Hershel Williams, the last survivor among the 472 servicemen who were awarded the Medal of Honor for extraordinary bravery in World War II and the oldest living recipient of the medal, died on Wednesday in Huntington, West Virginia. He was 98.
His death, at the Huntington Veterans Affairs Medical Center, was announced by the Woody Williams Foundation.
Williams was lying prone on the black volcanic ash of Iwo Jima the morning of Feb. 23, 1945, when he was startled by the sounds of cheering. “Suddenly, the Marines around me starting jumping up and down, firing their weapons in the air,” he told the Marine Corps History Division long afterward. “My head was buried in the sand. Then I looked up and saw Old Glory on top of Mount Suribachi.”
The raising of a large American flag by six Marines atop Iwo Jima, photographed by Joe Rosenthal of The Associated Press, became an enduring image of the American fighting man in World War II.
But the fight for the Japanese-administered island and its airfields some 750 miles south of Tokyo, needed by the Army Air Forces to support long-range bombing missions over Japan, was only in its fifth day when the flag went up. The battle was just beginning for Williams, a 21-year-old Marine corporal from West Virginia.
That afternoon, Williams wiped out seven Japanese pillboxes with flamethrowers, opening a gap that enabled Marine tanks and personnel carriers to break through the enemy defenses. He scurried from one pillbox to another, miraculously untouched by the intense Japanese machine-gun fire that bounced off his equipment — sounding, as he told it, like a jackhammer.
During his four-hour foray, in which he received supporting fire from several fellow Marines, two of whom were killed during the mission, he returned five times to his headquarters to get new flamethrowers when his supply of diesel fuel and high-octane gasoline ran out.
He received the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award for valor, from President Harry Truman in October 1945. The citation stated that 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 strong points encountered by his regiment.”
A total of 27 Marines and Navy servicemen received the medal, 14 of them posthumously, for heroism in the 36-day battle for Iwo Jima.
Decades after World War II, the Medal of Honor was awarded to more than two dozen African American and Asian American servicemen who had engaged in extraordinary combat feats in the war but had been passed over for it, presumably a result of racial prejudice, bringing the total of recipients to 472.
The Medal of Honor was also accorded to an unidentified serviceman killed in World War II and another who died in the Korean War when their remains were reburied at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery in 1958, joining an unidentified World War I serviceman.
Hershel Woodrow Williams, known as Woody, was born on Oct. 2, 1923, in the tiny community of Quiet Dell, West Virginia, the youngest of 11 children of Lloyd and Lurenna Williams. Six of his brothers and sisters had died during the 1918-19 flu pandemic.
He helped his parents run their small dairy farm; after his father died of a heart attack when Woody was 11, his brother Lloyd Jr. took over the farm with help from the other children. He later quit high school to join the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps, working on projects in Montana.
As a youngster, he had been impressed by the dress-blue uniforms and the bearing of some hometown boys on furloughs from the Marine Corps. He enlisted in the Marines in May 1943. He was only 5 feet 6 inches tall, the service’s minimum height requirement, and weighed just 135 pounds, but he was well muscled from his farm work.
He saw combat on Guam a year later, then arrived on Iwo Jima with the 21st Marines of the 3rd Marine Division. When Marine armored vehicles became bogged down in their attempt to penetrate the network of Japanese defense positions, his commander asked him if he could do something to support them.
Thus began his one-man flame-throwing foray.
He told Larry Smith for the oral history “Iwo Jima” (2008) that “you had to get within 20 yards of a pillbox, with machine-gun bullets kicking up.”
“One time, the men in one pillbox came out,” he recalled. “As they came running toward me with their rifles and bayonets poised, they ran straight into the fire from my flamethrower. As if in slow motion, they just fell down.”
Williams incurred a leg wound from shrapnel 11 days later, but he remained on Iwo Jima until the battle ended.(BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM.)Iwo Jima was the halfway point for the Army Air Forces’ B-29 bombers that set out from their bases on the Marianas Islands to bomb Japan. The capture of its airstrips gave the United States a base for fighter planes escorting the bombers and provided emergency landing sites for crippled B-29s returning from their missions.
But the seizing of that 8-square-mile spit of volcanic debris was exceedingly costly. More than one-third of the 70,000 Marines who invaded Iwo Jima, from the 3rd, 4th and 5th Marine Divisions, were killed or wounded. All but 1,000 or so of the 20,000 Japanese defenders died in the battle.
(END OPTIONAL TRIM.)Williams left active military service in November 1945 and returned to his native West Virginia, where he was a counselor for the Veterans Administration. He remained in the Marine Corps as a reservist and retired as a chief warrant officer in 1969. His foundation raises money to provide scholarships for children who had lost a parent in war.
In March 2020, he attended a ceremony in Norfolk, Virginia, for the commissioning of the warship Hershel “Woody” Williams.
Williams’ wife, Ruby (Meredith) Williams, whom he married in 1945, died in 2007. They had two daughters, Travie Jane and Tracie Jean, as well as grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Complete information on survivors was not immediately available.
In February 2011, Williams spoke aboard the amphibious assault ship Iwo Jima at Norfolk on the 66th anniversary of the battle. “I claim to be only the caretaker of the medal,” he said. “There were 27 medals awarded, but there were countless others who did as much, if not more.”