Woody Williams: To Hell and Back At the Battle of Iwo Jima


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

Hershel Woodrow “Woody” Williams went by way of 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 residing World Battle II recipient of that distinguished award. He acquired it for actions on Feb. 23, 1945, in the course of 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 assist Gold Star households and the legacy of their family members who made the final word sacrifice.

What does it take to endure fight?
Making an attempt to clarify fight is like making an attempt to clarify what it’s like having a child. In case you’ve by no means been by way of it, it’s onerous to grasp. Although I can clarify fight, I’m not likely positive somebody who has by no means been by way of it might actually perceive the worry and nervousness and doubts you’ve got.

I’d by no means permit myself to assume—even for a second—that I wasn’t going to make it. I’d assume, I’m going to get by way of this. I’m going to get again house to my lady. I feel that gave me braveness I’d 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 you need to should you assume 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 wish 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 the way to use it. We did a variety of working towards 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 bought the flame? I did! We needed to be taught the onerous method, however they have been good classes. I misplaced my eyebrows on quite a few events. You’d assume 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. They’d a phosphorus powder you’d combine with gasoline, and it might flip into gel. It could follow you want glue and simply saved on burning. In case you tried to brush it off, all you probably did was unfold the burn. It was horrible stuff. You may get possibly 20 yards out of it. You couldn’t intention the dumb factor since you have been firing from the waist. And also you solely had 72 seconds of gasoline. I used to be 21 years previous 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 making an attempt 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, they usually have been capturing at me with a machine gun. The bullets have been ricocheting off my flamethrower. I moved to the appropriate in order 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, they usually got here charging out towards me. What number of Japanese, I don’t know. I bear in mind seeing them with their weapons. They’d rifles of their palms with bayonets. I simply pointed the flamethrower at them and opened up. An enormous 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 , and I noticed the flag. That’s one thing you don’t overlook!

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 need to have a notarized assertion to comprehend your accountability. In case you shook palms on one thing and made a promise, then you definately’d higher stay as much as it.

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

What’s a very powerful lesson from battle you may share?
Being within the Marines was a dedication. That’s what saved you going. You dedicated your self to do no matter you bought to do, and also you’re going to stay as much as that. That was instilled in us. After we have been advised to do one thing, we have been solely advised 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 need to repeat himself. That helped me once I bought besides camp. Once I was advised to do one thing, I had no questions. I used to be going to do it or do the most effective I might. Similar factor in fight. You make that dedication you’re going to do no matter it takes, whatever the scenario.

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

Describe your postwar wrestle with post-traumatic stress dysfunction.
Effectively, I bought house in ’45, and I had the demons. If I didn’t preserve myself occupied doing one thing, there can be issues going by way of 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 stay. I used to be raised on a farm very shy, timid. After I acquired the Medal of Honor, I used to be pressured to clarify how I bought it. I needed to speak about it. I couldn’t say, “That’s none of your enterprise.” Once I bought the quotation, I noticed different Marines had witnessed what I had carried out and made it doable for me to obtain the medal. I felt an obligation to them.

There isn’t any 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 might be killing folks up shut, so that you get that odor. That definitely gave me suits, till I lastly discovered the Lord and sought forgiveness for having to kill folks. That’s once I lastly discovered peace like I by no means had earlier than.

Did you particularly select a profession in Veterans Affairs to offer again?
Once I bought house in ’45, there was no VA. We didn’t even realize it existed again then. In December I bought 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 bought 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’d take it. I had by no means seen a lot cash.

How does it really feel to be the final MOH recipient of World Battle II?
All these years I saved asking the identical query: Why me? I nonetheless haven’t discovered the reply. I assume the Lord goes to have to inform me. Why was I chosen because the individual to obtain the Medal of Honor? Why not the person who sacrificed his life? Why me? That query retains going by way of 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 Battle 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 every other group. Nearly each one, should you ask them about their medal, will say it belongs to any individual else. They didn’t do it for themselves—they did for any individual else.

To whom does your Medal of Honor belong?
I put on it in honor of two Marines who by no means bought to come back house. 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 be taught the names of the 2 who died that afternoon: Cpl. Warren Bornholz and Pfc. Charles Fischer. I’ve mentioned many instances, I put on the medal of their honor. MH

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

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