Hershel “Woody” Williams, the last living World War II veteran Medal of Honor recipient, died early Wednesday at age 98.
His foundation, Woody Williams Foundation, announced his death in a statement. “Today at 3:15 am, Hershel Woodrow Williams, affectionately known by many as Woody, went home to be with the Lord … while surrounded by his family at the VA Medical Center which bears his name.”
Williams’ death comes less than two days after his family released a statement announcing he was in the hospital, and welcoming prayers on his behalf. The family did not provide details about his condition.
Williams, born in 1923, enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserve in 1943. He served in New Caledonia, Guadalcanal, Guam, and during the Battle of Iwo Jima in World War II, where his heroic efforts were recognized with the nation’s highest honor. President Truman awarded him the Medal of Honor months later on Oct. 5, 1945.
On Feb. 23, 1945 during a push into Japanese territory amid wet and muddy conditions unfavorable to heavily military equipment, Williams was tasked with taking out reinforced concrete Japanese pillboxes using a flamethrower.
For more than four hours, Williams pressed on under enemy fire and successfully destroyed seven pillboxes – returning to American lines only to refuel his flamethrower. Two of the four riflemen covering him were killed.
“On 1 occasion, he daringly mounted a pillbox to insert the nozzle of his flamethrower through the air vent, killing the occupants and silencing 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,” Williams’ Medal of Honor citation said of his heroic efforts.
“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 vitally in enabling his company to reach its objective,” the citation added.
In a 2011 video describing his efforts, he said, “Don’t ask me how I did it. I don’t have any idea how I did it. And I never got touched! They never got me.”
Until his death, he was the only surviving Marine from World War II to hold the Medal of Honor.
Gen. David H. Berger, Commandant of the Marine Corps, released a statement on Wednesday recognizing Williams’ death.
“On behalf of all Marines, Sgt. Maj. Black and I are heartbroken to learn of Woody’s passing. From his actions on Iwo Jima to his lifelong service to our Gold Star Families, Woody has left an indelible mark on the legacy of our Corps. As the last of America’s ‘Greatest Generation’ to receive the Medal of Honor, we will forever carry with us the memory of his selfless dedication to those who made the ultimate sacrifice to our great Nation. The Marine Corps is fortunate to have many heroes, but there is only one Woody Williams. Semper Fidelis, Marine,” Berger said.
Williams retired after 20 years of service in the Marine Corps and Marine Corps Reserves. He also served as a Veterans Service Representative with the Department of Veterans Affairs for 33 years.
Through his foundation, Williams helped establish 103 Gold Star Families Memorial Monuments throughout the U.S.