WO-4 Hershel "Woody" Williams (USMC, WWII Veteran)
Duty. Webster’s Dictionary defines duty as “a moral or legal obligation,” but when this word is put under unfathomable stressors, without undaunted courage, it stands as nothing more than that. It’s simply a word scrawled out on some pages of a book in the reference section of your local book store or library. It is so unbelievably painless to speak of duty where visions of American flags waving in the wind, awards pinned on puffed-out chests, and victorious parades become present in our mind’s eye. But, what is duty without action? We often hear this word when our greatest generation speaks out through historical records.
“I was just doing my duty…” “I did my duty and that’s all there was to it…” “I knew I had to do my duty for my men…”
There are countless records of this common identifier amongst those who have faced astronomically adverse circumstances. Still, when Hershel “Woody” Williams spoke of “just doing his duty,” there was something that brought that phrase into a place of elite battlefield performance, forged through a moment of destiny. Like a terrific maelstrom of mammoth proportions, the environment of foundational elements was laid out in succession as Woody’s boots pounded those black, shifting Iwo Jima sands with 70 lbs of hellacious fury strapped on his 5’6” frame.
At the moment, Woody might as well have stood 10 feet tall as duty became fortuitous deed. It’s those moments of obligation where certain men push through unquestionable fear through the doors of indubitable risk, and find themselves on the other side as legendary warriors. They look out with a death stare into the dark space of facing their own mortality but realizing that word “duty” is more than just a collection of letters. Duty, when met with actionable exertion, becomes the expanse where liberty is preserved, and a republic’s destiny is solidified in those freedoms our forefathers so voraciously fought to attain. Even then, the most well-spoken warriors of World War Two talk about their actions with a simplistic beauty. There was no deep thought stream or profound proverb contained within their actions. The Battle of Iwo Jima was simply about survival and outlasting a mighty Japanese enemy that was making their final stand, ready to pour out every ounce of blood in defense of the empire. Woody Williams was fighting to carry out orders and part of carrying out those orders was surviving, which would possibly foster an opportunity for victory. There, we arrive at the question of how Woody Williams the legendary Marine developed into the man prepared for such a date with destiny. Who better to tell us than Woody himself?
We’d like to take the time to thank our incredible partners, Recon and Sniper Foundation, for sponsoring Woody’s story.
Can you tell me about your early life and growing up?
WW: I grew up in a rural part of West Virginia. My father started a dairy farm when I was very young and that is where I grew up. There were eleven children in my family and I was the baby. There were only five of us children that survived into adulthood. This was a time of no doctors available and so none of the 11 had a doctor at birth. There were several of my siblings that died at birth or shortly afterward. The world flu during my teen years took some of my siblings as well. My siblings that survived consisted of four boys and one girl. My family made our living through our dairy farm. Our farm was about seven miles away from the city. My father arranged with several families in the community to deliver milk, eggs, butter, vegetables, chickens, and whatever else we could sell. We had a regular route since there were no grocery stores and no refrigeration either. You couldn’t keep food long unless you had an icebox. We, fortunately, did have an icebox to keep our milk in until we would deliver it to the houses in town.
We would pass an icehouse on the way back home that was in the city. You could buy chunks of ice that were 50 or 100-pound blocks. My dad would pick up a 100-pound chunk of ice for our box so that we had a way to keep the milk cool. It was a seven-day operation on the farm and we all worked everyday. During the winter, after harvesting the crops things would slow down since we didn’t plant or harvest then. We had some free time at that point and we would go to town on Saturdays. We had one vehicle, which was a Model T Ford. When the Model A Ford came out it was a tremendous boost in automotive technology. We generally walked wherever we went and that was how we got around. My dad had told us the truck was for the farm only so, no personal use (laughs).
What do you remember about your brothers and sisters?
WW: I was close to my brothers who were closest in age. The other siblings were much older and we didn’t have very much in common. My father died when I was eleven. He died of a heart attack and had been ill several months before he passed. We didn’t have cardiologists back then. My mother had been taking care of him while he was at home ill. The boys took over the management of the farm since the oldest brother hated farming (laughs). He got a job in town and did not want to have anything to do with it.
My next to oldest brother ran the farm as long as we were able to keep it. When the war came along my two older brothers were drafted right away in 1942. They went to the Army when they were drafted. My mom was then short of help, so my younger brother and myself became the ones running the farm. My last brother was drafted, then I went to the Marine Corps, and my mom couldn’t get any help. If you were able to work you were drafted. That’s how it worked back then. My mom had to sell the farm because of us boys being gone.
Where did your brothers go when they joined the Army?
WW: My brothers went straight over to Europe when they were drafted. One of them was very fortunate and was placed into a supply group that sent supplies to the frontline troops. He never saw combat. The other brother was in Patton’s Third Army and was in the Battle of the Bulge. He was shot pretty badly and had a nervous breakdown soon after. Once that happened he was taken out of combat. He was then sent to a hospital in England. There were no psychiatrists or social workers at the time to figure out what exactly was wrong. They kept him there under sedation and he didn’t arrive home until several months after World War II was over. He died shortly after he came home. He just gave up and didn’t have the will to live anymore. When he died he was only 36 years old.
How did the conditions of growing up on a farm help prepare you for the Marine Corps?
