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Oldest living Medal of Honor recipient recounts Iwo Jima, his hopes for the future

Sep 26 2021
Tee Willis | Knox News

Hershel "Woody" Williams, 97, is the oldest living recipient of the Medal of Honor. The decorated war veteran earned the award in 1945 for his heroic acts of bravery in the World War II Battle of Iwo Jima.

Williams sat down with Knox News ahead of his visit to Knoxville, where he will be honored at the flag-raising ceremony for the 2022 Congressional Medal of Honor Society Celebration in Knoxville on Sept. 13-17, 2022.

The flag-raising ceremony is 2 p.m. today at the East Tennessee Veterans Memorial at World's Fair Park.

Williams explained how he received the award, its lifelong impact and the men who sacrificed their lives to help him in one of the most ferocious battles of the Pacific Ocean theater.

This is a condensed version of that conversation.

Can we start with the story of how you became a Medal of Honor recipient?

First, let me say that until l I received the Medal of Honor I didn't know that such an honor existed, and certainly had no inclination that I would ever be the recipient of our nation's highest award.

But when we got to Iwo Jima, the territory on the island was so much different than any that we had been on before. I was in the campaign at Guam when we took that territory back from the Japanese, but it was almost totally jungle. So we were fighting in real thick jungle. Some tough places we even had to cut our way through.

We had no idea what Iwo Jima looked like, the size of it or anything. I didn't even know it existed until we got aboard ship headed for Iwo Jima.

And at that point, they began briefing us telling us where we were going to go. They had some kind of a board that they brought up on top deck on the ship that showed the shape of Iwo Jima and some guys said, 'Well, it looks like a pork chop'. It was so small and only 2 1/2 miles wide and 5 miles long.

So we were a reserve division to two other Marine divisions, and there were about 20,000 individuals and we were told that we were the reserve unit, we would only be used if necessary, and that perhaps the campaign on Iwo would last three to five days. And it was possible that we would never even get off because if they didn't need more Marines, than we would just go back to Guam from whence we came.

So once we got to Iwo Jima, or in the area that we were parked on the ship away out in the ocean. You couldn't hear or see anything and we had no idea what was going on. There were no broadcasts telling you what was taking place.

So we sat there for several days, and then the island was hit by one of the other divisions on the 19th (February 1945). And on the night of the 19th, about midnight or that area, over the speaker system, it was announced that we were going to shore or at least part of our unit is going to shore the next day.

We were going to get ready at 3 o'clock – we would disembark at 5 and we're going we're going to Iwo. None of us had ever seen it, but we got on the big ship on a boat and went out to sea waiting to go to shore.

But the Marines at shore had been pinned down on the beach and they couldn't move. Eventually, in late in the afternoon of that same day, they announced on the little boat that we were on that we were going back to shifts because there was not enough room on the island to get us ashore.

So we went back to the ship steady again overnight and disembarked the next day at the same time. Five o'clock in the morning that day we got here and it was little before noon when we finally got (our orders).

Our assignment that we got at shore was to cross the first airfield, eliminate the enemy within pillboxes on the other side of the airfield. They had built those (pillboxes) to protect the airfield, and they had a tremendous number of them.

I was a demolition person. We had six Marines in our special weapons unit. I was in charge of the unit. So we're by the first airfield waiting for the word to go across when Marines around me began yelling and saying something about a flag. Some of them were standing up and shooting their weapons into the air.

I looked at them, of course, they were looking back toward Mount Suribachi. I have no memory of Mount Suribachi up until that point, but I looked and Old Glory had just reached the top of the flagpole was flying straight out because it's a heavy wind. I saw it immediately after it was raised. It was one of those things that lifted the spirit of every Marine and Navy man on that island.

And eventually, we went across the airfield and there was no protection, with the exception of shell craters and if you could find one that you could jump into. We lost a tremendous number of Marines, just crossing the airfield.

We hit the pillboxes that were constructed in such a way that you couldn't get to one pillbox without another one being able to see you. As we were trying to post the pillboxes, we were on open territory, they were in a confined, protected area.

So every time we would try to move forward, we would lose Marines. And eventually, we lost so many that our commanding officer ordered us offline. He brought us back behind the line, somebody else had to fill our position.

It was at that point in time that he called a meeting of whatever officers and noncommissioned officers he had remaining, he only had two officers left. All the others had been killed or wounded.

He gathered us in a huge shell crater so we could be down below ground. And he was planning on what he was going to do from that point on. I was the only flamethrower operator left in my company. The other six have either been wounded or killed. I was not qualified to attend that meeting because I was not considered a noncommissioned officer – I was still a corporal and a corporal, you're not a non-commissioned officer – but like I said, I was the only flamethrower left.

So at that point in time, he asked me if I might be able to do something with the pillboxes. He told me to get four Marines, two I had before in my previous squad when I went into the special weapons unit. And the other two, I had no idea who they were, they were just Marines.

So I took the two of them with me and put those other two in a position that they could shoot at the pillboxes once I got in a position to get to the pillboxes.

And during the course of four hours, I was able with the help of others, a flamethrower and some demolitionists, to eliminate the enemy within seven pillboxes, according to records.

The principal thing that happened that day that always been with me still with me, is that those two Marines that I selected that I did not know, I had no idea what asset they were with, but those two Marines sacrificed their lives so that could protect mine.

So what I learned that when that information was given to me, which was long after I received the Medal of Honor, I have said, from that point on, this medal, does not belong to me.

