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Woody Williams named Gazette-Mail West Virginian of the Year

Jan 04 2023
Rick Steelhammer | Logan Banner

Hershel “Woody” Williams may be best remembered for mounting a relentless, four-hour flamethrower assault that destroyed seven fortified Japanese machine gun emplacements, along with the soldiers manning them, during the Battle of Iwo Jima on Feb. 23, 1945.

He received the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military award, for “unyielding determination and extraordinary heroism in the face of ruthless enemy resistance.”

But what the Marion County native, who died June 29, accomplished in the 77 years of life that followed the miracle of surviving that event is equally remarkable.

For his heroism in combat, the dignity and humility displayed while serving as World War II’s longest-surviving Medal of Honor recipient and for dedicating a long post-war career to improving the lives of veterans, Williams has been named the Gazette-Mail’s West Virginian of the Year for 2022.

Williams, who frequently described himself as a West Virginia farm boy, grew up on his family’s dairy farm at Quiet Dell in Marion County. The youngest of 11 children, he weighed only 3.5 pounds at birth and was initially expected to be joining the six siblings who died prior to his arrival. But Williams beat the odds, as he would 21 years later on Iwo Jima, living until the age of 98.

When Williams was 9, his father died of a heart attack. Despite the loss, he and his surviving brothers and sisters continued to milk their farm’s 35 dairy cows twice daily and deliver fresh milk and butter to homes in Fairmont.

Williams attended Fairmont East High School but soon dropped out to follow the lead of a brother, joining the Civilian Conservation Corps to earn money to help support his family and learn new skills. While his brother was assigned to a CCC camp at Pickens in Randolph County, Williams began his work with the New Deal public works program at a camp near Morgantown, where he helped build visitor amenities, including rock safety walls at cliffside overlooks at Coopers Rock State Forest.

He was transferred to a CCC camp near Whitehall, Montana. He and his crew were building fence along national forest borders when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

“I had never heard of Hawaii — I had no idea where it was,” Williams recalled in a 2005 interview. “But practically everybody in the camp said, ‘Hey, our country’s been attacked! We’ve got to go to war!”

Williams was granted a discharge from the CCC and returned to West Virginia, where, a short time after his 18th birthday, he traveled to Charleston and attempted to enlist in the Marine Corps.

Williams said his preference for joining the Marines was influenced primarily by the sharp appearance of the dress blue uniforms its members from the Fairmont area wore while home on leave. He said he also was impressed with their “proud and polite” demeanor.

But in Charleston, Williams learned that his 5-foot, 6-inch frame was two inches short of meeting the Corps’ minimum height standard at the time, and he was not accepted as a recruit.

Disappointed but still determined to find a way to become a Marine, he returned to Marion County, where he resumed work on the family farm and worked the night shift as a driver for a Fairmont taxi company.

Part of his duties as a cab driver included delivering Western Union telegrams from the War Department informing relatives of military personnel that a loved one had been killed.

“The minute the families saw those envelopes, they knew what was in them, and I knew they would break down,” Williams recalled in a 2018 interview. “I didn’t know what to say or how to handle the situation.”

Memories of delivering such telegrams and witnessing such heartbreak motivated a decision much later in life to establish the Woody Williams Foundation, which honors Gold Star families and the legacies of their fallen loved ones.

In early 1943, after learning that the Marine Corps had relaxed its height standard for recruits, Williams returned to Charleston, passed the physical and was sworn in as a Marine. He was sent by train to California, where he underwent basic training at the San Diego Recruit Depot and trained with tank and infantry battalions at nearby Marine bases.

Williams said that when he first enlisted as a Marine, he naively expected to defend his country by being posted to a duty station within the country.

He received orders to ship out from San Diego in December 1943.

“It was quite a shock when they told me I’m going to the South Pacific, to some islands I never knew existed,” he said in a 2015 interview with Stars and Stripes.

In January 1944, he arrived on Guadalcanal, seized a year earlier after months of fierce fighting during the Allies’ first offensive campaign against the Japanese in the Pacific. On Guadalcanal, Williams was assigned to the 3rd Marine Division.

