I doubt that many Americans know Hershel Williams or have even heard his name before. But as we observe the 77th anniversary of the Battle of Iwo Jima it is only fitting we tell his story. The story of one of the battles more than 2 dozen Medal of Honor recipients, the story of the only such recipient still alive today.
A total of 27 Medals of Honor were awarded in connection with the Battle of Iwo Jima- 22 to Marines and 5 to Sailors. By comparison, only 82 Medals of Honor were awarded to Marines during the entire war. Only one of those recipients remains alive today – Hershel W. Williams, USMC.
Williams was born in 1923 and raised on a dairy farm outside Fairmont Virginia. Following the outbreak of WWII, he enlisted in the United States Marine Corps Reserves, after having been turned away earlier due to being too short. After completing basic training and advanced tank training he was assigned as a demolition man and flamethrower operator. His first overseas assignments saw him in Guadalcanal and Guam before participating in the Battle of Iwo Jima.
On February 21, 1945, Cpl. Williams landed on Iwo Jima. Two days later he distinguished himself by repeatedly attacking a series of pillboxes housing deadly machinegun emplacements. For over four hours Cpl. Williams worked his way forward, placed demolition charges and attacked enemy positions with his flame thrower. At one point he was charged by bayonet armed Japanese and repelled them. During another engagement, he crawled close enough to a bunker to insert the flame throwers nozzle through an air vent, killing all inside.
Although discharged in 1945 Williams reenlisted in the inactive Reserves in 1948 but was again discharged in 1949. Not to be deterred he reenlisted in the Organized Reserves in 1954. For the next 15 years, he would serve in a variety of positions in the 25th Infantry Company, Huntingdon WV. including acting Commanding Officer after reaching the rank of Warrant Officer. In 1969, after attaining the rank of Chief Warrant Officer 4 Williams ended his military career for the third time. Despite not meeting the official requirements for retirement, having served a total of only 17 years, CWO4 Williams was awarded an honorary retirement.
Today Hershel W. “Woody” Williams in now the only living Iwo Jima Medal of Honor recipients and 1 of only 7 WW2 recipients still with us. Like so many of the “Greatest Generation,” CWO4 Williams will soon be gone. But that does not mean that we can’t remember him, his comrades and the sacrifice they paid to protect America & defeat her enemies.
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