Skip to content

In the News

The Last Battle for Iwo Jima Legend Woody Williams, Only Surviving WWII Medal of Honor Recipient

Jul 30 2021
Richard Sisk | MIlitary.com

Hershel Woodrow "Woody" Williams of Quiet Dell, West Virginia, became a Marine legend on Iwo Jima with a 70-pound M2 flamethrower strapped to his back. But he says he still has promises to keep at age 97 even after a lifetime of postwar service to veterans and Gold Star families.

Trying to live up to the responsibility that comes with the Medal of Honor, Williams spent 33 years after the war with what was then known as the Veterans Administration, first as a counselor and then overseeing 16 VA offices across West Virginia to advise veterans and widows on their benefits.

But that was not enough in Williams' mind to fulfill the duty he saw goes along with wearing the nation's highest award for valor.

He saw a void in the recognition of Gold Star families' sacrifices, whether their loved ones fell in combat or succumbed to what became known as the "invisible wounds" of war. So he set out to plug the gap.

Through his Woody Williams Foundation, he began to raise money and rally community support to put up Gold Star Families Memorial Monuments to those for whom wars never end after the fateful knock on the door, despite cease-fires or withdrawal timelines.

Currently, there are 86 monuments standing, with plans for 74 more. That might include one at the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Triangle, Virginia, near Marine Corp Base Quantico, if he can get the service to go along. Williams said he's been bugging the Marine Corps about that but has yet to make headway. "I haven't given up yet," he said.

Williams told Military.com that the inspiration that still drives him goes back to meeting Gen. A.A. Vandegrift, then the Marine commandant and another recipient of the Medal of Honor, after Williams received his award at the White House from President Harry S Truman on Oct. 5, 1945.

The general spoke of the two Marine riflemen who were killed giving Williams covering fire on Iwo Jima and all the others who didn't get to come home after the war.

"You wear the medal for them," Vandegrift told Williams. "The medal does not belong to you" but to the fallen and their families.

He added gravely, "Don't ever do anything that would tarnish that medal."

Heartbreak Cutout

In 2010, Williams began looking for new ways to support military families. On a speaking engagement in West Virginia, he noticed a man had stayed behind, sitting alone with his head bowed.

"I had no idea why,” Williams said. “I asked if there was anything I could do to help. I got no response from him. A little later, he was still sitting with his head down. He was grieving. The only thing he said to me was 'Dads cry too.' I asked him if he could share with me what happened.".

The man told him that his wife had died of cancer. Their only child, a son who had enlisted in the Army, was killed in Afghanistan after the mother's death.

"That's when it came to me that we need to do something" to recognize the families of lost service members, no matter how they died, Williams said.

There had been recognition over the years of Gold Star "Moms," he explained, but little attention was given to the impact of a service member's death on the entire family.

Williams came up with the idea for Gold Star Families Memorial Monuments to be installed around the country, with the goal of them becoming places for family members to meet and share their experiences with others who had been grieving alone.

He had ideas for what the monument should look like and the message it was meant to convey, and turned to Kenton Blackwood, senior designer and project manager at The Thrasher Group, in 2011 to come up with a final proposal.

The collaboration resulted in a design for four large slabs of polished black granite arranged in a graceful arc with an inscription on the front side: "A tribute to Gold Star Families and Relatives who sacrificed a Loved One for our Freedom.

The other side of each slab would feature artwork representing the themes of Homeland, Family, Patriot and Sacrifice.

But it was something missing from the final design of the monument that turned out to be its most striking feature. Instead of a three-dimensional figure of a saluting service member, there is a cutout leaving only a silhouette, symbolic of the missing service member who no longer can be touched or embraced.

Williams acknowledged initial misgivings about the cutout: He worried visitors might interpret it as a hole in the memorial. But he came to see the power in the missing figure. "I take credit for the design except for that one thing there," he said. "It is the keystone of the monument, no question in my mind."

The first monument was installed in 2013 at the Veterans Cemetery in Institute, West Virginia. Williams' foundation has since partnered with the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, or TAPs, to install monuments nationwide.

"Woody is a national treasure," said Bonnie Carroll, president and founder of TAPS, which provides support to military families grieving a loss.

The communities where monuments are installed sometimes add their own inscriptions. Lynn Feehan, who was instrumental in bringing a monument last year to Pensacola, Florida, said a plaque was added, bearing an inscription that reads, "The open silhouette in the monument represents the void left by those who gave all."

The cutout has special significance for former Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Audri Beugelsdijk, whose newlywed husband, Navy Seaman Jason Springer, was lost at sea. He was serving aboard the Spruance-class destroyer Kincaid off Mexico's Baja coast when he went missing. He had mustered in the early morning of March 5, 1997, but never reported to his workspace, she said. He was presumed overboard, but a 23-hour search failed to find him.