WW: We didn’t know the conditions we grew up in were that tough because everyone grew up that way. Everybody was in the same boat as we were at that time in our country. We were raised in a culture where your dad or mom told you to do something and you just did it. You didn’t say “I don’t want to do it.” When I joined the military and received an order I accepted it without hesitation. I had no difficulty adjusting to being on time or the regimen of the Marine Corps because that is how it worked when I was a boy growing up in West Virginia. When I lived on the dairy farm the five or six-year-olds of the family would be assigned certain duties. When I came along, I remember being the one who had to get the cows ready to be milked. I was up at four am to get them ready and that was the routine. I never questioned it. That was the job and you did it without hesitation, even at 6 years old (laughs).
How old were you when you enlisted in the Marines?
WW: I wanted to join the Marines when I was 17 years old. My dad had passed away when I was 11 due to illness and my mother wouldn’t sign my papers to allow me to join. She was running the farm and needed help. When I turned 18 the thought of “I can do what I want,” ran through my head (laughs). I tried to enlist at 18 and the Marine Corps turned me down because at 5’6” I was too short. In 1943, they did away with the height requirement because they needed more bodies. The Marine recruiters were then able to accept me and they came looking for me at that point. I enlisted and I was sent to San Diego. In 1943 the east coast was more heavily populated than the west coast and Parris Island was getting too many people volunteering, so they sent me to MCRD. They were unable to find enough drill instructors or housing for all of the recruits coming in. The men were in temporary tents. They loaded the trains down with men and we headed to San Diego for boot camp.
What do you remember about Boot Camp and your drill instructors?
WW: The drill instructors were Marines that had been in combat and they were brought in as experts to train the new recruits. Many of them had seen action at Guadalcanal. They knew what would be happening to the recruits when they finished boot camp. I think this was a smart move because a person that has never been in combat has a hard time conveying it to recruits in a realistic manner. I had no trouble with boot camp. When you were told to do something that is exactly what you did with no questions asked. I’d grown up the same way so the transition was rather easy.
What Marine Division were you with?
WW: I was with the 3rd Marine Division. We went overseas as a replacement group and we were to fill in the slots in the places that had lost people. Our first place to land was New Caledonia which was a French territory. It was a transport area and from there they sent us out to the different units needing men. I was sent to join the 3rd Marine Division because they were on Bougainville when I got to Guadalcanal. We were to go on to Bougainville to join but they finished that campaign before I arrived. I stayed at Guadalcanal to train for the next campaign. We had no idea when or where we were going. My time at Guadalcanal ended in June and that is where I got the job of flamethrower operator. We had never even seen a flamethrower before. We were told that we would be flamethrower operators and that’s all there was to it. It’s not like I was able to choose that as my job or not. It was a, “you, you, and you” scenario.
I wasn’t nervous about being chosen as a flamethrower operator at that particular moment since we knew nothing about it. We didn’t know how to use it and neither did the people training us (laughs). We had to teach ourselves how to operate it, but luckily we did have instructions on how to mix the fuel. It was a gel phosphorus compound that went into the tanks. The gunnery sergeant that was in charge of our group didn’t like the gel at all. When you hit the ignition, there was only 72 seconds of fuel and It was similar to holding a water hose while attempting to hit the target with the stream. It was hard to aim due to being fired from waist level. The fuel was then changed from the gel to a liquid.
How’d you come up with a proper concoction of fuel?
WW: We experimented with kerosene, motor oil, and finally ended up with diesel mixed with high-octane airplane fuel. This was a concoction our gunnery sergeant came up with. We first started using regular gasoline which was 82 octane but if you took on too much gas and not enough diesel it wouldn’t go anywhere. You can’t shoot gasoline. It took us a bit to get the mix just right that would work best. I remember the flammability being there but the distance still needed to be worked on. The weather played a role in the distance for the flamethrower as well, and the direction of aim mattered too. If you shot into the air the flame simply didn’t go anywhere. Starting from the ground up and “rolling” the flame upward was the best way to eliminate the target.
What do you remember about the first time out on the ship?
WW: Our first time out on the ship we had absolutely no idea where we were going. When we left we were the reserve for the 2nd Marine Division. I remember being out in the ocean sitting and not moving. They took us back to one of the other islands that had already been taken since the 2nd Marine division didn’t need our help at the time. We had eaten up all the chow on the ship and had been sitting out in the ocean for weeks. The ship was restocked during the stay at the island and we took off to sea again. Once we got out to sea they informed us we were headed to Guam. We landed in Guam in July of 1944 and took it back from the Japanese.
How was that as a campaign and fight?
WW: The majority of the fighting in Guam involved jungle tactics. The jungle was so thick and dense we were constantly using machetes to get through the dense growth. The Japanese were impressive at camouflage and they had hidden themselves in trees and the undergrowth. They would tie themselves up in the canopy utilizing ambush tactics and knowing that they were going to die for their country. Dying for them was an honor and they didn’t fear that. It wasn’t the same for us because as Americans we do everything we can to preserve life. They gave theirs up theirs fervently and willingly. The majority of the Guam campaign was jungle combat and that made fighting extremely tough.
Were you a flamethrower operator on Guam as well?
WW: I was chosen as a flamethrower before Guam but there wasn’t any use for it on the island. The Marines always consider you a rifleman first. We were riflemen and never really used the flamethrower on Guam. It was all jungle there. It was very difficult to work with a flamethrower in those conditions so that’s why we used our rifles. The enemy there couldn't dig tunnels or make caves due to the rock. Iwo Jima was almost entirely sand and that was the main difference between the two environments.
