Hershel “Woody” Williams fought on Guam and Iwo Jima during World War II. On Iwo Jima, his actions during a single day of battle earned him the Medal of Honor, and today he is the last living Marine Corps recipient of the Medal of Honor during World War II. Today, Williams leads the Hershel Woody Williams Medal of Honor Foundation, which works to recognize and honor the sacrifices of Gold Star families – those who have lost a loved one in war. The foundation works to build monuments recognizing Gold Star families, conducts outreach to inform the general public of their sacrifices, and also awards educational scholarships to Gold Star family members.
Uncommon Valor: So, when and how did you join the Marine Corps?
Hershel “Woody” Williams: I tried to get into the Marine Corps in 1942. I didn’t know anything about war. I didn’t think that I would even leave the United States. I thought I was going to join the Marine Corps to protect my country and keep it from being taken over by people I had never heard of. But when I went to the recruiter and tried to enlist, they turned me down because I was too short. I didn’t meet the height requirement that they had at that time of 5’8”. The recruiter wouldn’t accept my application for enlistment, so I went back to the farm. My father died when I was 11 and my mother was still running it. But in early 1943, they lowered the height requirement, and the recruiter came and looked me up and asked me if I still wanted to go to the Marine Corps. And I said certainly. So, I was able then to enlist. I actually enlisted in February 1943, but they couldn’t take all of us who wanted to get in. In May of ’43, they finally took five of us from our hometown and sent us to California for bootcamp.
After bootcamp, I went through infantry training at Camp Pendleton in a replacement unit. They were training us to go overseas to replace those that had been wounded and killed. I took additional training at Camp Pendleton and then shipped overseas and finally joined the 3rd Marine Division on Guadalcanal.
So, you went through infantry training. At some point you also went through specialist training for demolitions, correct?
That happened in January 1944. I got overseas in December of ’43 on Guadalcanal. And then in January ’44, they came out with the flamethrower. None of us had ever heard tell of it and never seen it, of course. And we began training to be flamethrower operators. And at the same time, they were training us to be demolition people because we had to know both facets of it. If we burned out a pillbox or a cave or put flame in them, then we would use an explosive to seal the cave or to put in the pillbox to make sure that nobody survived. So, they trained us both ways. We could do either one.
When did you actually land on Iwo Jima?
They tried to get us in on the second day. The other two divisions hit the beach on the 19th of February. They tried to get us in on the 20th of February. We were loaded aboard Higgins boats and went out to a rendezvous area preparing to go ashore in waves like they did with every island. But the Marines ashore couldn’t get enough room [in the beachhead] to permit us to come in. So, we rode Higgins boats all day, and then they sent us back to the ship that night. We got off the next morning, which would have been the 21st of February, and that day we got in just a little before noon.
Did you have any idea of what the conditions and casualties had been like on the island before you landed?
No, we had no information whatsoever. None of that stuff was broadcast because that might be useful to the enemy. So none of that was ever fed down to the troops at all.
A lot of Americans’ conception of the Pacific campaign is jungles and white sand beaches – that sort of thing. I don’t think they necessarily understand what the conditions were like on Iwo Jima and I wonder if you could describe them.
Yeah, absolutely. The general in charge of the defense of Iwo Jima [Lt. Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi] sort of reversed the defense trend on other islands. [For] the other islands that we and others had landed on, the defense mechanism was to try to kill [the Americans] in the water. If they couldn’t get ashore, then they certainly couldn’t capture the island. But Kuribayashi reversed that to say, “No, let them come in, because the island was only two and a half miles wide, five miles long, and they are going to land 40,000 Marines at the same time on one day.” He knew all of that information before we ever got there. So he had erected, according to the records that I have from somebody else’s account, 800 different-size pillboxes or concealments, some of them that were barrels just buried in the ground – you know, they had one man in them. And others were huge pillboxes made out of reinforced concrete cement with bars in it, iron bars through it. You couldn’t blow the thing up because it was so well reinforced. So he let all of the Marines get ashore, and then that’s when he started with mortars and machine guns and artillery, because they couldn’t get off the beach. They couldn’t get back off the island and he had them pinned on the beach to where they couldn’t go anywhere. So that’s why we lost so very many in the first few days of the campaign.
He pretty much had every inch of that island zeroed in with one weapon or another.
Exactly right, exactly right. And digging holes on the beach was impossible because the soil or the sand – they call it black sand – from the volcano over the centuries was deep. If you tried to dig a hole, it was like digging in BBs or corn. You just couldn’t get any solid walls on it, so they just kept falling in. So most [Marines] were lying on top of the ground and no place to go. And there was just no organization, no formation. You just couldn’t miss.
