The only surviving Marine to have received the Medal of Honor during World War II, Cpl. Hershel “Woody” Williams, remembers the sound of the waves crashing along the shore upon arrival in Iwo Jima in 1945. The sounds of tranquility were quickly replaced by the sounds of brutal battle and Williams’ actions would earn him the Medal of Honor.
The youngest of 11 children, Williams was born and raised on a dairy farm in Quiet Dell, West Virginia. He tried to enlist in the Marine Corps in 1942, but was told he was too short for service. He successfully enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserve May 26, 1943, after the height regulations were adjusted. He served in New Caledonia, Guadalcanal and Guam before landing at Iwo Jima.
His 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.”
For his actions on Feb. 23, 1945, Williams was awarded the Medal of Honor, by President Harry S. Truman at the White House, and is now on display at the Pritzker Military Museum and Library in Chicago.
Williams rejoined the Marine Corps Reserve and advanced to the rank of Chief Warrant Officer 4 before being honorably retired in 1969 after approximately 17 years of service.
Williams, 96, still resides in West Virginia.
Marines are charged with carrying forward the memories of those who fought before them. The core values of honor, courage and commitment connect today’s Marines to generations of warriors who committed themselves to the nation’s defense. We are Iwo.