itself, nauseated the Marines.

By the twenty third, a “commanding officer and two different officers have been all that was left. A lot of the squad leaders have been gone,” Williams recalled. “We had one gunnery sergeant nonetheless left. Folks have been taking up jobs that they’d by no means even dreamed they’d be taking – a squad chief as a PFC. It didn’t matter what your rank was, for those who may discover someone to work with you, you labored with them.”

It was on today that Williams, having been made an performing sergeant, discovered himself in an NCO assembly – on the base of a bomb crater. The scenario was chaotic, however this a lot was clear: the Marines couldn’t advance till the encompassing pillboxes have been taken out.

Marines operate a flameflower while fighting on Iwo. (USMC)
Marines function a flameflower whereas preventing on Iwo. (USMC)


Williams was given a flamethrower and tasked to clear a path for his unit. 

He famously replied, “I’ll attempt.”

“Now if I stated that, OK,” Williams stated throughout an interview at his residence in Ona, West Virginia. “Sort of seems like possibly I did, however I don’t bear in mind saying it.”

Joined by two males from his firm and two different Marines who had linked up with them within the confusion, the five-foot, six-inch Williams, strapped on 70lbs of “hellacious fury,” and commenced slowly crawling towards his first goal. 

Williams’ Medal of Honor quotation explains his actions after that:

[Williams] fought desperately for 4 hours underneath terrific enemy small-arms hearth and repeatedly returned to his personal strains to organize demolition fees and acquire serviced flamethrowers, struggling again, continuously to the rear of hostile emplacements, to wipe out one place after one other. On one event, he daringly mounted a pillbox to insert the nozzle of his flamethrower by the air vent, killing the occupants and silencing the gun; on one other he grimly charged enemy riflemen who tried to cease him with bayonets and destroyed them with a burst of flame from his weapon. His unyielding willpower and extraordinary  heroism within the face of ruthless enemy resistance have been instantly instrumental in neutralizing probably the most fanatically defended Japanese robust factors encountered by his regiment and aided vitally in enabling his firm to achieve its goal. 

The 2 Marines who had linked up for the assault have been killed that day. A truth, Williams somberly says modifications “the entire significance of what this medal represents. It actually does.”

Hershel “Woody” Williams. (Naval Historical past and Heritage Command)

“I had males who gave their lives to guard me,” Williams recounted to writer James H. Hallas in Unusual Valor on Iwo Jima. “After I get to heaven one in all my first inquiries to God can be: ‘Why me?’”

Of the 36-day battle, Williams fought for 34. Though tapped to be evacuated on March 6 after sustaining a shrapnel wound to his leg, Williams selected to stay behind to assist educate inexperienced Marine replacements correct battle process. 

By March 26 the island was declared in U.S. arms, however on the lethal price of almost 7,000 Marines. Struggle Correspondent Robert Sherrod wrote, Basic Tadamichi “Kuribayashi by no means gave the order of the battle-ending banzai assault. His males stayed of their tunnels and their mole hills to the deathly finish, and we needed to go in and dig them out, or burn [them] out, or seal them in. There was nothing else for us to do.” 

Of the 21,000 Japanese underneath Kuribayashi’s command, solely 212 defenders have been nonetheless alive to give up – simply 1 p.c of the unique garrison.

After two and a half years of coaching and preventing within the Pacific, Williams was despatched residence. Twenty-seven Medals of Honor have been awarded for the preventing on Iwo; greater than double the 12 earned throughout Operation Overlord, the battle that started with the invasion of Normandy. 

Previous to receiving the award, Williams had by no means even heard of the MoH and located the award ceremony surreal. “They at all times learn the quotation earlier than they current the medal and people phrases have been extraordinarily overseas to me. I didn’t even know why they have been studying it.  I had completed the issues they’d stated I’d completed, but it surely felt so unusual to listen to them discuss me doing my responsibility.”

