To Hell and Back At the Battle of Iwo Jima

Herschel Woodrow “Woody” Williams (Illustration by Randy Glass Studio)

Hershel Woodrow “Woody” Williams went via hell and lived to speak about it. As a corporal within the U.S. Marine Corps he carried a flamethrower and fought bravely sufficient to obtain the Medal of Honor. Williams, 97, is the final dwelling World Warfare II recipient of that distinguished award. He acquired it for actions on Feb. 23, 1945, through the Battle of Iwo Jima, when he took out a number of Japanese pillboxes amid the fierce preventing to earn the nation’s highest honor for valor in fight. At coronary heart Williams stays a easy farm boy from West Virginia, the place he was born and nonetheless lives. In 2010 he established the Hershel Woody Williams Medal of Honor Basis to help Gold Star households and the legacy of their family members who made the last word sacrifice.

What does it take to endure fight?

Making an attempt to elucidate fight is like attempting to elucidate what it’s like having a child. In the event you’ve by no means been via it, it’s exhausting to know. Though I can clarify fight, I’m not likely certain somebody who has by no means been via it may actually perceive the concern and nervousness and doubts you might have.

I might by no means permit myself to suppose—even for a second—that I wasn’t going to make it. I might suppose, I’m going to get via this. I’m going to get again residence to my woman. I believe that gave me braveness I might not have had in any other case. I bear in mind listening to about people who would say, “I’m by no means going to get off this island.” You don’t take the precautions it’s best to if you happen to suppose you’re not going to make it.

The flamethrower Williams wielded on Iwo Jima was the M2-2 variant. (U.S. Marine Corps Historical past Division)

What was it prefer to wield a flamethrower?

Effectively, in January 1944 none of us had ever heard of it or seen it. We didn’t know what it was or tips on how to use it. We did quite a lot of practising and altering as a result of we’d do one thing that didn’t work. One time I fired it however the wind was blowing strongly towards me. Who obtained the flame? I did! We needed to study the exhausting method, however they have been good classes. I misplaced my eyebrows on various events. You’d suppose a man would get smarter after the primary time.

We used 82-octane gasoline in that factor, the identical as we utilized in our jeeps and vehicles. That they had a phosphorus powder you’d combine with gasoline, and it could flip into gel. It will persist with you want glue and simply stored on burning. In the event you tried to brush it off, all you probably did was unfold the burn. It was horrible stuff. You could possibly get possibly 20 yards out of it. You couldn’t purpose the dumb factor since you have been firing from the waist. And also you solely had 72 seconds of gas. I used to be 21 years outdated and weighed 150 kilos, and it weighed 70 kilos.

‘I noticed blue smoke popping out of the highest of the pillbox. I crawled on prime of it, and there was a pipe. They have been cooking. I caught the flamethrower down the pipe and stuffed the pillbox with flame’

As Williams approached the Japanese pillboxes, bullets ricocheted off the tank of his flamethrower. (U.S. Marine Corps Historical past Division)

What occurred within the motion for which you acquired the Medal of Honor?

There have been a few pillboxes, I bear in mind. How I eradicated the enemy on the others, I do not know. I bear in mind one the place I used to be attempting to crawl up shut and get flame within the pillbox. They have been made out of concrete and metal bars. Bazooka or artillery wouldn’t have an effect on them.

I used to be crawling up this little pitch, and so they have been capturing at me with a machine gun. The bullets have been ricocheting off my flamethrower. I moved to the precise so that they couldn’t shoot at me. I noticed blue smoke popping out of the highest of the pillbox. I crawled on prime of it, and there was a pipe. They have been cooking. I caught the flamethrower down the pipe and stuffed the pillbox with flame.

The following one, I used to be getting near the pillbox, and so they got here charging out towards me. What number of Japanese, I don’t know. I bear in mind seeing them with their weapons. That they had rifles of their fingers with bayonets. I simply pointed the flamethrower at them and opened up. A giant ball of flame got here out. What occurred on the different pillboxes, I simply don’t bear in mind.

That was the day the flag went up on Mount Suribachi. I didn’t see the primary one, however I did see the second. The Marines round me have been yelling and screaming, so I turned to see what they have been taking a look at, and I noticed the flag. That’s one thing you don’t neglect!

What different episodes out of your time in service stand out?

