Valor Friday

| July 1, 2022

I’ve been dreading having to write this article, but the time in nigh. Only a single recipient of the Medal of Honor from World War II was still alive as I wrote this. In the time from when I started to finishing the first draft, he unfortunately passed away. Here’s his story.

Born 2 October 1923 on a dairy farm in West Virginia, Hershel Woodrow Williams weighed only three and a half pounds. Though not expected to survive, he persevered. This fighting spirit would come in handy later in life. He was named for the doctor that made a house call on the baby and mother a few days after his birth.

By age 11, Williams had lost several siblings to a flu epidemic and his father to a heart attack. Being in the Great Depression, Walker had to work during his teen years to help the family. He worked a series of odd jobs and was with the Civilian Conservation Corps in Montana when the Attack on Pearl Harbor happened.

He had only joined the CCC in 1941, following his brother into the para-military service organization. It was the first time these farm boys saw whole stacks of dollar bills for their work. Williams said, “I seldom saw a dollar bill during those rough Depression years back in Quiet Dell, West Virginia. When my brother showed us dollar bills he had earned, I said that I, when I came of age, wanted to join the CCC and join him at Pickens.”

Williams recalled, “On December 8, 1941, everyone was called out of the barracks and we were shocked to find out that Pearl Harbor had been bombed. We were told that we could go directly into the Army or we could request our release from the CCC so we could go home and join whichever of the services we wished .”

Williams decided to enlist and returned home. As with most men of his generation, he answered the call to serve. He went with the Marine Corps over the Army because he’d seen the Marines’ dress blues as well as the Army’s class A. He was not impressed by the uniform worn home by his two older brothers, who had both been drafted into the Army. He thought the Army’s brown wool uniform was “… the ugliest thing in town … I decided I did not want to be in that thing. I want to be in those dress blues.”

Aside from the smart uniform, Walker knew nothing of the Marines’ mission. When he attempted to enlist in 1942 he was told he was too short at 5’6”. When height standards were relaxed the following year he was finally successful in joining up.

In between his first attempt and his ultimate success Williams worked for Western Union. In that job he was delivering telegrams to families in his own community, notifying them of the loss of their sons, brothers, and fathers in the war. Woody says that those experiences gave him a “greater appreciation for life and an understanding of a difference in death in the normal world as expected in life, and those lost serving in the military for their country”. That experience would ultimately guide him later in life into the cause of helping gold star families.

After recruit training in San Diego he was initially trained as a tanker, but was then moved to the infantry. He received training in demolition and the flamethrower. The role of the flamethrower during World War II for the infantry was to be used against fortifications and bunkers. The Marines would use them to great effect against the Japanese defensive positions throughout the Pacific Theater.

Williams said the training on the flamethrower was all technical. There was little practical use of the flamethrower in combat shown to the new recruits. It’s possible this is because these would be the men writing the book on how to use it.

The flamethrower technically sprays a stream of flammable liquid which is shot under pressure with some of it burning. This allows the operator to use the properties of the liquid to do things like bounce the stream off a wall. When fired into a pillbox, if the fire doesn’t kill the enemy outright, the conflagration will consume all the oxygen. Most men probably die from a combination of the two.

Spreading death by fire and suffocation into the tiniest of fortifications, the flamethrower operator is an easy target for the enemy’s wrath. What’s more, it’s a large, heavy device that you wear like a backpack. Within the three tanks of the backpack are propellant and flammable liquid (mix of diesel and kerosene), stored under pressure.

While movies and television have overplayed the threat that a single bullet would make the whole thing explode in flames, the large tanks were a very big target on the back of any man tasked with carrying it. The Imperial Japanese were not known for taking prisoners, and this was especially true of flamethrower operators. The hatred men on the receiving end of these weapons had meant that when captured, in some cases flamethrower operators were summarily executed.

After his training, Williams, known to everyone as “Woody”, was sent to a replacement battalion. From there he was shipped off to New Caledonia on 3 December 1943. In January, once in theater, he was assigned to C Company, 1st Battalion, 21st Marines. At that time they were part of the 3rd Marine Division.

