MARTINSBURG, W.Va. (WDVM) — Marine Corporal Herschel Woodrow Williams, better known as “Woody,” was awarded the Medal of Honor for going “Above and Beyond the Call of Duty” on Iwo Jima during World War Two in the Pacific.
The United States Marine Corps turned Woody down when he tried to enlist in 1942, because he didn’t meet the height requirement. But the Corps accepted him in 1943 when it desperately needed to replace Marines lost in the Solomons, an island group in the South Pacific.
Woody was born on a dairy farm in Quiet Dell, West Virginia on October 2, 1923; the last of eleven children who weighed only three and a half pounds at birth. “They didn’t think I was gonna make it,” said Woody, who sat for a one-on-one interview with WDVM News after dedicating a Wall of Honor to West Virginia Medal of Honor Winners at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Martinsburg.
Woody not only lived, but became a “living legend” in the Marine Corps. Because of bottleneck on the landing beaches at Iwo Jima, an eight square mile island 650 miles southeast of Japan, Williams didn’t get ashore until the third day of the bloody battle that claimed almost 7,000 American lives and 21,000 Japanese lives.
Woody was a flamethrower operator and demolitions man in charge of a special weapons unit. By February 23rd, four days after the battle began, Woody had lost all six Marines in his unit. “I don’t know whether they were killed or wounded,” said Woody.
Flamethrower operators were the most feared combatants on the battlefield. “The Japanese feared fire and that’s why the flamethrower guy was such a good target. They didn’t want him to get close to them,” said Woody as he recalled knocking out seven Japanese pillboxes that were holding up Marines who were trying to push inland from the beach.
Four Marine rifleman assigned to protect Williams as he assaulted the concrete reinforced pillboxes were killed when a Japanese machinegunner in the first pillbox opened fire at them.
“He was shooting at me with a Nambu machinegunner and I couldn’t get close enough to get my flame in there,” said Woody who saw a wisp of smoking coming from the top of the pillbox.
Climbing up the side of the pillbox to avoid machinegun fire, Williams found a vent tube and poured liquid fire into the tube; snuffing out the lives of seventeen Japanese soldiers.
Approaching a second set of pillboxes, he encountered four Japanese soldiers with fixed bayonets, bent on killing him. But bayonets were no match for a flamethrower.
On the day before his 22nd birthday, President Harry S. Truman hung the Medal of Honor around Woody’s neck in a White House ceremony. Truman, an Army captain during World War One, told Woody he would trade the Presidency for the nation’s top award for valor.
Woody told me the medal he wears is “not for him, but them.” As he approaches his 96th birthday, Woody has one regret. He never knew the names of the four Marines who gave their tomorrow, so he could have his today.