How old were you on that day?

I was 21. I'd turned 21 in October the year before. The day I received the medal, I was 22. Yup, I was 22 and three days old the day President Truman presented me the medal.

How did you end up as a flamethrower?

One day (in January 1944), these huge wooden crates came into the company. And they were about 4 feet wide, about 5 or 6 feet tall, and it was built out of wood.

And nobody knew what they were. Now none of us had ever seen or heard (about flamethrowers), we didn't even know they existed. So it was a very strange looking weapon to us.

And within the package, there were only two things. One was the manual that gave all the parts how to take it apart, put it together, and what kind of and how much fuel and that type of thing. And how much pressure to put it in the air tank, all those figures, with a cellophane package and had phosphorus powder.

And the instructions on that said when it was mixed with gasoline it would turn into a soft gel. And that's what we were about to use in the fight.

It was like shooting water on something 20 yards away with water. And (our gunnery sergeant) decided we're going to use some other kinds of fuel. So we began to experiment. Many other fuels. We used kerosene, we used motor oil, and we ended up with different fuels.

And with different mixtures, sometimes you get too much gasoline. And then you find the flame would not go anywhere, that with too much additional fuel, it will be too heavy, it wouldn't go anywhere. But finally we came up with what the gunnery sergeant was happy with that had a consistency that you could get 25 to 30 yards out if you fired it at the ground and created a ball of flame that rolled.

It's be solid on the ground in a big huge ball, it would roll 10 to 15 yards. And that's how we finally learned how to use the flamethrower. One of the anxieties was we've got gasoline on our back.

But we sent (the fuel tank) out in the field away from everybody, and shot at it with rifles and machine guns to see if it would explode, if we could penetrate the tank or metal to get a bullet into it to see if it would explode. But the metal was so thick, so round, that the bullets would just ricochet off. They couldn't penetrate.

Can you tell us how you became a Marine?

I was in my teen years. We had a couple individuals in our community who had been in the Marine Corps. In those days you were committed to six years of service starting out. Also at that time, furlough was once a year for around a month or 30 days. That was the only time they got to go home all year.

These two Marines had come home twice a year every year, and while they were there for a month each time. They were required to wear their dress blues while they were home. The dress blues were an attractive uniform. It enticed me. I had two brother's that'd been drafted by the Army and they had to wear that old brown woolen uniform that looked horrible. I guess I decided I didn't want to have to wear that uniform, so I joined the Marines.

But even then I knew nothing about war other than what I'd been taught in grade school. I wasn't thinking I'd be alone in another country or even have to have the responsibility of killing other people. I tried to enlist before I was 18.

When Pearl Harbor happened, I was in the Civilian Conservation Corps. It was an initiative started by President Roosevelt during the mid-30s to give young men an opportunity to learn something in the form of a trade and earn a little money.

But after we'd heard about the Pearl Harbor bombing, the people in the CCC told us America was going to war and that we could actually go in the Army if we wanted to because the CCC was run by the Army. If we under the age of 18 we had to get permission to go, and naturally I couldn't go. So, I had to wait until I was 18.

I went to a Marine Corps recruiter some miles away in town. I filled out a paper and gave it to the recruiter. He told me I was too short. At that time you had to be at least 5 feet, 8 inches, but I of course was 5-6 so I couldn't go.

In early '43, we had a lot of causalities, so they took the height requirement away. A recruiter asked me if I still wanted to be a Marine and I told him yes. I filled out an enlistment contract and there was a long line of people to wait in. I was standing behind an Italian guy and I looked over to see on his paper. The section that said what's your religion? Well, I didn't have one. I'd never been to church a day in my life. So I looked at his and it had a C on it so I guess I happened to mark myself down for the same thing.

Unbeknownst to me, I became a Catholic right there!

How has your thinking about that day in Iwo Jima changed over the decades?

Much of it is dimmed in our minds and I think much of that is appropriate.

For years afterwards, it was very vivid and like most combat people, I had to do something absolutely contrary than what had been taught my entire life. I grew up learning that life was precious and you shouldn't take anyone's life. And there was a fear that if you did, you're going to lose your life. So I was taught that brought up that way.

Then going into the war, you have to completely reverse that. If you're going to win the war and save your family and your country, the other guy must be eliminated.

So, when I got home in 1945, I had to reverse my complete thinking to where I was prior to going into the Marine Corps. Life had to become valuable again. I had to have respect for life and all the things that go with it. Whereas in combat, all of that is taken away.

It was a tremendous adjustment that took me years and years, and it's something people still struggle with today.

You've been telling this story for nearly your entire life. Does that or this honor ever feel like a burden to you? What was your life like after?

I still feel obligated.

I know I wouldn't be where I am if others hadn't done what they did. That responsibility and obligation is still there. This happens to every recipient. Life changes after that point. You take on a different role in life. All of the sudden, you become a public figure simply because a president put a ribbon around your neck.

People have a certain expectation of you and how you are supposed to conduct yourself. It puts a burden on you, but it also comes with so many privileges.

And thank the Lord, that it isn't all burden because so many great things happen to you because you receive the Medal of Honor. I have been treated so royalty really and have seen places with my name on it that would have never happened if I didn't win the Medal of Honor. To have a ship sailing the Seven Seas with my name on it: there is no way I could ever anticipate that or express my gratitude for that honor.

It couldn't happened on my own, and it resulted from what others did.