Hershel W. “Woody” Williams, the last remaining World War II Medal of Honor recipient whose heroism under fire during the crucial hours of the Battle of Iwo Jima made him a legend, died Wednesday in his native West Virginia. He was 98 years old.
The Williams Foundation announced on Twitter and Facebook that he died at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center that bore his name in Huntington, West Virginia.
“Today, America lost not only a gallant Marine and Medal of Honor recipient, but an important link in our nation’s fight against tyranny in World War II,” Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III said in a statement. “I hope every American will pause to reflect on their service and the service of the entire generation that sacrificed so much to defend the cause of freedom and democracy.”
As a young Marine corporal, Williams went ahead of his unit in February 1945 and destroyed a number of Japanese machine gun positions on Iwo Jima, where the Marines planted the American flag on Mount Suribachi, a moment captured in one of the most iconic war photographs in history. Williams said he saw the flag from afar after it was hoisted as surrounding troops were celebrating.
Later that year, at the age of 22, Williams received the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award for military prowess, from President Harry Truman at the White House.
“For me, receiving the Medal of Honor was actually a lifesaver because it made me open up about my experience, which was therapy I didn’t even know I had,” Williams said during the 2018 Boy Scouts recognition ceremony. This is reported by the Times West Virginian newspaper.
Williams’ actions in battle to clear the way for US tanks and infantry are detailed on the US military’s Medal of Honor website. He “quickly offered his services as our tanks maneuvered in vain to open a passage for the infantry through a network of reinforced concrete pillboxes, buried mines and black volcanic sands. Williams defiantly went forward alone to try and take the devastating machine gun fire from unyielding positions,” the website says.
Faced with small arms fire, Williams fought for four hours, returning repeatedly to prepare demolition charges and obtain flamethrowers.
Williams remained in the Marines after the war, serving a total of 20 years before serving 33 years with the Veterans Administration, now the Department of Veterans Affairs, as a Veterans Service Representative.
In 2018, the Virginia State Medical Center in Huntington was renamed in his honor, and in 2020 the Navy commissioned a mobile mothership in his name. Bowl LII in Minneapolis.
Williams may not have received as much national attention as another West Virginia native, an Air Force brig. Gene. Chuck Yeagerflamboyant World War II fighter pilot who became the first person to fly faster than sound in 1947. Yeager died in December 2020. Nevertheless, in his home state, Williams was a household name.
Williams was born the youngest of 11 children on a dairy farm on October 1st. December 2, 1923 in the village of Quiet Dell in northern West Virginia. Prior to joining the Army, he served in the Civilian Conservation Corps and as a teenager worked as a taxi driver in Fairmont, sometimes delivering Western Union telegrams to the families of fallen soldiers.
It was this passion that later motivated Williams and his Louisville, Kentucky-based non-profit foundation to raise money and erect more than 100 memorial monuments to families with gold stars in recognition of relatives of fallen service members across the United States, according to his website.
Although his two older brothers served in the military, Williams wanted to take a different path. He knew some of the Marines in his area and admired their blue uniforms whenever they returned home. But at 5ft 6in, Williams was turned down because of his height when he tried to join them in 1942. A year later, the Marines admitted him at the age of 19.
Williams later said he relied on his fiancée Ruby to help him get through the often troubling times during the war, when he told himself he had to get back to the girl he was going to marry.
Their marriage lasted 62 years. Ruby Williams died in 2007 at the age of 83. The couple had two daughters and five grandchildren.