“I began training on the flamethrower,” he said in a 2005 interview with the Center for Pacific War Studies. “Once you got proficient in that, then you started learning demolitions and how to blow things up after you burn them down.”

The gunnery sergeant assigned to the trainees on Guadalcanal knew nothing about how to operate a flamethrower, so the unit relied on a manual that accompanied the first shipment of the weapons. They also sacrificed several flamethrowers to small arms fire to assure themselves that the weapon’s air and fuel tanks would not explode if pierced by bullets, Williams said.

In August 1944, Williams was among 60,000 Marines and Army soldiers who landed on Guam and, after a two-month battle, recaptured the U.S. territory from an outnumbered Japanese occupation force. By then, he had been promoted to corporal and put in charge of a six-man flamethrower-demolition unit.

More than 200 square miles of jungle provided cover on Guam. Few Japanese defensive positions were located in caves or bunkers, so the services of Williams’ flamethrower-demolition unit were seldom sought. That gave the unit time to develop a deadly fire-producing fuel mixture — a blend of diesel fuel and aviation gas — that improved the flamethrower’s range, accuracy and lethality.

In February 1945, Williams’ company was ordered aboard a transport ship and spent several days at sea before being briefed on their destination.

The officer conducting the briefing displayed a sheet of plywood to which a map was tacked, depicting a 4.5-mile-long volcanic island named Iwo Jima. “Guam was 19 miles from one shore to the other,” Williams recalled in the 2005 interview. “This one looked awful small, compared to what we had just been through.”

The briefing officer “said we would probably never get off the ship,” according to Williams. “He said we’d be gone about five days and used as a reserve, but they would probably never need us. So none of us were very anxious about this thing, because we were just going for a boat ride.”

Williams and his shipmates were not called on to be a part of the first wave to land on Iwo Jima on Feb. 19, 1945. By the next day, with Marine casualties mounting, it was clear their “boat ride” had ended. They were ordered to board landing craft and await orders to land.

As the craft circled a safe distance offshore, waiting for a signal to land, Marines pinned down on shore were unable to advance far enough inland to make room for reinforcements to get ashore. By the end of the day, Williams and his unit, thoroughly seasick, returned to their ship to spend the night. On Feb. 21, the third day of the invasion, they again boarded landing craft and plowed their way through choppy seas, this time reaching Iwo Jima’s unwelcoming shore.

Once landed, the 3rd Marine Division, of which Williams was a member, “became the spearhead for the island,” Williams said in his Stars and Stripes interview. “Our job was to go up the center of the [Japanese defensive line] and split it — drive them toward our other two divisions that were there.”

Fulfilling that mission came at a terrible cost. The Japanese had carved out 11 miles of tunnel, connecting artillery and heavy machine gun positions as well as bunkers containing generators, fuel, food, ammunition and water.

“It was almost like fighting ghosts,” Williams recalled. “All of a sudden, the enemy would pop out of a hole and you are in a firefight. Marines are being killed, and you know that you are killing the enemy. But then, when you try to find them, they aren’t there — they don’t exist. They had pulled back into those caves and disappeared and would follow a tunnel to come out of a hole somewhere else.”

By Feb. 23, the six men in Williams’ special weapons unit had all been wounded or killed, making the West Virginia Marine the sole flamethrower operator and demolitions man in his casualty-plagued company.

“It was devastating,” he recalled. “We had lost so many men and all but three of our officers and a great number of our squad leaders” and were pinned down, unable to break through a series of reinforced concrete machine gun emplacements.

Williams’ company commander called a meeting of surviving officers and non-commissioned officers, held in an artillery crater, to see if anyone had a plausible idea for getting past the pillboxes.

“The pillboxes were concrete, reinforced with what we call rebar today,” Williams said. “Bazookas, artillery — even mortars dropped on top of them didn’t do anything. The only way to eliminate one was to burn it out with a flamethrower or blow it up with a demolition charge.”

When no one offered a suggestion, the company commander asked Williams if there was anything he could do with a flamethrower to knock out some of the pillboxes.

