To Hershel “Woody” Williams, the Medal of Honor he wears around his neck does not belong to him. It’s not because he isn’t worthy of it, he undoubtedly is. For Williams, the medal belongs to the men who never made it home.
On Feb. 23, 1945, Williams was a 21-year-old Marine corporal fighting in Battle of Iwo Jima, one of the most brutal and unforgiving battles in American military history. The fighting was horrific, and the events of that day have stayed with Williams for the last 71 years.
On the small and heavily fortified volcanic island, Williams repeatedly assaulted enemy positions armed with a flamethrower and demolition charges in order to clear the way for the remains who remained pinned down under the brutal enemy onslaught.
Over the course of four hours, Williams attacked a system of fortified concrete pillboxes. He fought the enemy at point-blank range when they charged him with bayonets. At one point, he climbed atop a bunker, inserted the nozzle through an air vent and unleashed a burst of flame that killed the occupants. However, he did not do it alone. He is emphatic about this. Two of the four Marines tasked with covering Williams as he assaulted the system of Japanese bunkers gave their lives to ensure he was successful.
He wears the Medal of Honor for them, he says.
Williams was presented the nation’s highest award for battlefield bravery by President Harry S. Truman on Oct. 5, 1945, and in 1969 he retired from the Marine Corps as a chief warrant officer four. These days, the 92-year-old Marine veteran spends his time working with the Hershel Woody Williams Medal of Honor Foundation, a nonprofit group dedicated to erecting monuments in honor of the families of fallen service members.
Williams spoke with Task & Purpose about how his time at war, and the many years spent retelling the story of the Battle of Iwo Jima, have shaped his life; his sense of obligation as a Medal of Honor recipient; and what similarities and differences he sees between his generation and post-9/11 veterans.
After the Battle of Iwo Jima and since receiving the Medal of Honor, would it be fair to say that your life changed, probably pretty dramatically, and if so, how?
It was very difficult for me, as a country boy having been taught all my life you do not kill — that was strictly enforced in my family. That you didn’t kill anything uselessly, whether it was a bird, a chicken, or anything. You just didn’t do it. It was quite an adjustment that I had to make to condition myself, that now I’m going to have to kill other people. That was a terrible adjustment for me.
I had never heard of the Medal of Honor, all the time in my career in the Marine Corps, Medal of Honor was never mentioned. … I had decided it was just a medal, but I realized the day after I received the medal that it would have a tremendous impact on my life.
There were 11 Marines who received it the same day I did … and all of the Marines were ordered to report to the office of the commandant of the Marine Corps the next day. … When I appeared before the Commandant of the Marine Corps on the sixth of October, I realized my life was changing. … I could no longer be the person I was prior to the Marine Corps.
I watched an interview that you did awhile back for Medal of Honor oral histories, and you talked about that meeting with the commandant, can you tell me what he said?
The one thing that has always stuck with me, the little bit that I do remember was one of the very early things that he said. We went into the office, each individual by themselves. Nobody was in the office of the commandant except you and him. … I didn’t know it it at the time, but A.A. Vandegrift was also a Medal of Honor recipient from Guadalcanal, so he knew more about what was coming my way and what the recipients would face, than the average individual because he’d already been there. … But he said to me: “That medal does not belong to you. It belongs to all of those Marines who did not get to come back home.”
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