Vernon Waters was my assistant. He and I agreed that if one thing occurred to the opposite, we’d get the ring from his hand and provides it to the household. Again in my day you didn’t should have a notarized assertion to comprehend your accountability. In the event you shook fingers on one thing and made a promise, then you definitely’d higher dwell as much as it.

He and I shook fingers that we’d get the ring again to my girlfriend or his dad. After I noticed Vernon get hit, I ran to him to see if he was nonetheless alive. After I noticed him stretched out on the bottom, I knew he was useless, and that settlement got here again to me. Though it was towards rules, I needed to get that ring off him. After I took it off, I noticed how white his finger was underneath it, so I rubbed some ash on it to darken the pores and skin.

What’s an important lesson from battle you’ll be able to share?

Being within the Marines was a dedication. That’s what stored you going. You dedicated your self to do no matter you bought to do, and also you’re going to dwell as much as that. That was instilled in us. After we have been instructed to do one thing, we have been solely instructed one time. I can bear in mind my dad saying, “I’m going to let you know this, and I’m solely going to let you know one time.” He didn’t wish to repeat himself. That helped me after I obtained besides camp. After I was instructed to do one thing, I had no questions. I used to be going to do it or do the very best I may. Identical factor in fight. You make that dedication you’ll do no matter it takes, whatever the state of affairs.

‘With a flamethrower you’re killing individuals up shut, so that you get that odor. That definitely gave me matches, till I lastly discovered the Lord and sought forgiveness for having to kill individuals’

Describe your postwar battle with post-traumatic stress dysfunction.

Effectively, I obtained residence in ’45, and I had the demons. If I didn’t maintain myself occupied doing one thing, there could be issues going via my thoughts. Top-of-the-line therapies I ever had was receiving the Medal of Honor. I took on a brand new life I by no means anticipated to dwell. I used to be raised on a farm very shy, timid. After I acquired the Medal of Honor, I used to be pressured to elucidate how I obtained it. I needed to speak about it. I couldn’t say, “That’s none of your online business.” After I obtained the quotation, I spotted different Marines had witnessed what I had achieved and made it doable for me to obtain the medal. I felt an obligation to them.

There isn’t a odor on earth like burned flesh. That’s the factor that bugged me for years. I used to be taught rising up the worth of life. With a flamethrower you’re killing individuals up shut, so that you get that odor. That definitely gave me matches, till I lastly discovered the Lord and sought forgiveness for having to kill individuals. That’s after I lastly discovered peace like I by no means had earlier than.

Did you particularly select a profession in Veterans Affairs to present again?

After I obtained residence in ’45, there was no VA. We didn’t even realize it existed again then. In December I obtained this name from a man I by no means heard inform of who requested me if I wished to work for the VA. I didn’t know what he was speaking about, so I turned it down. A few weeks later I obtained a cellphone name from another man asking me if I wished the job. This time I requested, “What does it pay?” It was good cash, so I mentioned I might take it. I had by no means seen a lot cash.

How does it really feel to be the final MOH recipient of World Warfare II?

All these years I stored asking the identical query: Why me? I nonetheless haven’t discovered the reply. I suppose the Lord goes to have to inform me. Why was I chosen because the particular person to obtain the Medal of Honor? Why not the person who sacrificed his life? Why me? That query retains going via my thoughts. I’ll be 98 in October. I’ve outlived everybody in my household. There have been 464 Medal of Honor recipients in World Warfare II. Why am I the final one? I don’t have a solution.

Do you are feeling a kinship with different MOH recipients?

There’s a fellowship and a bond that doesn’t exist in another group. Nearly each one, if you happen to ask them about their medal, will say it belongs to any person else. They didn’t do it for themselves—they did for any person else.

To whom does your Medal of Honor belong?

I put on it in honor of two Marines who by no means obtained to return residence. They offered cowl for me whereas I went after the pillboxes however have been killed within the preventing. For a few years I by no means knew who they have been. Due to computer systems, a pair Marines have been in a position to study the names of the 2 who died that afternoon: Cpl. Warren Bornholz and Pfc. Charles Fischer. I’ve mentioned many occasions, I put on the medal of their honor. MH

This text appeared within the September 2021 problem of Army Historical past. For extra tales subscribe right here and go to us on Fb.


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