There's a marker for him in a cemetery in Indianapolis, his hometown, but "he's not there," said Beugelsdjik, now the Survivor Care Team director for TAPS. "My husband never came home. I don't have a grave to go to." But she said she has found solace at the Gold Star Families Memorial Monument north of Dallas, where she lives.

"It's a place, a peaceful place, to go -- an incredibly meaningful place to be," Beugelsdjik said. "The symbolism [of the cutout] is so powerful. You can't help but find yourself there."

Others spoke to the monuments' symbolism in helping them cope with grief.

Mark Zook was outside in Port St. Lucie, Florida, one evening in October 2004 when a white van pulled up, and the driver asked whether this was the Zook home. Then, the van pulled into the driveway, and two Marines and a Navy officer stepped out.

Cpl. Ian Zook had deployed in August 2004 to Iraq with 1st Battalion, 7th Marines. He had been wounded previously, and his father's first thought was that -- just maybe -- he had been wounded again.

Ian Zook had been riding in a Humvee that hit an anti-tank mine near the flashpoint town of Husaybah in western Anbar province near the Syrian border on Oct. 12, 2004. He succumbed to his injuries.

The Zooks were asked to join with other Gold Star families to serve as advisers to a board bringing a monument to Port St. Lucie. Williams came to the groundbreaking in February 2016.

"I met Woody for the first time, and we instantly became friends," Mark Zook said. "I was mesmerized by his sharpness, about what he wanted to do [through the foundation]."

The Zooks said the cutout in the monument symbolizes their son and all the other sons and daughters lost in war.

"They're gone but not forgotten," Mark Zook said. "There's probably not a day that goes by that we don't talk or say something about Ian. I've got a dogtag of his that I wear every day. It's always there. He's always there."

Two Tales of Going Above and Beyond

The U.S. awarded 473 Medals of Honor during World War II -- 27 for Iwo Jima alone. By 2020, only two recipients from that war were still living -- Williams and former Army Tech. Sgt. Charles Coolidge, of Signal Mountain, Tennessee.

Coolidge died in April at age 99.

Williams, now the only WWII veteran among the 67 living recipients of the Medal of Honor, said the death of his friend of more than 70 years, through their meetings with the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, "has a great impact on me, simply because I am the last survivor."

Coolidge and Williams fought on opposite sides of the world across utterly different terrain in America's epic two-front struggle to defeat Japan and Germany.

Coolidge previously had been awarded the Silver Star in the fight for Anzio during the Italian campaign. The actions in October 1944 that resulted in his MoH came in the rain and cold of a desperate four-day firefight to hold off a superior German force backed by tanks in the forests of eastern France near the town of Belmont-sur-Buttant.

Years later, in a video for the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, Coolidge recalled an exchange with a German officer on the fourth day of the battle.

The German officer popped the lid on a tank and called out to him in what Coolidge recalled was perfect English: "Do you guys wanna give up?"

Coolidge shouted back: "I'm sorry, Mac, you've gotta come get me."

In Williams' case, he earned the MoH for a battle that began in February 1945 on a pork chop-shaped hunk of volcanic rock whose two airfields were vital to the planned U.S. invasion of Japan. He said units with the 3rd Marine Division were told on the ships that they were to be in reserve for what was expected to be a quick takeover of Iwo Jima.

But there would be no reserves in the bloody, five-week fight for the island that the Japanese had honeycombed with 11 miles of tunnels, hidden artillery batteries and a diabolically ingenious network of camouflaged bunkers and pillboxes with interlocking fields of fire.

On the third day of the battle, the Marine offensive against one of the airfields had broken down with heavy casualties against withering cross-fire coming from the Japanese defenders' heavily fortified pillboxes.

Then-Cpl. Williams found himself in a bomb crater to escape the cross-fire with an officer trying to figure out a way forward. Could Williams do something about the pillboxes with the flamethrowers and demolitions from his headquarters unit? Williams doesn't remember saying it, but others with him said he responded: "I'll try."

He crawled forward with the flamethrower, backed by four Marines with small arms. At one point, he climbed atop one of the pillboxes and stuck the nozzle of his flamethrower down an air vent to fire off a burst to wipe out the enemy.

Williams also recalled firing a burst from the flamethrower to eliminate four or five Japanese soldiers who came charging at him from around a corner of one of the pillboxes, but much of what happened during the four-hour struggle to neutralize at least five -- possibly seven -- of the pillboxes remains a blank to him.

His medal citation states that "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 flamethrowers, struggling back, frequently to the rear of hostile emplacements, to wipe out one position after another."

"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 strongpoints encountered by his regiment and aided vitally in enabling his company to reach its objective," the citation adds.