The 21st Marines had already seen plenty of combat. They’d just months earlier been heavily involved in the Battle of Bougainville. There the 21st Marines earned particular accolades for their performance at the Battle of Coconut Grove. They fought on Bougainville for two months, from early November 1943 until after Christmas.

In July 1944, Williams was transferred to the Headquarters Company for the regiment’s time fighting to retake occupied Guam from the Japanese. The battle there would last about three weeks. It would see nearly 50,000 Marines pry the American territory back from the enemy. Of the 22,000 plus Japanese troops on the island, the Marines killed more than 18,000 and captured 1,500. The battle started on 21 July, which is now a holiday on Guam, Liberation Day. The 21st Marines had been part of the initial amphibious assault of the island.

In October, Williams was reassigned back to Company C. In February 1945, the 21st Marines would be part of a group of nearly 73,000 Marines (and some US Army soldiers) sent to attack one of the enemy’s strongest held positions, the island of Iwo Jima.

Iwo Jima Landing Plan

The Battle for Iwo Jima would be one of the hardest fought of the Pacific Theater. It would be on that island the Marines would further cement their legacy as one of the world’s foremost infantry forces. The most famous moment of the battle would be the flag raising at Mount Suribachi. The photo of the event has become one of the most famous photos in the world.

The 21st Marines were part of the floating reserve in the earliest days of the battle. Williams said that once they were aboard ship, the battle plan was presented to the troops. As part of the floating reserve, they were told they were unlikely to leave the water. The intel the Marines received was the island would be in Allied hands in 3-5 days. In reality, it would take five weeks.

The Japanese undertook a major stalling defensive on the island. Using their sophisticated and well-placed defensive positions across the island of Iwo Jima, their goal was to hold the American forces as long as possible. While holding at Iwo, the Japanese were using the time bought to reinforce their positions at the home islands. The American’s needed the small, desolate, volcanic island to use as an airbase for assaults on those home islands.

As the fighting on the island turned it into a meat grinder for the Marines, the 21st Marines arrived on Iwo Jima on D-plus 3, 21 February 1945, relieving a heavily embattled regimental combat team. They would take their place on the line, within the 4th Marine Division’s zone of control on Yellow Beach.

Coming ashore, Williams, now a corporal, distinguished himself on the 23rd of February. American tanks were pushing forward, clearing lanes for the infantry, when they were stopped by a series of reinforced concrete enemy pillboxes.

Williams’ company commander asked for volunteers to move forward and assault the enemy positions. Williams (with flamethrower) was asked if he could do anything about the boxes. According to what he was later told, he said, “I’ll try.” Williams and four riflemen moved up.

As the team got closer to the enemy stronghold, all the men were mowed down by the automatic weapons fire from within. All except for Woody Williams. With no supporting fire from his team he continued forward. Arriving at the pillbox, he pushed the nozzle of his weapon in the pillbox’s slip and blasted it with his flamethrower, silencing it forever.

One thing I neglected to mention earlier in my discussion of the flamethrower’s technology is that it’s only good for about 3-5 seconds of fire. Great for taking out a single fortification, but when you have a line of them like the Marines faced on this day, it’s not enough to last.

Therefore, Williams returned to his company area to refuel. He then rushed back forward and assaulted the next pillbox. Running back to the company area again, he once more charged into the breach. Three pillboxes down, two more to go. Williams would repeat the heroic feat to take them all out.

Despite the minimal cover and the giant target on his back, the young Devil Dog repeatedly charged forward. During the battle, which lasted more than four hours, he would be placing demolition charges between his trips to the rear for fresh flamethrowers and his insane charges into enemy positions.

During the fighting he saw a wisp of smoke coming out of the ground. Realizing immediately this was an enemy box, he forced the flamethrower into the hole, and destroyed the occupants within.

At another point, the enemy soldiers, seeing the repeated unstoppable advances of Williams, charged him with bayonets fixed. Williams turned and shot his flamethrower, stopping the enemy.

