Bravery on the Black Sands: The Heroism of Hershel “Woody” Williams at the Battle of Iwo Jima
With a 70-pound flamethrower tank strapped to his back, Corporal Hershel “Woody” Williams crawled forward along the black volcanic sands of Iwo Jima. Enemy bullets ricocheted off his heavy fuel tank. Every movement put the 21-year-old Marine at catastrophic risk, but something needed to be done. The Marine advance had hit a wall. Neither tank nor fighting man could punch through against the Japanese positions to their front. With clear fields of fire in every direction, Japanese machine-gunners blasted away at the Marines from their network of reinforced concrete pillboxes. “Every time we advance they beat us back,” lamented one Marine. Unless those pillboxes could be knocked out, many more Marines were going to die. This was the situation Williams found himself in as he crept toward the enemy strongpoints. It was up to him to make a difference. The lives of his fellow Marines were in his hands.
Far away from the island of Iwo Jima was Quiet Dell, West Virginia. It was here that Williams was born and raised on a dairy farm in the midst of the Great Depression, the most devastating economic collapse in the history of the modern industrial world. “There were 11 born to my family,” said Williams. “Only five of us survived to adulthood.” The times were tough, but so was the generation that this period produced. Through their struggles, men like Williams learned that bravery was essential to survival. “I feel that our upbringing had some influence on our bravery because we were taught in the Depression years, if you didn't have it, you had to make it,” explained Williams. “And the only way you could make it was to work at it. Our upbringing gave us the confidence that developed into bravery.”
At 17 years old, Williams found himself living in a world at war. On December 7, 1941, that war hit home when the Japanese attacked U.S. Naval Base Pearl Harbor on the island of Oahu in Hawaii, drawing America into the Second World War. Like most of his generation, Williams rushed to a recruiting station in the wake of Pearl Harbor. He tired to enlist in the Marines, but standing only 5-foot-6, he was two inches shy of the minimum height requirement of the time. Because of that, Williams was rejected for service. Two of his brothers had better luck and entered the ranks of the Army.
It did not take long for the Marines to learn just how ferocious of an enemy they faced in the Pacific Theatre of World War II. Across the island of Guadalcanal and beyond, the Japanese resisted bitterly, forcing anyone who came up against them to fight for every inch of ground. As American casualties mounted, back in the states, certain requirements like the one that had initially prevented Williams from entering the service were eased. By May of 1943, Williams was able to bear the proud title of United States Marine.
After his training on Guadalcanal, and his first tase of combat on the island of Guam, Williams found himself participating in the effort to capture the volcanic island of Iwo Jima in February 1945. Once ashore, the Marines found that they had set foot on a giant enemy labyrinth. As one Marine put it, “The Japanese were not on Iwo Jima. They were in it!” The Japanese had indeed turned Iwo Jima into a defensive fortress, digging into bunkers deep within the volcanic rocks and also utilizing natural caves tunnels, and other elements to bolster their resistance. Knowing they represented one of the final major obstacles standing between the Americans and the Japanese mainland, the 21,000-man-strong garrison on Iwo Jima resolved to defend the island to the last man.
U.S. Marines storming the black volcanic sands of Iwo Jima. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
On February 23, 1945, the fifth day of operations on Iwo Jima, Hershel Williams and the Marines in his sector of the battlefield found themselves in the fight of their lives. To their front were enemy machine-gun pillboxes made out of concrete and steel. Bazooka, tank, and even artillery fire proved ineffective at knocking out those enemy strongpoints. The Marines had also been sent forward to storm the positions and paid a heavy price for their efforts. “We lost so many Marines attempting to approach those pillboxes,” said Williams. “Our commanding officer lost most of his officers. We had lost our platoon leaders. We had lost our squad leaders. We had people doing jobs that they were never trained to do because you lose so many people and somebody takes up the slack.”
“What are we gonna do?” was the question on everyone's mind. After each attack, “they would just mow us down, and we would have to back off,” remembered Williams. Desperate to break through, Williams’ commanding officer turned to him and asked, “Do you think you could do something with the flamethrower?” Williams agreed to go forward. It was up to him to turn the tide of battle.