Could you tell us a little bit about the actions for which you received the Medal of Honor?
Yes. When we got there, the 4th Marine Division had been able to move out off of the beach and began attacking Mount Suribachi. They had been able to do that. And that’s where we got our space to come in. Our job was to go across the airfield and be the point heading to the northern part of the island. And when we got across the airfield, [the Japanese] had set up a great number of reinforced concrete pillboxes to protect the airfield. And we attempted to penetrate those. And of course, they were inside a protected area. We were outside trying to advance toward them. And of course, you have to get up and move and run and walk and all that sort of thing. So we lost a tremendous number of Marines attempting to reach the pillboxes the first day and then the second day.
On the 23rd, which was the day that the flag went up on Mt. Suribachi, my commanding officer – his name was Donald Beck – called for a meeting because he had lost almost all of his officers except two. Most of the squad leaders and platoon leaders were already gone. We were so disorganized. We had no more organization. We were just this group. And he called for a meeting of the NCOs [noncommissioned officers]. I was a corporal at the time, not considered an NCO, but I was told by my first sergeant that I was to go to that meeting. I had six Marines in my little specialty unit when we hit the beach. They were flamethrower/demolition operators, and they were assigned to the companies – A, B, and C Company – and they had been involved in this advance trying to move forward, and they were gone. I never did know whether they were killed or wounded. That information was never furnished to me. But by the time the commanding officer called for the meeting of his NCOs – those that were left – that’s when he asked me if I thought I could do anything with the flamethrower against some of the pillboxes that we were trying to advance toward. I was qualified, personally, because I had trained the others. I have no idea of my response. Some of the Marines when we got back to Guam … had said that my response was “I will try.” So, he told me to pick out four Marines to help me, to give me protection, and to go to work. That’s what my job was. So, I put on the flamethrower and started working.
You said that when you first tried to go into the Marine Corps, you didn’t meet the height requirement, which at the time was 5’8”. An M2 flamethrower weighs something like 70 pounds. Did you have to move through that volcanic sand carrying 70 pounds and trying to advance on bunkers?
No. Fortunately, once we crossed the airfield, the ground became more solid. We didn’t have all of that deep sand past the airfield. So, it was more solid ground – though the flamethrower did weigh 70 pounds. But we could dig holes – foxholes – once we got past the airfield. The ground was still exceedingly hot. We’d dig a foxhole for two people. Of course, you always had two people in a hole. One slept an hour and then he would wake the other guy and he’d sleep an hour. So we would rotate that all night long. And if you laid on the ground too long without any protection on the ground, something to sleep on, the heat was so intense that it would make you sick. I woke up vomiting a couple of nights. And I learned that you had to have a poncho or cardboard, or whatever we could find we would put on the ground first to lay on so that that heat wouldn’t penetrate our bodies.
It was that hot even at night?
Yes, we would bury our C-rations. We were getting C-rations, and of course, they are in tin cans. And we could dig down about 10, 12 inches and bury that in the sand. We’d have a hot chow when we got ready to eat it.
That’s amazing, and not in a good way. So, as you advanced on these bunkers, how did it work? You had the two-man teams on either side of you, and they would deliver covering fire to try to keep them down inside the bunker as you would advance?
Yeah, the four Marines that he told me to take with me, I divided them. I put two on my right side and two on my left side, if that makes sense. So, I put them in a position where, when I was approaching a pillbox – we called them pillboxes instead of bunkers – but when I approached a pillbox, they could see me operating, and their job was to shoot at the aperture. It had an opening in the front of the pillbox that the Japanese shot out of, [and they would] shoot at that aperture to try to keep the Japanese from being able to shoot at me. The first pillbox, I took what we called in those days a pole charge man. We had put together a 2 by 2 piece of wood about 8 feet long with a 12-inch board nailed to the one end of it that we would strap on explosives. And it was just called a pole charge because it was on a piece of wood. And the pole charge man’s job was, once we put flame in a cave or in a pillbox, to run in and put that explosive in the hole or in the pillbox and set it off to make sure that everybody in there is dead. I took one guy with me, but he got wounded before we ever got started on the thing. So, I didn’t have anybody to help me from that point on. I was just by myself. But the four Marines that I had selected, two of those – and I didn’t know this until long after we got back to Guam – two of them had been killed protecting me. I never did know who they were until about a year and a half ago. A group of people did some searching of records and came to the conclusion and identified two individuals who were killed that afternoon in the location where we were working. So, we assume it was the two Marines that were protecting me because at that particular time in that particular location, only two Marines were killed that afternoon.