I carried the flamethrower ashore with me on Iwo Jima and for the first couple of days, my assistant carried everything extra for both of us. He carried the bedrolls, extra clothing, ammunition, hand grenades, and extra canteens. He had to carry everything for two people. I had an extra 70 pounds on my back with the flamethrower, so my assistant had to have both of his hands available to be able to fire if needed. The first couple of days we were just trying to make our way up the hill and couldn’t use the flamethrower. There were no caves for us to use it in.
How long did that last?
WW: That campaign in Guam lasted from the July 14th to August 10th. We secured the island and the Japanese didn’t have enough forces left to be effective. At the end of August we made a sweep of the entire island to eliminate the remnants of Japanese fighters. They were hiding in caves and holes which made it hard to find them. We did find most of them during that sweep of the island. They didn’t have an organized force to stand up to us anymore. There was zero noise in the jungle and you couldn’t see anything. I remember the frogs driving us crazy. When you would hear a noise you always thought it was a Japanese soldier and not a frog. I’ve told people we used more ammunition on frogs than we did on the Japanese (laughs). If one of us started firing at something then everyone joined in, even if we didn’t see anything. We weren’t taking any chances.
Do you feel like that time on Guam helped you when you landed at Iwo Jima?
WW: I know that my time on Guam helped prepare me for Iwo Jima. After Guam, I knew what I was getting into on Iwo Jima. Sometimes, you have to learn things by doing them first. A book can only teach you so much. The terrain in Iwo Jima had no trees so it was definitely different than Guam, environmentally. The only real vegetation to speak of were shrubs that had all the limbs knocked off. The thing about Iwo Jima was that we had very little intelligence. We did have some intelligence on Guam. We had information before we arrived there but not at Iwo Jima. There was no one on the island to share reconnaissance except for the frogmen, who’d been there destroying the underwater fortifications and explosives. They had cleared those structures under water and diffused anything that could damage or destroy ships along the shoreline. We didn’t know anything about the enemy, the caves, fortifications, or the tunnels.
We also didn’t know that you couldn't drink the water. It was all salt water. The Japanese had depended on the rain to provide their water. The island had no drinkable water because of the sulfurous soil. The volcano there had holes and places that would collect the water in these pockets of sulfurous water, and you obviously couldn’t drink any of that water. The Japanese had run a pipe from the top of the mountain down the side to the bottom of the mountain. The pipes went to the caves and tunnels, providing water for their troops. They also had barrels to store the water for them. We blew the pipes out and started bombing any pipeline that brought their water to them. They couldn’t get any water after that. Our hydration came in from the ship until we brought in units to change the seawater to drinking water. That stuff tasted terrible (laughs). You would drink it to stay hydrated and you were very conservative with it. There was just no way to know when you’d get a resupply because of how dangerous it was on that island.
What was the feeling like the first couple of days on the island?
WW: That first couple of days in combat I was definitely anxious and scared. You just weren’t sure if you were going to make it or not, and everyone experienced those feelings. I simply had to adjust to the stressors and do my job. The job was my primary focus. If I was killed then that would just be a part of being in war. You had to accept this reality in order to do your duty to the best of your ability. Learning to adjust to making decisions even when you’re afraid is a part of surviving combat.
Did you see other Marines struggle with that?
WW: I saw some Marines fall victim to shock in battle. They were completely useless after that. It was shameful. The other Marines looked at those crying and thought they were faking it. There were those that just couldn’t handle the rigors of combat.
Did you have any preparation for the logistics of attacking Iwo Jima?
WW: We had a full sheet model made of plywood that showed us what Iwo Jima was supposed to look like measurement wise. We had briefings about the island but we had no idea where we were going. I didn’t know anything about Iwo Jima because there was very little intelligence like I mentioned before. They told us it was 2 ½ miles wide and 5 miles long. We would probably never get off the ship according to those briefings. The campaign would last about 5 days and we would never actually deploy to the island but we were there in case they needed us. We could hear explosions going off and we sat out in the ocean for several days. The Japanese general, Kuribayashi, was running their operations and he reversed the defense system of the Japanese forces.
Previously, they would set up their defenses to attack you in the water because if you couldn’t get ashore you couldn’t capture them. They wanted to kill us before we got on the island. They reversed tactics to let us deploy to the island because they knew the chances of beating us were minimal. They would die on that island and they knew it. General Kuribayashi knew this and told each of his men to take ten Marines with them when they died. When the Marines landed the first day, they had only a small section of beach to land on. Kuribayashi let them make it ashore and waited until the boats had left. He knew they couldn’t get off the island and set his defenses where more Marines could be killed. We lost 5,000 men (wounded and killed) the first day because of this. Our men couldn’t dig holes because the sand was so loose and couldn’t be packed.
The first day at midnight as we were laying in our bunks, it came over the loudspeaker that we were to have chow a 0300 and disembark at 0500. This meant we were now going ashore. We went for breakfast where we had steak and eggs. They had never given us this nice of a breakfast (laughs). It came to my mind that this is what you give someone on death row just before he dies. We had our breakfast and proceeded to disembark. The waves were too high for us to use the gangways so we had to use the ropes. The boats were waiting for us and all of this was done before daylight. I was on the left side of the ropes and I couldn’t see anything. When I got near the boat, the rope on my end had been let go of and I was hanging between the ship and the boat. Fortunately, one of the sailors reached out and grabbed me to pull me in otherwise I wouldn’t be here today. The boats usually held 35 personnel and some sat but most stood. We headed for the rendezvous point where all the boats would meet up together. This would form a wave which was anywhere from 12-20 boats in this wave. I had never been seasick until this time. I wasn’t sure if it was due to the rocking of the boat or someone else puking on me (laughs). Everyone was puking and anyone that says they weren’t, is a liar (laughs). The stench was awful. The gunnery sergeant was standing up front and at one point he announced if anybody pissed in the boat he would shoot them (laughs).