For his part of the battle, Williams has little memory of the events. He said most of it “is just a blank. I have no memory.” He does remember seeing the flag raised triumphantly on Mount Suribachi, which was happening above him as they fought. The American flag flying high above the formerly Japanese island buoyed the spirits of the men.

In a 2019 interview he said about the flag, “I saw it immediately after it was up and the reason was Marines around me started jumping up and firing their weapons and yelling about a flag,” said Williams. “I was about a thousand yards away.”

Somehow in all this fighting, Williams remained untouched. He would continue to fight as the five-week long battle continued. He was wounded on 6 March by shrapnel in the leg. He returned to Guam ro recuperate.

The Battle of Iwo Jima would see 27,000 American casualties, with more than 6,000 Marines dead. American casualties alone number more than all Japanese entrenched on the island at the start of the battle.

Williams would be one of 27 Marines and sailors to be awarded the Medal of Honor for the battle. Fourteen of those would be posthumous. This one battle accounted for more than a quarter of all the Marine Medals of Honor awarded during all of World War II.

Harry Truman, president of the United States, congratulates Hershel “Woody” Williams, a Marine reservist and survivor of the battle of Iwo Jima, on being awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions during the battle of Iwo Jima during World War II October 5, 1945 at the White House in Washington.

As the war ended, Williams was returned to the States. He was presented the Medal of Honor by President Truman in a White House ceremony on 5 October 1945. He was honorably discharged a month later.

After the war, Williams returned to West Virginia. He took a job as a counselor with Veterans Affairs. He would work there for the next 33 years.

Williams reenlisted with the Marine Reserves in 1948, but was discharged again the following year. He joined again in 1954. He would be given a warrant and would serve in the Marine Reserves in West Virginia. He would rise to the top warranted rank of Chief Warrant Officer 4 and retired after a total of 20 years of service.

Williams has received many honors over the years. Among several things named after him is USS Hershel “Woody” Williams (ESB-4). The ship is an expeditionary base ship laid down in 2016 and officially commissioned in 2020. Williams was present for both ceremonies.

Of the four Marines that were covering Williams’ repeated advances on those Japanese pillboxes, two were killed in action. Williams never knew their names. Upon finding out that two men died for him, he said “Once I found out that this happened, this Medal of Honor took on a different significance. I said, from that point on, it does not belong to me. It belongs to them. I wear it in their honor. I keep it shined for them, because there is no greater sacrifice than when someone sacrifices their life for you and me.”

In 2017, a UPS executive and one of Williams’ grandchildren combed through records and identified the two Marines that died helping Woody. They were 24-year-old Corporal Warren Harding Bornholz, of New York City, and 20-year-old Private First Class Charles Gilbert Fischer, of Somers, Montana.

2020 photo of Williams

As with many combat vets, Williams experienced trouble with the past in the form of post traumatic stress. He credits religion with helping him get past it. Up until this week, as his health has suddenly declined, Williams has been very active and traveled frequently. The above photo is from 2020, and he looks like a man 20 years younger than his actual 96 years. Williams has been most active with gold star family causes, including his own Hershel Woody Williams Congressional Medal of Honor Education Foundation, Inc. which provides support to gold star families.

Williams credits his Marine indoctrination with inspiring a lifelong commitment to physical fitness. He said, “They give you a vaccination which makes you do PT every day and I still do it every morning,” As he laughed.

He also got a folk remedy from a former boss in the ‘60s. “There’s no scientific evidence around it, but his dad was an old country doctor in Blacksburg, Virginia and told him when he was 16 years old if he wanted to maintain good health and lots of energy drink vinegar and honey every morning. I figured it it did it for him, it will do it for me and I’ve been doing that ever since,” Williams said.

As of Monday 27 June 2022, his family had announced that Woody had entered hospice care. They were asking for privacy and prayers. By Wednesday, Woody had passed away peacefully surrounded by family. A well-deserved, quiet end for a man who spent his time in hell. He was the last man to have received the Medal of Honor in World War II to pass away. The war saw 478 men receive the award and only 198 lived to receive it. Another living link to history has been lost.

