Woody Williams, who was born on a dairy farm in the countryside of West Virginia, was brought up to never kill.
Then came World War II and Iwo Jima.
Iwo Jima, an island with airstrips on the way to Japan, was expected to be taken in five days, military officers were saying.
In reality it took 36 days of traumatic fighting that etched itself irreversibly into the memories of Marines who survived.
Williams, a Medal of Honor recipient who will be in Lubbock on Feb. 14 in support of a monument to families who have suffered loss in war, remembers growing up where killing even of animals and birds could only be done for two reasons — food and mercy.
He learned in war there was a third reason: to save the life and freedom of his nation.
“One of my real severe problems was having been taught as a youth, very strictly, that you do not kill. Just to kill a bird would get you in trouble if you got caught. My family did not believe in killing anything other than for food, or to take it out of its misery if it couldn’t get well.”
When Pearl Harbor was attacked by Japan on Dec. 7, 1941, he was 18 and had an innate sense of patriotism.
“I’m a country boy. I was raised way out in the country. We didn’t have a radio, we didn’t have a newspaper, yet we knew — and I’m not the only one, there were thousands of us, millions of us — that our freedom and our country were important. And when we heard that somebody was trying to take this away from us, we said, ‘That’s not going to happen.’
“And that’s really why I went into the Marine Corps … I didn’t know I was going to have to kill people.”
Williams was on board a troop ship, scheduled to go ashore on Iwo Jima for the second day of the invasion, Feb. 20, 1945. He was 21 then.
“After the first day and the tremendous losses that they had the first day, that night they told us we were going in the next day. But by the time we got organized and got ready, the Higgins boats that were circling out in the ocean couldn’t find room enough for us to get in. So, they sent us back to ship. We went aboard ship that night, and the next day we did get in — they finally did get enough ground for us to come in.
“When we hit the beach it was total chaos. There were wrecks of everything you could think of that had been blown up … and there were bodies everywhere. They had no place to put the bodies, so they wrapped them up in their ponchos and stacked them up like cord wood so that eventually they would have to put them somewhere.
“That’s a vivid scene in my mind that I have never quite been able to remove.”
Williams was a rifleman like all Marines, but he also had training in demolition and flame throwers.
Five days after the invasion began, Williams heard the Marines around him yelling and screaming and firing their weapons in the air, and saying something about a flag on Mount Suribachi. Then he saw the same thing they saw — the American flag raised on Iwo Jima.
“I began doing the same thing they were doing, firing my weapon in the air, because we were celebrating.”
But for all the excitement and the iconic moment of history, it was only a parenthesis within the battle for possession of Iwo Jima. There were about 800 enemy pillboxes with machine guns and artillery weapons to take out, along with 22,000 Japanese soldiers unseen in an estimated 16 miles of underground tunnels.
“On the 23rd, the same day the flag went up, my commanding officer, Capt. Donald Beck, was pretty much at wits end of trying to get through this string of pillboxes that were killing so many of us, and he had lost most of his officers.
“He asked if I could do something with the flamethrower, with the pillboxes, because shooting at them wasn’t doing any good. I had no idea what I said, but the fellows later said that my response was, ‘I’ll try.’”
He remembers, “I took a flame thrower and strapped it on, got four Marines, and we began working. Two of those Marines lost their lives that day. I have always claimed that the Medal belongs to them more than it did to me — they sacrificed more than I did.”
Williams neutralized seven pillboxes in four hours, using six flame throwers, each having a fuel time of only 72 seconds before he had to strap on another.
His Medal of Honor citation includes the following:
“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.”
When Williams later was hit by shrapnel from an artillery shell, he refused a medic’s instruction to go back to medical.
Williams had no idea what a Medal of Honor was or why it would be given to him, when he was sent to the White House to receive it. He was shaking uncontrollably and unable to speak as President Truman was placing the ribbon around his neck.
Truman told him, “I would rather have this medal than to be president.”
He struggled with the aftermath of war’s trauma for a matter of years.
“I could not forgive myself for having to take so many lives. It took me years to finally find relief, to be able to find forgiveness,” he said.
“I felt that if this power that I didn’t know, that brought me into the world, that gave me life and certainly had a hand in getting me home … if that power — which turned out to be God, of course — could forgive me, then maybe I could forgive myself.”
He remembers, “I had married a Christian lady and she raised our children Christian. They went to church every Sunday. I wouldn’t go. But in 1962, about Easter time, I finally went to church with them. The preacher was talking about the sacrifice that the Lord had made just so we could exist.
“Those two Marines who had given their lives protecting mine … they didn’t get home … I did. But that Sunday, the Lord forgave me — God forgave me. And finally, I was able to forgive myself.”
Williams, now a lay minister in his church, urges prayer for the nation:
“We have to. Somehow, we have to get back to our Christian roots. If we don’t do something, in the future somebody is going to have to experience that same kind of situation where others will try to take our country over, and we will lose what we have.”
© 2018 the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal (Lubbock, Texas)
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