The water was sloshing over the edges of the craft and we were all sitting miserably in that water. We stayed in that boat all day long and let me tell you that mother nature does not wait. You have to go to the bathroom or “head” as we call it in the Corps. The boats all had a bilge pump to siphon that water out but those pumps are so small. This pump was siphoning the entire time to get the water out that was coming over the edges. If you had to go to the head wherever you were sitting in the boat, you would have to move over close to the bilge pump. It was an all-day process and Marines were puking over the sides too. The Japanese were doing a good job of keeping Marines on the beach where they could not move forward. We couldn’t get ashore at first because there was no place for us to go. This made us go back aboard the ship that night and we finally got on board around 11:30 pm that night. I had puked up food from three days before (laughs).
We only had two canteens of water which was consumed much earlier that day. I flopped out on the top deck when the landing craft got us back to the ship, and I woke up to the whistle being blown the next morning. Did I tell you that I could’ve murdered that whistle man (laughs)? The routine that morning was the same as the day before (laughs). We went back to the rendezvous area. The 4th division had been able to get ashore just before noon. They were moving forward and got some security of the airfield. There was nowhere to hide and when they had tried to go across the airfield they would have to retreat. The Japanese would fire on them and back they would go. It was an open area. They finally gave us enough room to come in and land. It was a mess with jeeps, tanks, trucks, and bodies scattered all along the beach. I’ll never forget that sight.
Do you remember seeing the Japanese on Iwo Jima?
WW: The Japanese were almost like ghosts on Iwo Jima. They were very good at concealment and did anything and everything to keep themselves hidden until they attacked. They’d do things like take a barrel, bury it in the ground, and climb inside concealing themselves by putting the lid on top. They would raise the lid and shoot at you and you’d never know where their rounds were coming from. They brought in pieces of iron rods (rebar) and concrete to construct their pillboxes. The reinforced mix of that rebar and concrete would create a structure that was almost impossible to penetrate. The only target we had when firing at the pillbox was a 6 to 8-inch slit in the front on the structure.
The Japanese could stick their machine guns out and fire on us fairly easily. It was very difficult to try and shoot somebody through that very small opening. The flamethrower became useful on Iwo Jima because of these situations. Getting into their tunnels was almost impossible so the flamethrower became more effective. Some of the pillboxes sealed themselves in and some had tunnels built into them. The Japanese were like rats that you couldn't see. They were a very difficult enemy to fight.
What was the procedure when you were getting ready to light a tunnel or pillbox up?
WW: To get the flamethrower into an effective range where we could light up a pillbox or tunnel, I had to crawl as close as I could to the target. The goal was to get 15-20 yards away to get the flame inside the structure. The support people firing at the pillbox were so important because they kept the enemy preoccupied with covering fire while the flamethrower operator approached. We were trained that if we saw fellow Marines headed to a pillbox we were to concentrate fire on that particular pillbox.
Do you remember thinking about the devastation of using that flamethrower?
WW: I didn’t think about the devastation I caused. The Japanese were not human to me. If you stop and think about humanity you’d lose your effectiveness as a Marine. I just thought of them as the enemy. They were a force that we had to get rid of in order to win the war. I didn’t see them as people. I didn’t want to give myself an opportunity for mental weakness.
What were the actions of the day that led to that?
WW: When we hit the beach I was in charge of a special weapons unit. This unit consisted of six individuals and myself along with a gunnery sergeant. The six of us had been trained in demolition and the flamethrower. When we got to the beach we didn’t know if we would be using them though. We were riflemen first and flamethrower operators became part of a platoon just like any other Marine. The company commander could say we needed to burn a pillbox down, put a flame in the cave or to seal the cave, that is when they operated in their additional duties. We had arrived on the 21st and by the 23rd they were gone. I didn’t know where or had any information about it. We didn’t get any reports about it. It was so chaotic during that time. The people in command would get the reports but not to us. February 23rd rolled around and I didn’t have any flamethrower ammunition people left.
When we crossed that first airfield the general had set up pillboxes reinforced with iron rods (rebar). The pillboxes were almost impossible to crush. Artillery like bombs or rockets hitting them would not do anything to those pillboxes. They would simply bounce off and explode. The pillboxes were lined up around the airfield to protect it. There were 800 pillboxes in Iwo Jima. These shelters were the best source of protection for the emperor’s troops. The caves would only hold one or two people. The northern part of the island was entirely too rocky to dig any type of hole for a cave. The Japanese built the pillboxes and made them in a pod of two other pillboxes. You couldn’t approach one without one of the others being able to see you. You had double fields of fire and they had an entire field of fire. Our only field of fire was an 8-10 inch opening across the front of the pillbox. They would stick their rifles out and shoot at us with ease. You had to be a pretty good marksman to fire from 200 yards away and hit the Japanese soldier inside the pillbox.
This is why the flamethrower became such a necessary weapon. If you could get close enough to get the flamethrower inside the box it would jerk all the oxygen out of the air. It wasn’t really the burning that killed them. The cause of death was usually asphyxiation. They couldn’t breathe due to lack of oxygen. The range for a flamethrower was dependent on the wind and where you were firing. We learned very quickly that you do not fire into the wind (laughs). You only need one lesson to realize that. I did it one time which burned all the hair off of my eyebrows and arms (laughs). You would need to get within 15-20 yards to get the flame to really do its job.