“I’ve said many times, I don’t remember what my response to him was,” Williams said in the 2015 Stars and Stripes interview. “Some of the men who survived said that I said, ‘I’ll try,’ and then went to work.”

Four riflemen were tasked with providing cover fire for Williams by targeting the six- to eight-inch-high apertures across the front of each pillbox, through which Japanese soldiers fired their machine guns.

Williams remembered only bits and pieces of the ordeal that followed.

“I think you go into automatic drive when something like that happens,” he said. “Much of that four hours I don’t remember. I attribute that to fear, because to say I wasn’t scared would be the biggest lie that’s ever been told.”

Among memories Williams retained from that day was the sound of Japanese machine gun bullets ricocheting off the air tank on the 70-pound flamethrower rig mounted on his back as he crawled up a ditch to approach the first of seven pillboxes he destroyed that day.

“I remember the shaking and vibrating I felt, and the noise the rounds would make as they ricocheted off,” Williams said. “Fortunately, they ricocheted up instead of down.”

When he had a chance to take a quick look at the machine gun emplacement, “I see a little bit of blue smoke rolling out of the top of it,” Williams said. “So I crawled up, got up on top of that pillbox, and here’s a pipe that is just about the same size as my flamethrower nozzle, so I just stuck it down and let it go,” killing its occupants and silencing the machine gun.

At another machine gun emplacement, a group of enemy soldiers, their rifles mounted with bayonets, tried to stop Williams before their pillbox came within range of his flamethrower. Instead, Williams “grimly charged the enemy riflemen and destroyed them with a burst of flame from his weapon,”

World War II era flamethrowers were capable of producing a lethal stream of fire for a maximum 72 seconds, requiring operators to dispense it in short bursts from close range — ideally 20 yards or less from the target. Once out of fuel, the flamethrower was discarded and replaced with a new one.

Five times that day Williams had to roll out of his flamethrower pack and, while under enemy fire, scramble back to a supply area to arm himself with replacement flamethrowers in order to continue his mission.

Silencing the seven machine gun emplacements created a gap large enough for Marines to slip behind an extended line of pillboxes and reach their objective.

Williams’ “unyielding determination and extraordinary heroism in the face of ruthless enemy resistance were directly instrumental in neutralizing one of the most fanatically defended Japanese strongpoints encountered by his regiment,” according to his Medal of Honor citation.

Weeks after the action, Williams learned that two of the four Marine riflemen assigned to provide him with cover fire had been killed in action that day.

“They gave their lives protecting me. There’s no way I can repay that,” he said in the Stars and Stripes interview. Williams said he wore the Medal of Honor in memory of two Marines who died supporting his effort.

Williams, uninjured in the four-hour ordeal, never again wielded a flamethrower in combat, and immediately resumed his role as a rifleman. On March 6, he was struck in the leg by shrapnel during a Japanese mortar attack that killed his best friend, only a few feet away. He received the Purple Heart award for the wound but was not evacuated.

By that time, only 17 of the 276 Marines in his company who landed on Iwo Jima on Feb. 21 remained fit for duty.

Iwo Jima was declared secure at the end of March 1945. Williams and his company returned to Guam the following month, where they began training for the urban combat expected to be a part of a likely Allied invasion of the Japanese homeland.

During that period, Williams’ company was visited by personnel from regimental and division headquarters seeking information about their activities during the Battle of Iwo Jima.

“They asked me and some of the other guys some questions,” Williams said in a 2005 interview. “They sort of fooled us. They said they were doing a history of Iwo Jima.”

Among the headquarters visitors was a clerk-typist from Salem, Harrison County, who let it slip that Williams was being recommended for a medal. Williams assumed it to be the Purple Heart he was eligible to receive for his March 6 shrapnel wound.

But in September, Williams found out his assumption was incorrect.

“I was called into the first sergeant’s office and he said ‘put on your best khaki, you’re going up to headquarters to see the general,’” Williams recalled. “It scared me to death. I couldn’t think of what I had done to require being reprimanded by a general.”

Upon arriving at the general’s tent, Williams was told that he was to be flown back to Washington, where he would be presented with a Medal of Honor at a White House ceremony.