With four Marines laying down covering fire for him, Williams dropped to his stomach and inched his way toward the enemy strongpoints. As he reflected, “I was crawling up this little pitch, and they were shooting at me with a machine gun. The bullets were ricocheting off my flamethrower. I moved to the right so they couldn’t shoot at me. I saw blue smoke coming out of the top of the pillbox. I crawled on top of it, and there was a pipe. They were cooking. I stuck the flamethrower down the pipe and filled the pillbox with flame.”
Hershel "Woody" Williams with a World War II-era flamethrower. (Photo Credit: Defense Media Network)
Over the course of the next four hours, Williams went on to destroy a total of seven enemy pillboxes. Every moment during that time was filled with enormous danger for him. “When you fire a flamethrower, you give off an awful lot of black smoke because you’re burning diesel fuel and gasoline,” said Williams. “Other Marines trained me to do this, otherwise I wouldn’t have done it; when you fire, you move from that particular position because that’s where they’re going to start dropping the mortars.” Since each flamethrower only held about 72 seconds of fuel, Williams was forced to make repeated trips back to the American lines to retrieve a fresh fire weapon before racing back to deal more damage to the enemy. Amid all of this, he also set demolition charges, clearing the way for friendly tanks to rumble forward.
Because of Williams’ actions on February 23, the deadlock was broken and the Marines were at last able to overcome the once impregnable position. He would continue to fight on Iwo Jima until being wounded in action on March 6, which earned him the Purple Heart medal. By the end of March, the island was declared secure by the Americans. Among the nearly 70,000 Marines of the 3rd, 4th, and 5th Divisions who had taken part in the fight, approximately 6,891 were killed and 18,070 wounded, making Iwo Jima one of the bloodiest battles in Marine Corps history. As for the Japanese, historian Andrew Roberts notes that by the end of battle, “only 212 defenders - that is, 1 percent of the original garrison - were still alive to surrender.” Roughly five months after the brutal battle of Iwo Jima, the Japanese formally surrendered to the Allies on September 2, bringing the Second World War to an end.
“I didn't think I’d done anything special at all,” reflected Williams about his actions on Iwo Jima. “I was just doing my job.” While Williams considered his actions just a normal part of his duty as a Marine, it was clear to the military that he had gone above and beyond the call of duty. On October 5, 1945, Williams attended a special ceremony at the White House, where President Harry Truman presented him with the United States military’s highest decoration for valor under fire, the Medal of Honor.
Hershel "Woody" Williams wearing the Medal of Honor. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Like most of his fellow Medal of Honor recipients, Williams always believed that the decoration belonged to the men who had fought, struggled, and died by his side. He especially never forgot the two men who lost their lives providing him with cover fire while he assaulted the Japanese pillboxes on Iwo Jima. Those two men were Corporal Warren Bornholz and Private First Class Charles Fischer. As Williams put it, “I have said from the very beginning that [the medal] does not belong to me. It belongs to them.” He added, “I wear it in their honor, not mine. They sacrificed their lives to make that possible.”
After World War II, Williams remained in the Marine Corps. Following his 20 years of service as a Devil Dog, he went on to work for the Department of Veteran Affairs for 33 years. Giving back and helping others was how he lived his life. He did that in many ways, among which was the creation of the Hershel “Woody” Williams Medal of Honor Foundation. To assist Gold Star families, which signifies the immediate family members of a fallen service member who died while serving in a time of conflict, Williams’ nonprofit has raised money, provided scholarships, and established more than 100 Gold Star Families Memorial Monuments across the United States.
Before his death in his native West Virginia on June 29, 2022, Williams was the last surviving Medal of Honor recipient from World War II. When asked what that felt like, he replied, “All these years I kept asking the same question: Why me? I still haven’t found the answer. I guess the Lord is going to have to tell me. Why was I selected as the person to receive the Medal of Honor? Why not the individual who sacrificed his life? Why me?” About one thing, there is no question. Hershel Williams was a remarkable American hero on the battlefield and beyond. He now takes his rest in the Kingdom of Heaven, joining his brothers-in-arms from the Second World War and eternally watching over the country that he loved and sacrificed so much for.
Congressional Medal of Honor Society: Hershel Woodrow "Woody" Williams.
PBS: The Great Depression.
Robert Irvine: Living Legend - The Story of Hershel "Woody" Williams.
This Is Why We Stand: Blood on the Black Sands - The Battle for Iwo Jima.
U.S. Department of Defense: A Final Salute to Hershel 'Woody' Williams.