On Friday, March 25, our nation celebrated National Medal of Honor Day. This date was established by Congress in 1990 to “foster public appreciation and recognition of Medal of Honor recipients.”
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.
The Congressional Medal of Honor Society honors the 66 living Medal of Honor (MOH) recipients from the 3,511 who have received the Medal since the Civil War.
In 1999, my family attended the dedication of the National Medal of Honor Memorial in downtown Indianapolis.
It is an impressive display with glass panels that list MOH recipients by war period or battle. An interactive video screen lists the citations issued that describe the act of valor shown by each recipient.
Indiana has a Vietnam War MOH recipient – Sammy Davis, pictured above. I’ve heard Mr. Davis speak at his experiences. One thing I remember is that he admitted he still had PTSD and acknowledged that he would probably have it for the rest of his life. I follow him on Facebook – he is a true patriot for his country.
It was a privilege to include a story about a MOH recipient in Book 4 of my World War II Legacies series, We Defended Freedom: Adventures of WWII Veterans — Hershel ‘Woody’ Williams is the last living World War II MOH recipient. He received his MOH as a result of his actions at Iwo Jima in February 1945.
Below is an excerpt of his story from my book.
On Tuesday, March 29th, we honor a different set of the military with Vietnam War Veterans Day.
My husband is a Vietnam War-era veteran – he served in the Air Force stateside during the war. He is a member of the local Vietnam Veterans of America group and receives their national magazine.
We recently visited the Veterans National Memorial Shrine & Museum in Fort Wayne Indiana.
In recent years, it has undergone extensive renovation and improvements. One of the most exciting is a replica of the Vietnam War wall.
It is very moving to walk along and see all of the names of people who died as a result of the war.
We know of a local man who was killed from a plane crash and found his name.
I’ve interviewed several Vietnam War veterans & am planning a book on their stories for later this year.
Thanks to all of our veterans for their service. And Welcome Home.
Now for Woody’s excerpt:
Smoke curled from a small opening at the top of the pillbox. Corporal Hershel ‘Woody’ Williams crawled toward the underground bunker, 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 on February 20, 1944, , 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 Williams spied was a vent, probably for cooking. He 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.
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.
Williams’ company had 278 marines. By March 6, only 17 men from his division remained. All of the officers had been killed or wounded.
Still, Williams and the other Marines refused to give up.
Although not adept at using a flamethrower, when his commanding officer asked Williams if he could use the weapon to knock out the remaining pillboxes, Williams agreed to try, though he knew the ferocity of the weapon on his back could kill him.
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 also burned oxygen from the air, forcing human lungs to collapse.
The armament was dangerous to the shooter, especially in a head wind as the flame could roll back. And, upon firing, the shooter’s location became known.
Williams used the weapon in the pillbox’s vent before lowering himself to a trench between two other pillboxes.
An enemy soldier stood feet away, gun in hand. When he fired at Williams, bullets ricocheted off of the flamethrower like bullets in an Old West film.
Williams aimed his weapon and fired, eliminating the threat.
Now that his presence in the enemy’s lair was known, he turned to see five Japanese soldiers with fixed bayonets charging at him.
More scared than he had been in his life, Williams, relying on training from boot camp, kept the flamethrower at the group until they collapsed.
After four hours, Williams had used six flamethrowers to take out seven pillboxes. The Marines advanced and secured their positions.
On October 3, 1945, Woody Williams was awarded the Medal of Honor for his valiant devotion to duty and service above self.
President Harry S. Truman presented the prestigious medal to Williams on the White House lawn.
In 2013 with the help of family and friends, the Hershel ‘Woody’ Williams Medal of Honor Foundation established the first Gold Star Families Memorial Monument.
“It is a way to honor the sacrifices made by families who gave their sons or daughters lost in the armed forces of the United States for our freedom,” said Williams. His goal is to construct one monument in each state.
“I’m not a hero,” said Williams. “I was just doing a job. The hero is the guy who gave his life. He can’t do any more than that.”