Hershel ‘Woody’ Williams – Medal of Honor Recipient at Iwo Jima

Hershel ‘Woody’ Williams used a flamethrower on Iwo Jima to enable Allied troops to drive inland. His efforts caused him to receive the Medal of Honor.

Today is the 76th anniversary of the Allied invasion of the island of Iwo Jima in the South Pacific. Several veterans I’ve interviewed served there. One of them, Hershel ‘Woody’ Williams, is featured in my new book, We Defended Freedom: Adventures of World War II Veterans. An excerpt is included below.

It was an honor to include Woody’s story in my book. His is the first Medal of Honor story I’ve had the privilege of writing.

As this battle extended through March 26, 1945, I’ll include other stories in the following weeks.

Thank a veteran for his/ her service!


Marines of the 5th Division inch their way up a slope on Red Beach No. 1 toward Suribachi Yama as the smoke of the battle drifts about them. February 19, 1945. National Archives

Smoke curled from a small opening at the top of the underground bunker. Corporal Hershel ‘Woody’ Williams crawled toward the pillbox, trying not to cough as black volcanic ash coated his tongue and burned his eyes. A long ago eruption on the island of Iwo Jima had created the noxious element covering the island’s surface.

Upon landing at Iwo Jima, Williams and the other Marines of the 1st Battalion, 21st Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division had discovered Japanese forces living in underground reinforced concrete bunkers. The hole he spied was a vent, probably for cooking. Williams judged it the right size for his flamethrower’s nozzle.

The goal of the Marines’ invasion at Iwo Jima was to force the Japanese from the island, primarily to gain use of the airfield. Allied B-29s needed a place to refuel in the South Pacific before proceeding 600 miles to bombing missions in Japan.

Marines of the 4th Division shell Japanese positions cleverly concealed back from the black sandy beaches. National Archives

The plan had been simple — the Marines would charge up the center, pushing the enemy to the right and left. But moving through the black ash covering the island measuring two miles wide and five miles long had proved surprisingly difficult, like running on BB pellets. Due to Allied bombing of the island in days leading up to the invasion, the surface looked like the moon with only shell craters for protection.

Still, Williams and the other Marines refused to give up. Upon hearing about the thousands of American sailors killed at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, many had volunteered to join the Marines, ready to fight to preserve their country’s freedoms.

The goal of removing the enemy became personal to Williams when his division of 278 marines hit the beaches of Iwo Jima on February 20, 1944. By March 6, only 17 men from Williams’ company remained. All of the officers had been killed or wounded.

Williams’ duties were to keep a demolition man and flamethrower supplied with ammo. Like every other Marine, he had been trained to accept any job asked of him. Although not adept at using a flamethrower, when his commanding officer asked if he could use the weapon to knock out the remaining pillboxes, Williams agreed to try.

His slight body shook as other Marines attached the 70 pound weapon to his back. In his hometown of Quiet Dell, West Virginia, Williams had been taught to believe in God, patriotism and honoring one’s country. He didn’t like killing.

Still, he knew the ferocity of the weapon on his back was necessary to vanquish the Japanese. The flamethrower consisted of two fuel tanks that used a high octane gas and diesel fuel mix to give heat and bonding. Combined with a compressed air tank, the weapon when fired produced a rolling golden flame that spewed at targets. The deadly flame burned oxy from the air, forcing human lungs to collapse.

The raising of the American flag on Iwo Jima by photographer Joe Rosenthal, Associated Press, on February 23, 1945, cheered troops for the battle that would extend through March 26, 1945.

Williams knew the armament was dangerous to the shooter, especially in a head wind. Upon firing, the shooter’s location became known. It was reassuring to know two Marines carrying BAR (Browning Automatic Rifles) and two regular riflemen would be assigned to him for protection.

Williams took care of the enemy via the pillbox’s vent before lowering himself to a trench between two other pillboxes. He froze when an enemy soldier fired, bullets ricocheting off of the flamethrower like bullets in an Old West film.

Williams fired at the shooter and his pillbox, eliminating the threat. His presence in the enemy’s lair was known. Turning, he saw five Japanese soldiers with fixed bayonets charging at him.

More scared than he had been in his life, Williams relied on training from boot camp, firing at the group until they collapsed.

By the end of four hours, using six flamethrowers, Williams took out seven pillboxes, enabling the Marines to advance.

For his valiant devotion to duty and service above self Woody Williams was awarded the Medal of Honor.

The Medal of Honor is the highest award for bravery that can be given to any individual in the United States. The deed must be proved by at least two eyewitnesses and must distinguish the recipient’s gallantry beyond the call of duty while involving the risk of life.

President Harry S. Truman presented the prestigious medal to Williams on the White House lawn on October 3, 1945. Woody is the last living Medal of Honor recipient from WWII. Many thanks to him and his family, including Brent Casey, for allowing me to include his story in my book.

Woody and others are working to establish a Gold Star Families Memorial Monument in each state. To find out more go to http://hwwmohf.org.

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