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This Day in History: Hershel “Woody” Williams, a hero at Iwo Jima

On this day in 2022, a hero passes away. Medal of Honor recipient Corporal Hershel “Woody” Williams was perhaps an unlikely hero. He’d tried to join the Marines early in World War II, but he was turned down because he was too short.

He was able to join later only because the Marines changed their height requirement.

Harry Truman awards the Medal to Cpl. Hershel “Woody” Williams.

Williams’s heroism came at Iwo Jima during February 1945. He’d made his beach landing on the 21st, but his division got bogged down practically as soon as they landed. Those Marines were up against a network of machine gun pillboxes, and they were facing many losses.

Two days later, they were still fighting to advance.

The enemy pillboxes were reinforced with steel and covered with sand, making them hard to break up with bombs and artillery. Thus, the main effect of American strikes was to kick a lot of sand up into the air.

Williams’s commanding officer asked him if he could do something about the pillboxes. The former taxi driver resolutely met the challenge that he’d been handed, but he would later describe the treacherous hours that followed. “It’s almost like a dream. Like it’s really not real,” he concluded.

Williams had a flamethrower, a device that he would later call a “terrible, terrible weapon.” With only four riflemen providing him cover, he spent several hours running back and forth between American lines (where he’d prepare a flamethrower) and the enemy pillboxes (where he’d work to knock one out).

Williams’s citation describes some of that harrowing experience: “On 1 occasion, he daringly mounted a pillbox to insert the nozzle of his flamethrower through the air vent, killing the occupants and silencing the gun; on another he grimly charged enemy riflemen who attempted to stop him with bayonets and destroyed them with a burst of flame from his weapon.”

“Don’t ask me how I did it,” he later said. “I don’t know how I did it. But in four hours I knocked out seven of those things. Much of it I don’t remember. And I attribute that to fear. Absolutely.”

He did it, and he survived. But he didn’t stop there. Less than two weeks later, his leg was hit with shrapnel in another action. Once the metal was removed from his leg, he was told to return to the ship.

Williams flatly refused. He was staying to fight, injury or no injury. But perhaps it is no surprise that a hero—and a Marine—would refuse to return to safety while his comrades were still in harms’ way?

Later that year, Williams was awarded the Medal of Honor for his “unyielding determination and extraordinary heroism,” displayed against “one of the most fanatically defended Japanese strong points encountered by his regiment.”

Many years later, Williams spoke of what the Medal of Honor meant to him.

“The medal represents what the country has always stood for. Sacrifice. The day I was born . . . . I was handed a gem that is absolutely impossible to buy. That was my freedom. Can’t pay for it. There is not enough money in the world. So this medal, to me, stands for sacrifice and service.”

Williams passed away on June 29 last year. Rest in peace, sir.

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