Hershel “Woody” Williams served in the Marine Corps and in the Marine Corps Reserve for twenty years. When he retired, he had made Chief Warrant Officer 4 (CWO4).
The World War II veteran and Medal of Honor recipient once led a unit in successfully taking out seven enemy pillbox bunkers on February 23, 1945.
He went to Iwo Jima with the 3rd Marine Division, the reserve division of the 4th and 5th Marine Divisions. They were told that it was unlikely that they would even get off the boat since there were already 40,000 troops deployed on an island that was only two and a half miles wide and five miles long.
Officials told them that they should only expect to be there for five days. Instead, the division ended up on the island for 38 days.
He and his division found little difficulty in crossing the first airfield they came across, but the limited intelligence they had on Iwo Jima left them unprepared for the concrete pillbox bunkers they came across next. The Japanese took aim at the US troops through slits cut in the walls of the bunkers, making them nearly impervious to US return fire.
Artillery and bazookas were ineffective in removing the Japanese from their bunkers so the US troops turned to flamethrowers. An officer asked Williams to lead a team to take out the bunkers with their flamethrowers.
Williams strapped a 70-pound flamethrower on his back and began crawling toward the enemy.
Four Marines provided cover fire which allowed Williams to take out seven bunkers in four hours. While his fellow soldiers pinned the enemy down with their shooting, Williams would make his way to the top of the bunker and fire his flamethrower through the air vents, which killed all the soldiers inside.
Thanks in part to the work of Williams, the US Marines were able to take control of the strategically important island and deal a major blow to the Japanese war effort.
After WWII ended, Williams was invited to the White House where he received the Medal of Honor from President Harry Truman. The citation for the medal credited Williams with “unyielding determination and extraordinary heroism in the face of ruthless enemy resistance.”
Williams was born in 1923 and grew up in West Virginia. When he first volunteered for the Marines, he was rejected because he was too short. A few months later, the height requirement was reduced and Williams joined the Marines Reserve.
He was assigned to the 32nd Replacement Battalion and fought in the Battle of Guadalcanal and Guam before being sent to Iwo Jima.
Williams’ heroic actions occurred on February 23, 1945, the day that the US flag was raised on the island. He opened a path through the Japanese defense, allowing the Marines to advance and ultimately take Iwo Jima.
In addition to the Medal of Honor, Williams received the Purple Heart for injuries received on March 6.
After the war, Williams continued serving in the Marines Corps Reserve. He retired in 1969.
After leaving the Marines, Williams served as a lay minister at his church. He also served as Chaplain Emeritus for the Congressional Medal of Honor Society. He worked as a Veterans Services Officer at the Veterans Administration until he retired in 1978 after 30 years of service.
About receiving the Medal of Honor, Williams once said that he didn’t feel that it belonged to him. He credited the other Marines without whose assistance he could not have achieved what he did. He further stated that he did not wear the medal for his actions but for the two Marines that died protecting him.