If you fired it at body height the wind would stop the flame before it even reached the enemy. We learned to fire 15 yards in front of us on the ground with 3-5 second bursts. It was a huge ball of fire that was 15-20 feet in diameter. When it hit the ground it just rolled upward into the target. This would cover the entire face of the pillbox and go straight inside it. It wasn’t my job to be on the front lines but I was stationed at headquarters to make sure my guys had all the materials they needed. My commanding officer knowing that called a meeting because he had lost all but two of his officers. The squad leaders and platoon sergeants were gone. I would normally not go to these meetings because I wasn’t a commissioned officer. I was told that I had to go link up with my first sergeant because the commander wanted me there. He asked me if I could do something with the flamethrower to take out the pillboxes. They had been attacking them all day long and people were just getting wounded. They were losing Marines. He had never used one. He told me to take four Marines with me as my support and see if I could do something about those Japanese pillboxes. I did what he said and strapped on the flamethrower.
We had a man called a “poleman” that carried an explosive on an eight-foot pole. His job was to put the explosive down in the pillbox or seal the cave. He pushed forward in front of me but didn’t last long due to being hit by a round that went through his helmet. He was killed and fell into a hole we just came out of. I still had four men with me after that. We lost two of those men in the span of those four hours. I also used six flamethrowers and eliminated the enemy inside seven pillboxes. I have no idea how I did it, to be honest. There is no way I can explain it. I wasn’t wounded and was never even touched. They dropped mortars as well but those didn’t hit me either. I have no explanation for any of it. The psychologists I spoke with couldn’t explain why I couldn't remember the event of procuring the other five flamethrowers. I don’t think any one of those Marines said to himself, “Let me strap this on my back and run this out to him.” The citation said that by eliminating those pillboxes we opened a path to funnel through. The others were too far away to get us but once we broke through the line we could head north. The flag went up that same day over Mount Suribachi.
Did you know any of those guys?
WW: The men who raised the flag were in a different division than I was. There were 20,000 in each division. The men that were around me all did the same thing when it was raised. We began yelling, screaming and firing our weapons into the air celebrating. I saw the flag go up and I joined in with the rest of them. It only lasted a few seconds because we were still being fired upon. There were probably quite a few Marines that lost their lives because they stood up or crawled out of their hole to celebrate that. It would have been obvious to the Japanese that what we were doing wasn’t normal.
Were you scared in those moments?
WW: I don’t remember being scared. I was doing everything I could to stay alive. The feeling of fear is just something I don’t remember. I have no doubt I was afraid but I don’t remember that feeling. If fear takes over you’re done. You cannot operate under fear. The fear I had needed to be controlled so that I could do my job. When a Marine would start to crack up, he’d either be killed or be considered completely ineffective. Succumbing to fear wasn’t an option for me.
Did the other Marines with you make it through that experience?
WW: We lost two of the Marines ascending that hillside with me. I never knew that it happened until afterward. We arrived back in Guam and I learned that we lost two of the guys that were protecting me. I didn’t know who they were, just that they were Marines.
Was it hard to find a sense of camaraderie with your fellow Marines because of all the chaos?
WW: It was hard to feel a sense camaraderie on Iwo Jima. We had lost formation almost right away on the beach and couldn’t stay together as a unit at all. When we were under attack the only person I was thinking about was the Marine next to me. I wasn’t thinking of the guy five Marines away from me. I didn’t know what was happening over there, only what was happening next to me directly.
Are there things that still haunt you from Iwo Jima?
WW: I was a country boy and we would stack the wood in cords when we cut it. We would cut wood to have in the winters so we could stay warm. The fireplace we had was one in which you could burn coal or wood. The wood we cut was stacked in what’s called a “cord.” I guess that’s why the sight of those Marines dead on the beach impacted me a little differently than anyone else. The bodies being stacked up resembled cords of wood and that was tough to see. The burial details were doing the best they could because they couldn’t leave them where they were. It seemed so odd to me. I saw the bodies stacked up just one next to another, all wrapped up. That was one of the first things I saw when we landed on that beach. Their heads were sticking out of their ponchos they’d been covered with, and it’s not something I could ever forget.
It was hard knowing all those young men were all dead at 16, 17, 18 years old. They eventually dug a massive trench with a bulldozer and placed all the bodies in there. They had to do that because the stench was so bad. There was a dog tag at the head of the trench so they could exhume them. The burial details could identify them later when there was a cemetery for them to be buried in. It was weeks later that happened because we were still fighting a war. We were still being shelled down on the beach.
How many more days were you on the island ?
WW: I was wounded on March 6th and was there on the island 34 of the 36 days. I only used the flamethrower on that one occasion and then moved on out of the area. The volcano erupted and began spewing rocks on the northern part of the island. The Japanese couldn’t dig or build the pill boxes there to hide because it was so rocky. We used the rocks and holes in the ground for protection.
What do you remember about those following days?
WW: We were fighting almost every single day and trying to move north. We would be on the line attacking and the Japanese would try to keep us from moving. The only time we weren’t on the lines fighting was to shave, shower and get some chow. We used up all of our supplies and they’d pull us off the line to get those replenished.
Can you describe fatigue in battle and how mentally worn out you were?