"It's one of those things that's bothered me ever since," Williams said of the gaps in his memory. "I've talked to psychologists, highly skilled people, asked them. They don't have an answer either. The only answer I've ever had that makes sense: If you don't have a reason, or you do not want to remember, your mind can shut that down and, if it does, it will never return."

Loss of Brother to Breakdown

Williams came to the VA by happenstance after the war when he was dealing with the loss of his brother to what has become known as the "invisible wounds" of combat.

William Gerald Williams had been wounded twice while serving with the 3rd Army of Gen. George S. Patton in the Battle of the Bulge. He later barely escaped when the train he was riding on was strafed by a German fighter.

His brother experienced what Williams called "a complete breakdown mentally. He was put in an Army mental hospital. They had him on medication and kept him quiet. He was in there 'til after the war. They kept him confined, diagnosed with 'psychological neurosis.'"

"When the war was over, he still wasn't in any condition to be sent home," Williams said. "They finally found some medication that kept him very quiet, very subdued."

His brother went home to West Virginia in late 1945, but "he didn't live very long after that," Williams said. "He didn't commit suicide. I think he just gave up."

Williams himself got home in November 1945.

"Things were starting to rebuild," he said, and he got a job in construction soon after returning. The job offer came "from a guy in my hometown. I'm positive in my own mind that he hired me because I had the Medal of Honor" and not because he had any skills in the trade, Williams said. "I knew farming and the Marine Corps. That's all I knew."

Then, there was a phone call "from somebody in the VA. At that point of time, I didn't know we had a VA, Veterans Administration. I didn't even know they existed. So I got this call and they wanted to know if I wanted to come and work for the Veterans Administration. I questioned, 'Well, what's that and what would I be doing?'"

"They said, 'You'd be trained as a veterans counselor and you'd be in an office and you'd be assisting veterans and their families with things that they are entitled to because of their service.' I said, 'No, I don't want that. I'm a farmboy, born and raised on a farm. I don't know anything but farming, and I don't want to be penned up in an office.' I hung up on 'em."

A few weeks later, there was a second call from the VA that stressed the bottom line on salary. The guy on the other end of the line told him, "This pays pretty good money."

"And I said how much, and he said it pays $2,980 a year," Williams remembered. "Well, I never heard tell of such money. I was making $36 a month in the Marine Corps. I told him I'll take it; I don't care what I'll be doing."

New Marine Great-Grandson

This past June 15, Williams participated in a Zoom event sponsored by the Veterans Breakfast Club discussion group in Pittsburgh with three other Iwo Jima veterans -- former Marine Sgt. Jack Watson, 97, of Pittsburgh; former Navy Radioman 1st Class Bob Young, 97, of Pittsburgh; and Marine Sgt. Larry Kirby, 97, of Beverly, Massachusetts.

All said they had been told aboard the ships that the assault on Iwo Jima was expected to result in a quick takeover of the island. Each spoke to the numbing sense of fear they had to fight off as the predictions proved illusory and the casualties mounted.

"I can tell you as one man we were as frightened as we could get," Watson said. "You couldn't dig deep enough into that sand."

Kirby spoke of his admiration for Williams in going forward with the flamethrower despite the chaos and carnage around him.

"Nobody respects or admires him more than his fellow Iwo Jima Marines because we were there to see what it was like, and that was a tough place," he said.

A week after the Zoom event, Williams was in dress blues, the Medal of Honor draped round his neck, at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island in South Carolina, where aspiring Marines are drilled on their duty to live up to the never-quit legacy of those who fought on Iwo Jima and all the other battles in the gritty history of the Corps.

As an honorary official for the graduation parade, Williams saluted sharply as the 350 recruits passed in review, but his eye was trained on one in particular.

In a sense, Williams was there to pass the torch to a strapping 20-year-old recruit named Cedar Ross, his great-grandson, who was graduating from the demanding boot camp.

Williams' pride in his great-grandson swelled at learning that the exemplary performance of Ross during training had earned him a meritorious promotion to private first class at graduation.

Ross told CBS News that the drill instructors found out about halfway through training that his great-grandfather was Woody Williams. "The chief drill instructor told me, 'Ross, you're going to have big shoes to fill,'" the new Marine said. "I said, 'Yes, sir. Thankfully, I wear size 15.'"

Williams said of his great-grandson, "The only advice I think I gave him was to do the very best that he could and then to do a little more."

In his address to the new Marines, Lt. Col. Robert M. Groceman, commanding officer of the 2nd Recruit Training Battalion, told them to follow the example of those who went before them in the ranks, and to take pride -- at least for a day -- in what they had accomplished in passing the grueling training course.

"But tomorrow is no longer about you," Groceman said. "Tomorrow is about those Marines who came before us, whose legacy you are now a part of. Tomorrow is about those Marines to your left and to your right who are depending on you."