Hershel "Woody" Williams

Hershel “Woody” Williams

On October 2, 1923, Hershel Woodrow Williams was born on a dairy farm in Quiet Dell, West Virginia. The youngest of 11 children, he was only 3 ½ pounds at birth and was not expected to live long. Although physically a small man throughout his life, “Woody”, as he became known, defied the odds and survived not only into adulthood but until very recently when he died at the age of 98 years old.

In December 1941, when the Empire of Japan attacked the US Naval Base at Pearl Harbor, Williams was working in Montana as a member of the Civilian Conservation Corps. Upon his contract’s expiration and his return home, Williams decided to enlist in the United States Marine Corps. Williams was drawn to the Marines by their dress blue uniforms he had seen around his community. He disliked the Army’s brown wool uniform, which he considered “…the ugliest thing in town…I decided I did not want to be in that thing. I want to be in those dress blues.”

Standing 5’6” when he enlisted in March 1942, he was rejected from service for being too short but was finally accepted into the Marines in May 1943 when the height requirement was changed. Williams attended recruit training at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego, and upon completion, he was assigned to the tank training battalion at Camp Elliott. However, after only a month, he was transferred to the infantry training battalion and received demolitions and flamethrower training. Williams was assigned to the 32nd Replacement Battalion on October 30, 1943 and left for New Caledonia in the southwest Pacific on December 3. In January 1944, he joined Company C, 1st Battalion, 21st Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division at Guadalcanal. In July and August 1944, he was attached to Headquarters Company and participated in action against the Japanese during the Battle of Guam. In October, he rejoined Company C.

Williams posing with the flamethrower on which he was trained.

On February 21, 1945, Williams landed on Iwo Jima with 1st Battalion, 21st Marines. Two days later, he distinguished himself when American tanks, trying to open a lane for infantry, encountered a network of reinforced concrete pillboxes. Pinned down by heavy machine-gun fire, Williams volunteered to go forward and attempt to silence the bunkers. As they pushed forward, all of the volunteers, except Williams, became casualties. Undeterred, Williams continued to press forward and knock out the pillboxes one by one, returning to his company area not once, not twice, but five times to retrieve more demolitions and fuel for his torch. These actions occurred on the same day that two flags were raised on Mount Suribachi, and Williams, about one thousand yards away from the volcano, was able to witness the event. He fought through the remainder of the five-week-long battle even though he was wounded on March 6 in the leg by fragmentation, for which he was awarded the Purple Heart. In September 1945, he returned to the United States, and on October 1, he joined Marine Corps Headquarters in Washington, D.C. He and thirteen other servicemen were presented the Medal of Honor by President Harry S. Truman on October 5, 1945, at the White House.

From his Medal of Honor citation:

“Corporal Williams daringly went forward alone to attempt the reduction of devastating machine-gun fire from the unyielding positions. Covered only by four riflemen, he fought desperately for four hours under terrific enemy small-arms fire and repeatedly returned to his own lines to prepare demolition charges and obtain serviced flame throwers, struggling back, frequently to the rear of hostile emplacements, to wipe out one position after another. On one occasion he daringly mounted a pillbox to insert the nozzle of his flame thrower through the air vent, kill the occupants and silence the gun; on another he grimly charged enemy riflemen who attempted to stop him with bayonets and destroyed them with a burst of flame from his weapon.”

After a series of transfers in late 1945, Williams was honorably discharged from the USMC on November 6, 1945, although he would later re-enlist in the Marine Corps Reserve and serve in various command positions as a warrant officer until his retirement as a Chief Warrant Officer 4 in 1969 after approximately 17 years of service.

President Truman awarding Williams the Medal of Honor.

After the war, Williams continued to serve with Veterans Affairs. Struggling himself with the effects of combat stress for years after the war, he had a religious awakening in 1962 and served as chaplain of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society for 35 years. Williams remained active in his community for the rest of his life and became a hero among West Virginians. In fact, I met Mr. Williams in 2018 at the West Virginia Boys State Summer Camp, where he addressed all of the young men in a speech. I distinctly remember his bright red VFW cap and jacket, and the respect he garnered from the audience. I am proud to have met such a hero.

Woody Williams in his iconic red VFW uniform.

On Wednesday, June 29, 2022, Woody Williams passed away at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center of his namesake in Huntington, WV at the age of 98. He was the last surviving Medal of Honor recipient of World War 2. Rest in Peace to another hero of the Greatest Generation.

Written by Sgt. Tilley
Edited by Sgt. J. Lee