Williams was puzzled about what the Medal of Honor was and why he was to receive it but excited about returning to the U.S. and riding in an airplane for the first time. He was flown to San Francisco, where he boarded a train for Washington, managing to make a brief detour to Fairmont for a surprise visit with his future wife, Ruby Meredith, to whom he had been engaged since becoming a Marine.

Three days after his 22nd birthday, on Oct. 5, 1945, Williams was one of 13 World War II combat veterans to receive the Medal of Honor from President Harry S. Truman in a ceremony at the White House.

“I would rather have this medal than be president,” Truman quietly told each of the men, after presenting the medal and shaking their hands.

“When he said that to me, I made no response,” Williams later recalled. “I was so scared I couldn’t even think, and shaking so hard I couldn’t make my body stand still.”

Later that month, Williams and Ruby Meredith married. In November 1945, Williams was discharged from the Marines, and he and his bride returned to civilian life in West Virginia, where they raised two daughters and remained a couple until Ruby’s death 62 years later.

In 1946, Williams worked briefly in construction before beginning a 33-year career as a service representative with the Department of Veterans Affairs and an additional 10 years as director of the West Virginia Veterans Home in Barbourville. The transition back to the civilian world wasn’t without difficulty, as Williams explained in a 2015 Stars and Stripes interview:

“When you came home, they handed you a piece of paper and said, ‘OK, we’re done with you. So go back to where you were and what you were doing prior to the war.’ Overnight, you’re supposed to make that transition, but it’s almost impossible. Those things that happened to you during the war stay with you. They’re not going to be erased overnight.”

Like many World War II combat veterans, Williams experienced occasional war-related nightmares, anxiety attacks and periods of withdrawal upon returning to the civilian world.

“Most of us had what we now call PTSD,” he said in the Stars and Stripes interview. “Psychiatry hadn’t really gotten going on it yet, so there wasn’t much we could do about it,” since mental health treatment was then available only to veterans deemed incapable of managing their own affairs, and most World War II guys certainly weren’t to that point.”

After returning to West Virginia, Williams had war-related nightmares, often involving scenarios in which he was putting out, rather than causing. fires. During one such dream, he frightened his wife when he jumped up, pushed their bed away from a wall, and began pounding away at an imaginary wave of fire climbing up the wall, according to a 2020 Washington Post interview.

An older brother, William Gerald Williams, came home from the war with a much more severe case of what was then known as “psychoneurosis,” which Williams described as “exactly the same as PTSD,” or post-traumatic stress disorder.

The older Williams, an infantryman who served in Gen. George Patton’s 3rd Army, was shot through his rib cage and a shoulder during the Battle of the Bulge. While being evacuated to recover from his wounds, his train was strafed by a German fighter plane, forcing passengers to seek shelter in a nearby forest, which in turn was strafed, its bullets narrowly missing Williams’ hiding place.

The experience left his brother badly traumatized, “unable to string together a coherent sentence,” Williams said. He spent the remainder of the war, and several months following it, in a British mental hospital and never recovered after returning home, where he died at age 42.

Williams credited his Medal of Honor with helping him recover from the mental trauma he experienced from the wartime horrors he lived through. Being a recipient of the nation’s highest military award, he said, pushed him into becoming something of a public figure, since he was often called on to explain what he did to receive the honor and how that experience affected him.

“Representing something bigger than me put me in a position where I had to express myself and answer all kinds of questions about what I did in the war,” he said in the Stars and Stripes interview. “It was my therapy. I had to either talk about it or go dig myself a hole and stay in it. I still had the nightmares, and if a gun went off someplace, I’d be getting ready to fight again. But the severity continued to go down.”

Williams credited his wife, whom he described as a “Methodist angel,” with facilitating a religious awakening that began on Easter Sunday 1962 and did the most to make him whole again.

His newfound faith, he said, helped unburden him of grief he carried for friends and foes who died around him and guilt borne for “taking so many lives in such a horrible way.”

“[A]ny time you take a life, there’s always some aftermath to that if you’ve got any heart at all,” he said in the Post interview.

