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97-Year-Old WWII Veteran Is Still a Flamethrower Expert

Jun 08 2021
Emily Mack | Rare

The Military and Veterans Appreciation Picnic held at Harris Riverfront Park in Huntington, West Virginia on June 6 was a unique event. In addition to honoring former troops, the festivities swelled into a proud display of old-school World War II-era weapons — including a flamethrower — overseen by none other than Hershel “Woody” Williams, the oldest-living Medal of Honor recipient.

Hershel Woodrow Williams, called Woody, was born in 1923 in Quiet Dell, West Virginia. The war broke out when Woody was a young man and instantly he wanted to enlist in the Marines… though not for the patriotic reasons you might think. In fact, Woody was fixated by the Marines’ distinct blue uniforms. Reportedly, he thought the brown Army garb was “the ugliest thing in town” and decided to wait until he was be accepted by those navy-donning Devil Dogs. At just 5’6″ Woody was initially too short to enlist but made it in once height regulations were loosened in 1943.

In the Marines, Woody was trained as a demolition man, specializing in the use of flamethrowers. However, that training was not very hands-on; the veteran has described learning about the technicalities of a flamethrower — diesel tanks, and aviation gas, and compressed air — but as for physically operating the weapon? “We had to learn that ourselves,” he told The Washington Post in 2020.

But it was at the Battle of Iwo Jima that those deadly skills came into play. Landing on the beach with the 1st Battalion, 21st Marines, Woody, and his fellow Americans were surrounded by machine gunfire. As every man with Woody became a casualty, he soldiered on and shoved his trusty flamethrower into the enemy pillbox… and killed everyone. Woody then refueled five times and moved ahead with the total destruction of all enemy pillboxes. From one thousand yards away that day, the survivor was able to witness the historic raising of the two flags on Mount Suribachi.

Woody was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Harry Truman on October 5, 1945. The retired United States Marine Corps warrant officer is now the oldest living Medal of Honor recipient and the only living recipient from WWII.

The Military and Veterans Appreciation Picnic in West Virginia last weekend was the perfect place for Woody, the famed World War II Marine Corps veteran, to prove that he still knows his stuff. In front of a wowed crowd, the 97-year-old fired off some fully automatic and single-shot rounds over the Ohio River. Then, with the aid of Flamethrower expert Charles Hobson, Woody helped unfurl those hot blazes of fire up over the river. Check out a full video here.

Woody also spoke to West Virginia’s sole Sea Cadets unit: a moment with Seaman Kinsley Ellison said was “historical, it meant a lot.” It’s safe to say everyone in attendance was real fired up.