So, you went after the first pillbox and neutralized that one. The flamethrowers didn’t hold a large amount of fuel. Did you destroy one and then have to go back and get a fresh flamethrower or get refueled?
Well, the flamethrower had four and a half gallons of flammable fuel in it. And we learned, we were trained, not to waste what we had. So, we would shoot it in 2-, 3-, 5-second bursts, depending on what we were trying to do. So, we would shoot it not in the air but on the ground, and roll a great big ball of flame into a cave or into a pillbox. The flamethrower, if you opened it up and just let it go, would last 72 seconds. And then all of its fuel is gone. So, I would use one and then unbuckle it, roll out of it, leave it, and go get another one. We had serviced a great number of those before we ever left with a campaign. They were in our company headquarters. And I each time would have to go back and get one, and I used six that day. Much of that day and how I got them and when I got them I have no memory of.
How far back would you have to go off the line to reach the company headquarters and get a new flamethrower?
That’s one of the things that my memory will not return. They tell me that’s pretty natural. I’ve talked to psychologists on why can’t I remember. I know I went and got them because nobody brought them out to me. I know that. So, I had to get them. But why can’t I remember going to get them? I know that I have no memory of that at all.
Were you under fire when you had to roll out of the flamethrower and go back to retrieve another one?
Yes, they were still shooting. You crawled more than you walked, I guarantee you.
You ended up expending six flamethrowers. So this wasn’t a short action. This went on for awhile?
Four hours, they tell me.
Four hours carrying 70-pound flamethrowers. How tired were you at the end of the day?
Well, you were always, I think, always exhausted, because you’re using up every bit of energy you’ve got. And you could sleep on nails. I’ve seen people standing on their feet sleeping because you just get to that point in time where you have got to – have to – sleep. You don’t remember, because your adrenaline is running so high; and you make no effort to remember, and you don’t think you want to remember. So you just don’t.
How many pillboxes did you end up taking out that day?
I took out seven.
Why do you think that Iwo Jima is so important to the Marine Corps?
I’ve said many, many times it wasn’t the Marines that made Iwo Jima the icon that it is, because we actually suffered more casualties at Okinawa than we did at Iwo Jima. But it was Old Glory, Old Glory being placed on Mt. Suribachi and on enemy territory for the very first time in World War II. All the other islands that we had taken belonged to some other country, but this one was homeland of Japan. And that gave it a significance that no other island had ever had. The image of that flag being placed, printed on the front page of practically every newspaper in the country when it happened – that really was what made Iwo Jima the icon that it is.
Could you tell us a little bit about the Hershel Woody Williams Medal of Honor Foundation and what it does?
Yes. For years and years, we identified and paid tribute, and some communities put up some form of a roll or a monumental recognition to honor Gold Star mothers. But we had never done anything for anybody else in a family. It was only Gold Stars for our mothers. We all know that our mothers – we’re closer to them than to our dad, generally. But that was what we talked about. I finally had a very vivid experience, where a dad told me that he had lost his son in Afghanistan, and he was the only survivor. The mother was already deceased, and he got the knock on the door. He was alone and had no other relatives to talk with, and the neighbors where they lived – nobody understood what had happened or how it had happened and that sort of thing. And he told me, “Dads cry too.”
That opened my eyes – why did we forget Dad and all the other family members that are related to that individual? Because everybody grieves when you lose a loved one that you’re related to. It doesn’t make any difference what that relationship is. So that got us started, saying we needed something in our state of West Virginia to honor the families of those 11,434 names we have on a veterans memorial on our Capitol grounds. I don’t understand why somebody along the way didn’t say, “Hey, look at these families. They are giving more than anybody else and certainly more than us.” So, we needed some way to honor those families.
I decided we needed a Gold Star family memorial to honor all of those who grieve when their loved one is lost. We didn’t expect it to go anywhere except in our own state. But other states and other people in other communities heard about it and it started the ball rolling. The second one was done at Valley Forge, and the third one down at Tampa, Florida. And then it continued to gain momentum. Two days ago, we dedicated the 50th one in the country, and 42 states now have something. West Virginia – we’ve already got six of them, and we’re doing No. 7 in just a few weeks. And in October, we will do No. 8, which will be on our Capitol grounds, on the grounds of our Capitol where we have this veterans memorial with all those names on it. It will be bigger and better than anybody else’s in the country because it started in West Virginia. And our legislators felt that we ought to have something a little outstanding because we were the beginning of the notion.