The first time Hershel “Woody” Williams heard of the Congressional Medal of Honor was when the corporal with the 21st Marine Regiment heard he was being sent back to the States to receive it.
In fact, being sent home early was more important to him at the time than being awarded the highest honor the US government can give.
As he recalls the story, Williams was called to his division general’s tent in September of 1945 after the end of World War II.
He was told that he was being sent home in order to receive the honor but all that mattered to Williams was that he was going home after two years overseas.
Williams was awarded the medal for his actions during the Battle of Iwo Jima. During the fight, he used a flamethrower to destroy seven Japanese pillbox bunkers, one at a time.
His actions occurred on February 23, 1945 – the same day photographer Joe Rosenthal took the iconic Iwo Jima flag raising photo.
Williams did not witness the raising of the flag but did see waving on top of Mount Suribachi.
On October 5, 1945, President Harry S. Truman held a group ceremony at the White House and presented Williams with his medal.
During the presentation, Truman recognized Williams’ “gallantry and intrepidity” while risking his life and going “above the call of duty.”
The citation went on to call Williams’ actions “aided vitally in enabling his company to reach its objective.”
Williams was one of 27 service members to receive the Medal of Honor for their actions at Iwo Jima – that is the most awarded for any single battle in US military history.
He is now one of only two surviving Medal of Honor recipients from World War II still alive. There were 473 total Medals of Honor awarded during WWII.
After the war, Williams has spent his life helping veterans and honoring their families.
He worked for thirty years as a counselor for the US Department of Veterans Affairs. He worked to help veterans and their families get the benefits and support they had earned.
There is a VA medical center named in honor of Williams in Huntington, West Virginia.
Williams also started the Hershel “Woody” Williams Medal of Honor Foundation. This nonprofit organization establishes Gold Star Families Memorials in communities around the US.
He recently attended the dedication of their 60th memorial. There are 68 more planned in 45 states or territories. The purpose of the memorials is to honor the families that lost a loved one that served in the military.
Williams also speaks frequently at schools. He’s found that students are not aware of the history of the war and the significance it holds in our country’s development.
He blames the educational system for not teaching about the sacrifices that took place to preserve the freedoms that US citizens enjoy.
Williams is planning his third trip to Iwo Jima since the war. He expects that this one will be his last. As part of the trip, he is attending the dedication of a Gold Star monument in Guam.
On March 7, the future USS Hershel “Woody” Williams will be commissioned. The vessel is an expeditionary vessel for the US Navy.