WW: I would get so tired I could literally sleep standing up. I’ve seen men sleeping standing up on their feet. I was wounded on March 6th by shrapnel in the leg. I could have been evacuated at the time and was tagged by the corpsman to leave. We had just received new replacement Marines though. They didn’t know what they were doing or know what they had to do. We were going in to attack the next morning but we were down to only 17 people. They brought them in to fill in the holes and we spent the entire night trying to educate them on proper battle procedures. We started a different type of fighting which was street fighting instead of jungle fighting.
We thought we were going to Tokyo since we didn’t know any other place. We had to learn how to fight house to house as opposed to the more entrenched, rural combat. I knew these young guys would be decimated if I didn’t stick around to help teach. When they told me I was being sent back to the states I was just relieved. I had been over there for two-and-a-half years and was ready to go home. I saw my mom and my girlfriend when I got back home. We were married shortly after I arrived back home. Her name was Ruby and she was a year younger than me. When I got home on September 29th, we were married October 17th (laughs). It was a pretty quick progression.
Can you talk about the day that led up to you ultimately receiving the Medal of Honor?
WW: I had never heard of the Medal of Honor so I definitely didn’t know why I was receiving it. My orders said to come from Guam to Washington DC. If anyone had ever mentioned it to me that I was receiving a medal or the Medal of Honor, it didn’t click in my brain. I was almost like a zombie following orders and doing what I was told. They always read the citation before they present the medal and those words were extremely foreign to me. I didn’t even know why they were reading it. I had done the things they had said I’d done, but it felt so strange to hear them talk about me doing my duty. It still didn’t register that it would be enough of a cause or reason to receive the medal. I was just doing my job. I was frightened and anxious being in a position I had never been in before. President Truman was there and I knew I’d be walking up to him to receive the medal. My brain just didn’t even work (laughs). The adrenaline was running so hard that I was quivering when I walked up to him. I had never heard of the Medal of Honor nor did any of the Marines know about it. The language just wasn't used and we had no radio to know what was going on in the states. We didn’t have information about it at all.
What happened in the days following the battle?
WW: After the battle, they took the dog tags and tied them to a rope. The ground was then tilled over the bodies until a proper cemetery could be built. We finally had enough territory for building a cemetery once the battle was over. Each individual Marine division built their own cemetery. There was a white cross on the graves and they were there when we left Iwo. No one really knew if they were going to stay there. In 1948, Congress agreed to bring them home from the Pacific. There are still thousands of men buried there. Some were buried at the Punchbowl Cemetery in Hawaii. We formed an honor guard in almost every area in the country when we got back stateside.
Were you ever worried about dying?
WW: I never allowed the thought of dying to creep in and take over. I refused to believe that I would die. I conquered my fear and simply did what I had to do. However, if there is ever anyone that has a rifle pointing at him and that person says he isn’t afraid, that means he’s not very smart (laughs). Fear is a funny thing. It’s almost not explainable. If a person lets fear control them instead of their courage then they can’t operate. You cannot operate under fear. I saw many Marines that were gripped by panic. They would cry and call for their mom and that would be the end of it for them in combat. They’d either be killed or all washed up and unable to fight.
What do you miss about past years and the America you grew up in?
WW: When I was growing up if two people disagreed but couldn’t solve it with words, we would solve it by fighting. If you got your butt beat by the other person, you didn’t become an enemy of that person. You just realized they were a tougher person than you were and therefore they won the argument. This is how I was raised and fights were common. We didn’t shoot each other or stab each other. I had plenty of this experience growing up. I think the basic idea of this was an asset to me in the Marines. Fist fights solved a lot of issues when I grew up and it also meant getting over things more quickly.
If you could give one piece of advice to veterans nowadays what would that be?
WW: My most valuable lesson would be to give others credit for anything good that happens to you in life. There is no way you can do things alone in this world. If it wasn’t for the other Marines that were willing to testify and say what happened on Iwo Jima, I wouldn’t be wearing this Medal of Honor today. Most of us that are alive are alive because of the actions of somebody else. There are Gold Star families that have members of their families that sacrificed their lives for us. We always need someone to assist us and we only know what we are taught. I know what I have been taught. Be grateful for your mentors in life because those are the people that impact you the most. Very few ideas come from an original thought. Someone impacted you in a way that allowed you to come up with those ideas. Know that and stay humble.
What do you think about the culture nowadays?
WW: Some things are almost unfathomable in these days. You didn’t have enough knowledge back then to know things in the world were so bad. West Virginia became the overdose state of the union recently and that just seems unreal to me. We have so many overdoses happening in our state. I have never been able to rationalize in my mind what starts a person taking pain pills to the point of causing their own death. It’s heartbreaking. There cannot be enough bad things in one’s life to cause that person to do that. I grew up under some harsh circumstances, losing siblings as well as my father at a very young age and I was still very grateful for life. These large numbers of people willing to do themselves harm is just hard to fathom. Marriage is also not the same as it was when I was growing up. If you had two people living together and were not married they were considered outcasts. The generation was just so different when I grew up. I was raised to stick it out and make things work. That was the only way to do things as far as I was concerned.
What was it like when you got back home?
WW: We were welcomed home with open arms because we saved the world. Our cause was greater than anything else and we haven't had a greater cause since. What have we hoped to achieve in Korea, Vietnam, or even today? I try to talk to Iraq and Afghanistan veterans at the Huntington VA and I go every chance I can to speak to those veterans. They actually named that VA after me which was nice (laughs). I visit with the younger veterans and ask them their thoughts on what we’ve achieved. Most of them say we haven't achieved anything but loss of American lives. They will however tell me that the one thing they are most proud of is their service to their brothers and sisters.