Senator Joe Manchin of Woody’s home state of West Virginia, and who had worked closely with him on many projects, said he visited Williams one last time last Sunday.

“We called VA Secretary Denis McDonough so he could thank Woody directly for his unparalleled service to our nation,” Manchin said in a statement released Wednesday. “In true Woody fashion, he wanted to discuss the importance of completing the Donel C. Kinnard Memorial State Veterans Cemetery in Dunbar – his most recent Veterans project – to ensure that the families of our fallen soldiers and Veterans have a safe place to lay their loved ones to rest, protected from the weather throughout the year. I am determined to carry on the legacy of my dear friend by getting the shelter built.”

Manchin also reflected on the many hours he spent with Williams.

“I will miss riding with Woody during our annual motorcycle ride for Gold Star Families; he was always my wingman. One of my most cherished memories with Woody is traveling to California and Virginia with him when his ship was commissioned and christened. During those moments, Woody showed the world the true nature of being a West Virginian with his humility and grace. As the last surviving World War II Medal of Honor recipient, Woody represented the last of the Greatest Generation. With the passing of Woody, their legacies and honor are laid to rest,” Manchin said.

Hershel and Ruby Williams

In those post-war years Williams married Ruby (nee Meredith). They would have two daughters, five grandsons, and two great-grandsons. One of their great-grandsons, Cedar Ross, followed in his great-grandpop’s footsteps and enlisted into the Marine Corps last year. Woody attended the graduation ceremony in full dress blue uniform and looked as sharp as he did almost 80 years ago. Here’s a contemporary news article on the event.

Woody and Ruby’s marriage would last 62 years, only separated by her death in 2007. As sad as the passing of this great American is, I take comfort in knowing he and his love are reunited.

Here are some excellent parting words for future generations from CWO4 Williams himself.

Category: Historical, Marines, Medal of Honor, Valor, We Remember

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That such men lived.


Humble and decent men that rose to extraordinary levels of bravery.


Gunner Williams Great-Grandson graduated from boot camp at Parris Island about this time last year.

About 2/3s of the way through the relationship between the two came to the attention of his Senior Drill Instructor who made one of the biggest understatements of all time telling the young man he had some big shoes to fill.

Old tanker

I have no doubt that his reunion with his wife and Brothers was joyous. May perpetual light shine upon him and he rest in eternal peace. He already paid for it.

President Elect Toxic Deplorable Racist SAH Neande

Pass the kleenex. Damn! It got dusty in here. Allergies. Yeah! That’s it. Allergies.

Yeah, allergies.


Thanks, Mason.


Godspeed, Good Sir and Rest Easy.

Outstanding write up on an Outstanding Warrior, Mason. Thanks!

RGR 4-78

A life well lived and a beacon to us all.


Rest In Peace and condolences to the Family.

Thank You, Mason, again, for recognizing another Hero through your outstanding article.

The Woody Williams Foundation:

“The Woody Williams Foundation is a charitable nonprofit organization that pursues specific endeavors and goals through the vision of MOH recipient Hershel “Woody” Williams. The Foundation encourages, with the assistance of the American public and community leaders, establishing permanent Gold Star Families Memorial Monuments in communities throughout the United States, conducting Gold Star Families Outreach across the country, providing Living Legacy scholarships to eligible Gold Star Children, and advocating for educational benefits for all Gold Star Family members.”

“The impact of the Foundation’s work helps to raise public awareness about Gold Star Families’ enduring sacrifice and the ultimate sacrifice made by their Loved Ones.”


Between the weight of the flamethrower tanks and those huge brass balls…how did he move so fast????

John Knight

I had the incredible honor of attending the services over the weekend. Woody had a way of making of bringing out the best in everyone. As attendees were being seated at the funeral, a large screen rotated images of him directly behind/above his flag draped coffin. Several of the photos were met with widespread laughter. It certainly helped to set the tone he wanted….instead of greif, it was a celebration of his incredible life.