Flamethrowers were among the most vital weapons in World War II. One man that was able to wield the flamethrower and use it to destroy the enemy was Hershel “Woody” Williams, a U.S. Marine who earned the Medal of Honor using a flamethrower during the Battle of Iwo Jima.
Used as an effective weapon to flush out the enemy in well reinforced and dug-in areas, the flamethrower was also a doubled edged sword.
The Japanese were aware of the devastation that flamethrowers were capable of, therefore the operators of flamethrowers were a high priority target. The flamethrower could only fire for a few seconds at a time and could only shoot at a distance of twenty yards, meaning that it had to be used at close range. Flamethrowers had two canisters attached to it. One of them contained compressed gas used as a propellant and the other contained fuel.
On the same day the American flag was raised on Iwo Jima, February 23, 1945, Williams took out seven Japanese pillboxes using a flamethrower. Williams fought for four hours with cover from only four Marines and under heavy small arms fire. He continually returned to his lines to prepare demolition charges and obtain new flamethrowers.
His Medal of Honor citation reads:
“For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as Demolition Sergeant serving with the First Battalion, Twenty-First Marines, Third Marine Division, in action against enemy Japanese forces on Iwo Jima, Volcano Island, 23 February 1945. Quick to volunteer his services when our tanks were maneuvering vainly to open a lane for the infantry through the network of reinforced concrete pillboxes, buried mines and black, volcanic sands, 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. His unyielding determination and extraordinary heroism in the face of ruthless enemy resistance were directly instrumental in neutralizing one of the most fanatically defended Japanese strong points encountered by his regiment and aided in enabling his company to reach its’ objective. Corporal Williams’ aggressive fighting spirit and valiant devotion to duty throughout this fiercely contested action sustain and enhance the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.”
Williams is the only surviving Medal of Honor recipient from the Battle of Iwo Jima.