Did you go straight into serving when you got back?
WW: I joined the VA almost immediately when I got back. I actually did go to work for a construction company making 75 cents an hour. I worked 10 hours a day, seven days a week. I had never seen that much money in my life (laughs). The VA called me and asked if I would be interested in working with men returning home who needed help in transitioning. They were looking for counselors to help take care of the ones coming back. The only way to get in was as a patient. The World War II guys needed help. The closest VA was 130 miles from my home. When they called the first time and asked if I wanted a job I asked what it was. I would receive training to be a counselor. I asked them if I would be in an office all day and they told me yes. I told them “no” and that I didn’t want to be in an office (laughs).
The next guy that called explained they were looking for Medal of Honor winners (they called them winners at that point in history) to come and serve as veteran counselors. I explained that I talked to someone and already said no. They told me this job would pay $2,980 a year and my calculator just went wild (laughs). I told them I would take it and had nothing against an office life (laughs). The base pay when I went into the Marine Corps was $34.00 a month as a private. A PFC earned $38 and a Corporal was $42 with no overseas pay. They took $6.50 out to pay for my $10,000 life insurance in case I was killed (laughs). You couldn’t buy more than the $10,000 life insurance during that time either. If you were killed your beneficiary would receive your life insurance. It was $52.20 a month for 20 years since you couldn’t get a cash pay out. I hadn’t been with the VA very long and we were interviewing the WWII guys everyday. It was a few months after my three months of training when a guy walked in to my cubicle with an incredible story.
He laid a telegram in front of me that the war department had sent to his parents. It said that their son was killed. I read it and asked who this correspondence was about. He said the telegram was in reference to his death (laughs). He explained that he had done something crazy when he was overseas. He had become friends with a guy and they decided to exchange dog tags with one another. His friend was hit with an 88 round that blew him to pieces and they found one of the dog tags. The dog tag they found was the friend sitting in my office and not his actual tag. The telegram was sent to his family because of that. The family started getting his life insurance and could now qualify for a monthly compensation check since they lost a son. Both those payments started coming to his family. This went on for several months and the parents thought he was dead. They were pleasantly surprised when he came home and found out he wasn't dead. When he came home and the military found out he wasn't dead they demanded they receive the compensation paid back. They didn’t know about the other thing happening so his parents had to refund all the money they received. His parents didn’t have the money because they’d spent it. He wanted my help and I advised him to go see his congressman. His congressman introduced a single bill into Congress that would wave all the overpayment for this one individual (laughs).
Do you have some good memories of those first Medal of Honor meetups?
WW: I have very pleasant memories of Desmond Doss (Hacksaw Ridge). Doss was a close friend of mine and was the chaplain of the Medal of Honor Society for about 30 years. He was very committed and a very Christian man. Early on there was simply no funding for these conventions. You’d have to pay a $100 registration fee to attend and finance the convention. Back then, $100 was a lot of money. Desmond set up the memorial service for those lost since he was the chaplain. The first meeting I went to in order to form the society was located in New York. There were 450 of us in attendance there in 1947. We had Spanish/American War, World War I and World War II veterans there at that first convention.
The first convention we had I was put up with a man by the name of Jim Long from Texas. He was a terrible alcoholic and he could hardly fit in a bed due his height. He was 6’5 and skinny as a rail. The money was tight so they put two in a room. His height for those hotel beds made it hard so his feet would hang off. We stayed in the first night but the next night we went out on the town. We went to the 21 Club and it was the epitome of New York. Everything in there was covered in gold. I could get a beer for .10 in Virginia but in New York I ordered a couple of Schlitz beers. The bartender set them up on the counter and told us that would be $4.00. I told him, “Like hell!” We just turned around and walked out (laughs). The beer up there was 7% and Jim drank a bunch of it at our party where it was provided for free. We got back to the room late and hadn’t been in there a few moments when he started puking. It was a terrible night.
The next night Jim didn’t go with me to the organizational meeting at the 21 Club. There was one man sitting there and it was Walter Winchell. He had a radio show at the time. I had no idea who he was at first. I walked in with my green uniform that the Marines wore at the time. I took a seat and didn’t say anything. He leaned over and said to me, “I hate the Marines.” He was treading on some thin ice at that moment (laughs) and I asked him if there was a reason for that. He said, “They killed my son.” I asked him how that happened. He told me that his son had enlisted and was at Paris Island. They were out having qualification day and all the Marines were told if their rifle failed not to get up. There was one Marine whose rifle jammed and he was trying to get it working again. The Marine finally got it to work and when he pulled the bolt back it fired hitting Walter’s son in the head. It killed him. That’s why he didn’t like the Marines. I never saw him again after that night but I’ll always remember his first words to me being, “I hate the Marines.”
What are your favorite accomplishments from over the years?
WW: First of all, I just want to talk about what an amazing country we live in that a farm boy from the little state of West Virginia can grow up and get to do the things I’ve done. It’s important to point that out and how we live in possibly the only country in the world where that can happen. The Super Bowl coin flip was an incredible thing. The Navy also named one of their transport ships (USNS Hershel “Woody” Williams) after me recently (laughs). In my hometown an Army veteran on the city council decided we needed to have something with my name on it. He approached the council to name a National Guard Armory after me. The Reservists and National Guardsmen outgrew their old facility and instead of just building a regular armory they built one for all reserve branches. It’s a $32 million dollar facility. I am the only Marine in the U.S. with my name on a National Guard Armory. I have to admit that’s pretty cool (laughs).