Williams became a lay minister and served as chaplain of the Medal of Honor Society.

Williams maintained a connection with the Marine Corps that endured for the rest of his life. He served more than 16 years in the Marine Corps Reserve, retiring as a chief warrant officer 4 in 1969, and was a long-time member of the Marine Corps League, the Huntington chapter of which now bears his name.

In 2010, Williams established the nonprofit Woody Williams Foundation to honor and recognize the families of U.S. military personnel who died while in service to their country.

The foundation’s initial goal was to establish a Gold Star Families Memorial Monument in West Virginia. By the time that monument was dedicated in 2013 at the Donal C. Kinnard Memorial State Veterans Cemetery at Institute, similar monuments were being sought at sites outside Williams’ home state. To date, the foundation has installed 116 of the monuments, and an additional 66 are progressing toward construction.

Williams took part in dedication ceremonies for nearly all of the monuments, spending more than 200 days on the road. Well into his 90s, he rode his three-wheeled Slingshot motorcycle in veterans’ fundraising rallies and parades across the state.

In 2018 and 2019, Williams was instrumental in having the remains of two fellow West Virginia Medal of Honor transferred from obscure, overgrown rural plots to the Donel C. Kinnard Memorial State Veterans Cemetery.

Sgt. Chester Howard West received his award for charging and neutralizing enemy machine gun emplacements. West’s action took place at the start of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in World War I. In 1935, he was murdered while working as a farmhand in Mason County.

James Calvin Summers, a native of the Elkview area, was a Union Army private when he received his Medal of Honor for leading a charge against a Confederate position during the Battle of Vicksburg.

Williams remained active in state and national veterans’ matters until the day he died — June 29.

In a July floor speech honoring the Medal of Honor recipient, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., recounted Williams’ testimony before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee just weeks before his death. He spoke in opposition to a plan to streamline and privatize VA hospitals.

Had the plan been approved, it “would have turned three of our four VA medical centers into urgent care centers, along with countless others across the nation,” Manchin said. “Because of Woody, our VA medical centers were saved.”

Manchin recalled a visit he paid to the Iwo Jima veteran three days before he died — in the Hershel “Woody” Williams VA Medical Center in Huntington.

While there, Manchin said Williams took a call from U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Denis McDonough, who chatted for a few minutes before thanking Williams for his lifelong advocacy for veterans.

After the call ended, Manchin said, “in true Woody fashion, he gave me my marching orders,” asking the senator to make sure a plan to enclose the now open-sided committal shelter at Kinnard was implemented.

Williams’ lifetime of work on behalf of veterans has been recognized by naming a number of public works in his honor. In addition to the Huntington VA hospital, an armed forces reserve center in Fairmont, a military operations flight center at Charleston’s West Virginia Yeager International Airport and a bridge at Barboursville all bear his name.

In March 2020, Williams took part in the commissioning ceremony in Norfolk for the $500 million, 785-foot U.S.S. Hershel “Woody” Williams, the second of five Expeditionary Sea Base vessels built for the Navy. The ship is designed to serve as a floating base of operations for responding to military crises or natural disasters, with quarters for up to 250 Marines and flight decks capable of launching and landing four heavy lift helicopters or four tilt-rotor aircraft.

“Receiving the Medal of Honor is the top man-made miracle in my life,” Williams said at the ceremony. “But this ship that bears my name and will sail the seven seas to protect America for many years to come is close to the top.”

Williams, credited with writing the ship’s motto, “Peace we seek, peace we keep,” told those attending the ceremony that it was his hope that “all wars will recede and there will come a time when sacrifices of life made by our armed forces will no longer be necessary.”

“Woody may be the most genuine person I ever met,” Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger said during a memorial service for Williams at the Culture Center.

“He always described himself as a farm boy from West Virginia,” Berger said. “He would rather talk about the accomplishments of others, or his farm or his family, than about himself.”

Through a lifetime of service that followed his time on Iwo Jima, “he turned something so bitterly painful and dark into hope. . . His combination of humility and a powerful sense of humor allowed him to connect with anyone. He could make you laugh and he could make you care. That was his gift.”