He does do not forget that his legs didn’t appear to wish to cooperate when President Harry Truman approached him. However that nerve-wracking expertise was dwarfed by assembly the commandant of the Marine Corps, Basic Alexander A. Vandegrift. 

Vandegrift, a Medal of Honor recipient himself for his actions on Guadalcanal, sternly instructed Williams “That medal doesn’t belong to you. It belongs to all of these Marines who didn’t get to return residence. And don’t ever do something that might tarnish that medal.” 

Williams has lived by these phrases. 

Marines atop Mount Suribachi. (USMC)
Marines atop Mount Suribachi. (USMC)



Self-described as shy and timid previous to the conflict, the Medal of Honor pressured Williams “to turn out to be public…whether or not [he] wished it or not.” And, in a way, it saved him.

“It was in all probability among the best therapies that I may have actually had,” Williams stated. “I couldn’t withdraw into myself. I couldn’t go off on my own and have these ideas or flashbacks.”

The transition again residence was not with out some issue, nevertheless. Within the preliminary days, Williams would typically have nightmares a couple of conflagration that was seemingly spreading on the partitions of his bed room, seeing bursts of flames, or “loopy, loopy stuff” as he put it.

By being pressured to debate Iwo Jima and its traumas, it enabled him to rationalize and consider his service. “Had I gone again to the farm, as a farm boy, with out having acquired the Medal of Honor, I do not know what would have occurred,” he stated. However he didn’t should look far to grasp how completely different his journey may need been. Williams’s brother, William Gerald Williams suffered what the Marines referred to as a crack up. The Military referred to as it fight fatigue. Now it’s understood as post-traumatic stress dysfunction.

And whereas each brothers suffered from PTSD, every had vastly completely different outcomes.

William, serving underneath Patton’s Third Military, fought within the Ardennes through the bitter Battle of the Bulge. There, he suffered two gunshot wounds –– one by the left shoulder and one by the left rib cage.

William’s poor luck didn’t cease there. Whereas using in a prepare taking him away from the entrance strains, a German pilot managed to strafe stated prepare. After this, William “shook uncontrollably and he may not string collectively a coherent sentence.”

William was positioned in a psychiatric hospital in England and wouldn’t return residence till December 1945. He was by no means the identical once more and died at age 42.

“He simply gave up. That’s all there was to it,” Williams stated of his brother’s dying. “We didn’t have any post-mortem or something like that, however the way in which the physician defined it’s his coronary heart simply give up. He didn’t have a coronary heart assault. We by no means did perceive that.”

(J.D. Simkins)
(J.D. Simkins)


Williams himself discovered solace by his group, his household, and the church. Non-religious previous to the conflict; an “unintentional Catholic” through the conflict after mistakenly placing the letter “C” within the faith class of his enlistment papers; after the conflict Williams discovered reduction from his PTSD by the Methodist Church. 

Simply 18 days after returning residence, Williams would marry his girlfriend, Ruby, on October 17, 1945. Collectively, he and Ruby would increase two daughters. 

Williams accepted a place as a veteran counselor with the Veterans Affairs and labored with males returning residence who wanted assist transitioning. He would stay with the VA for 33 years till his retirement.

On the age of 96, Williams continues to serve his nation by The Hershel “Woody” Williams Medal of Honor Basis, which, in line with the mission assertion, honors “Gold Star Households, Kinfolk and Kids by constructing Gold Star Households Memorial Monuments all through the USA, by providing scholarships to Gold Star Kids, by sponsoring outreach packages and occasions and by educating communities about Gold Star Households and the sacrifice they’ve endured.”

It’s such a high-quality line that separates what a soldier does underneath the extreme worry that such fight brings. To behave with out worry can result in silly penalties. To be frozen by it’s its personal type of give up. “Life is so valuable, I consider anyone being shot at has a worry…that the worry is there, but when worry takes over you turn out to be ineffective,” stated Williams. “You don’t rationalize for my part. You begin rationalizing then you definitely begin backing up.”

Williams walked that line and received the job completed.

And what a job it was.


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