One of the things that I am very humbled about is because of this medal I have been privilege to be at every Presidential Inauguration in our country. Attending a change of command ceremony is like nothing else in this world. I started out at President Kennedy’s because he was the one who was the first to have Medal of Honor Recipients in attendance. I have been to every one since then and taken my kids as well as grand kids. They would never have been able to witness that type of ceremony if I had not been given the Medal of Honor. That makes me very humble. I’m just a country boy from a dairy farm in West Virginia and now I’m able to attend Presidential Inaugurations. My family is extremely proud of the fact they have been able to see that. I have had the privilege to shake the hands of all of the Presidents except President Obama. They substituted Joe Biden for him instead when it came time to meet with the Medal of Honor Recipients. The people in charge of the event were very disappointed that President Obama did not come.
Can you talk about your foundation, the Hershel “Woody” Williams Medal of Honor Foundation?
WW: The Gold Star mothers have been reasonably recognized and most of us are familiar with the term “Gold Star Family.” This was started in World War I but then between World War I and II this designation was dropped. It was then started back up after World War II. The Gold Star Mothers were those identified with the name that was to be used as our memorial to the family. There was no one that used the term “Gold Star Father.” The country as a whole has never done anything to recognize the fathers. A father came up to me in 2010 after a speech I had done with tears flowing down his cheeks. He said to me, “Gold Star dads cry too.” Those words knocked me out. All those times I spoke I had mentioned moms, but I never mentioned Gold Star fathers. He agreed to tell me about his only son as we sat and spoke. This man’s parents were deceased and his wife had died of cancer just before his son was to report for basic training. His son could have gotten out of it if he wanted due to the death of his mom. He wanted to serve so badly. He joined and was sent to Afghanistan where he was killed in action. The father sitting at the table talking to me was the one that took the news his son was killed. He had no one to talk to, no family to tell, and no one understood what he was going through. This motivated me to do something for the family and not just the mom. It’s about everyone that needs help during that time, not just mothers.
I was on a committee rebuilding a veterans cemetery. The minutes are kept and the hours are wasted on these committees (laughs). Our job was to decide where the buildings and flagpole would be placed. We had several meetings to decide all of these things. After meeting with that father whose son had died, my outlook changed. I told the cemetery committee that we must pay tribute to the families that had lost a loved one giving their life for our freedom. We had never done anything like that. There are times when you open your mouth and stick your foot in it which is what I did (laughs). They wanted to know what I thought we should do. I went home and got my daughters involved to help me think of something we could do to honor these families. We worked on several things and ended up with a plan. I took it back to the committee and they liked the drawing that we came up with. I was working with them to see how much concrete it would take, how big it would be and how tall. The monument ended up being 6 feet tall. We took the person out of the logo as the end result because they are what is missing. We built the first one in West Virginia. Once news spread on the internet it really got the ball rolling on this great work we are committed to.
The entire story of the individual is so exceptionally vital to the “why” of our warrior’s most substantial battlefield accomplishments. “Just a West Virginia farm boy,” might be how Woody describes himself but isn’t that the background of some of our nation’s most exceptional warriors, inventors, authors, philanthropists? Is that not what makes these men so impeccable? Growing up in a hardened, constantly-humbling environment where the entirety of your successes is based upon work ethic and sweat equity. Nowadays, this past image of Americana seems like nothing but a distant memory. However, our greatest liberties were insured by the blood of the young men in these memories. Is that not humbling? Those blood-stained, black sand beaches of Iwo Jima are just one battlefield testament to the Marine Corps’ ferocity, grit, ingenuity, and determination in the face of overwhelming odds. We must remain forever grateful.
We would like to extend our most sincere gratitude to Woody Williams for being a part of the project. Woody’s schedule is incredibly busy so being able to cover him for three days was a wonderful privilege. Please check out his foundation, the Hershel Woody Williams Medal of Honor Foundation. From the website:
“The purpose of the Gold Star Families Memorial Monument is to honor Gold Star Families, preserve the memory of the fallen, and stand as a stark reminder that Freedom is not free. This stunning black granite monument features two sides. One side bears the words: Gold Star Families Memorial Monument, a tribute to Gold Star Families and Relatives who have sacrificed a Loved One for our Freedom. The other side tells a story through the four granite panels: Homeland, Family, Patriot, and Sacrifice. The scenes on each panel are a reflection of each community’s Gold Star Families and their fallen Heroes. At the center of this tribute is the most distinct feature of the monument, the cut out which represents the Loved One who paid the ultimate sacrifice in the name of Freedom.
If you would like more information about starting a monument in your community, please contact us at email@example.com.”
Follow along with their mission on Facebook: www.facebook.com/hwwmohfoundation/. We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the Southwest Iwo Jima/WWII Reunion folks. They graciously extended an invite, making the coverage of Woody possible. We would also like to thank our good friends at Recon and Sniper Foundation for sponsoring Woody’s story. Recon & Sniper Foundation is a 501C3 non profit comprised of an all-volunteer force of former Reconnaissance Marines and Marine Corps Snipers. Their mission is to provide assistance to veterans, service members, and their families during times of need. We are very proud of this partnership. Check them out at www.reconsniperfoundation.org, on Instagram: @reconandsniperfoundation, and on Facebook: Recon & Sniper Foundation.