Iwo

鈥淭here are some memories that you would just love to eradicate from your mind 鈥 and can鈥檛,鈥 Hershel 鈥淲oody鈥 Williams told HistoryNet. 鈥淎nd then there are other memories that you wish you could bring back 鈥 and you can鈥檛.鈥

On the morning of February 21, 1945 鈥 two days after the initial attack began 鈥 the 21-year-old from West Virginia ran toward the prehistoric landscape of Iwo Jima.

The assault was expected to last only 10 days with 30,000 Marines attacking the Japanese-held island. With poor to no intelligence on what faced them, these men waded into withering fire from a network of caves, tunnels, and concrete pillboxes reinforced with rebar 鈥 an intricately designed fortress that created deadly interlocking fields of fire. The Marines called it 鈥渢he Meat Grinder.鈥 With 21,000 fanatical Japanese soldiers vowing to kill at least 10 Americans before being killed themselves, Marine casualties quickly began to mount. One veteran recalled that they were losing so many men 鈥渨e couldn鈥檛 tell if we were winning or losing.鈥

A Marine receives a plasma transfusion while sheltered in a bomb crater. (USMC)
A Marine receives a plasma transfusion while sheltered in a bomb crater. (USMC)

 

After the first 24 hours, with the situation dire, Admiral Raymond Spruance sent in another wave of 20,000 more men 鈥 of the eventual 70,000 鈥 to join the fight. Within that reserve force was Williams. 

Running out from a Higgins boat on February 21, Williams recalled the distance from the water to the beach seemed like forever. Entering a maelstrom of snapping bullets, he was shaken by the terrible sight of the bodies of fellow Marines, stacked five, six feet high. 鈥淲e had no place to put our dead, so the burial people鈥ad rolled them into their ponchos鈥ust rows of them. That memory will just never, ever go away.鈥

Through the concussive barrage and confusion of battle, Williams and the six other men from his company in the 3rd Marine Division, ran, crawled, and dug their way toward the entrenched Japanese. The suffocating smell of rotting flesh, mingled with explosives and the volcanic sulfur odor of the island itself, nauseated the Marines.

By the 23rd, a 鈥渃ommanding officer and two other officers were all that was left. Most of the squad leaders were gone,鈥 Williams recalled. 鈥淲e had one gunnery sergeant still left. People were taking on jobs that they had never even dreamed they would be taking 鈥 a squad leader as a PFC. It didn鈥檛 matter what your rank was, if you could find somebody to work with you, you worked with them.鈥

It was on this day that Williams, having been made an acting sergeant, found himself in an NCO meeting 鈥 at the base of a bomb crater. The situation was chaotic, but this much was clear: the Marines couldn鈥檛 advance until the surrounding pillboxes were taken out.

Marines operate a flameflower while fighting on Iwo. (USMC)
Marines operate a flameflower while fighting on Iwo. (USMC)

 

Williams was given a flamethrower and tasked to clear a path for his unit. 

He famously replied, 鈥淚鈥檒l try.鈥

鈥淣ow if I said that, OK,鈥 Williams said during an interview at his home in Ona, West Virginia. 鈥淜ind of sounds like maybe I did, but I don鈥檛 remember saying it.鈥

Joined by two men from his company and two other Marines who had linked up with them in the confusion, the five-foot, six-inch Williams, strapped on 70lbs of 鈥,鈥 and began slowly crawling toward his first target. 

Williams鈥 explains his actions after that:

[Williams] fought desperately for four hours under terrific enemy small-arms fire and repeatedly returned to his own lines to prepare demolition charges and obtain serviced flamethrowers, struggling back, frequently to the rear of hostile emplacements, to wipe out one position after another. On one occasion, he daringly mounted a pillbox to insert the nozzle of his flamethrower through the air vent, killing the occupants and silencing the gun; on another he grimly charged enemy riflemen who attempted to stop him with bayonets and destroyed them with a burst of flame from his weapon. 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 and aided vitally in enabling his company to reach its objective. 

The two Marines who had linked up for the assault were killed that day. A fact, Williams somberly says changes 鈥渢he whole significance of what this medal represents. It really does.鈥

Hershel “Woody” Williams. (Naval History and Heritage Command)

鈥淚 had men who gave their lives to protect me,鈥 Williams recounted to author  in Uncommon Valor on Iwo Jima. 鈥淲hen I get to heaven one of my first questions to God will be: 鈥榃hy me?鈥欌

Of the 36-day battle, Williams fought for 34. Although tapped to be evacuated on March 6 after sustaining a shrapnel wound to his leg, Williams chose to remain behind to help teach green Marine replacements proper battle procedure. 

By March 26 the island was declared in U.S. hands, but at the deadly cost of nearly 7,000 Marines. War Correspondent Robert Sherrod wrote, General Tadamichi 鈥淜uribayashi never gave the order of the battle-ending banzai attack. His men stayed in their tunnels and their mole hills to the deathly end, and we had to go in and dig them out, or burn [them] out, or seal them in. There was nothing else for us to do.鈥 

Of the 21,000 Japanese under Kuribayashi鈥檚 command, only 212 defenders were still alive to surrender 鈥 just 1 percent of the original garrison.

After two and a half years of training and fighting in the Pacific, Williams was sent home. Twenty-seven Medals of Honor were awarded for the fighting on Iwo; more than double the 12 earned during Operation Overlord, the battle that began with the invasion of Normandy. 

Prior to receiving the award, l. 鈥淭hey always read the citation before they present the medal and those words were extremely foreign to me. I didn鈥檛 even know why they were reading it.  I had done the things they had said I鈥檇 done, but it felt so strange to hear them talk about me doing my duty.鈥

He does remember that his legs didn鈥檛 seem to want to cooperate when President Harry Truman approached him. But that nerve-wracking experience was dwarfed by meeting the commandant of the Marine Corps, General Alexander A. Vandegrift. 

Vandegrift, a Medal of Honor recipient himself for his actions on Guadalcanal,  鈥淭hat medal does not belong to you. It belongs to all of those Marines who did not get to come home. And don鈥檛 ever do anything that would tarnish that medal.鈥 

Williams has lived by those words. 

Marines atop Mount Suribachi. (USMC)
Marines atop Mount Suribachi. (USMC)

 

Homecoming

Self-described as shy and timid prior to the war, the Medal of Honor forced Williams 鈥渢o become public鈥hether [he] wanted it or not.鈥 And, in a sense, it saved him.

鈥淚t was probably one of the best therapies that I could have really had,鈥 Williams said. 鈥淚 couldn’t withdraw into myself. I couldn’t go off by myself and have these thoughts or flashbacks.鈥

The transition back home was not without some difficulty, however. In the initial days, Williams would often have nightmares about a conflagration that was seemingly spreading on the walls of his bedroom, seeing bursts of flames, or 鈥渃razy, crazy stuff鈥 as he put it.

By being forced to discuss Iwo Jima and its traumas, it enabled him to rationalize and evaluate his service. 鈥淗ad I gone back to the farm, as a farm boy, without having received the Medal of Honor, I have no idea what would have happened,鈥 he said. But he didn鈥檛 have to look far to understand how different his journey might have been. Williams鈥檚 brother, William Gerald Williams suffered what the Marines called a crack up. The Army called it combat fatigue. Now it鈥檚 understood as post-traumatic stress disorder.

And while both brothers suffered from PTSD, each had vastly different outcomes.

William, serving under Patton鈥檚 Third Army, fought in the Ardennes during the bitter Battle of the Bulge. There, he suffered two gunshot wounds 鈥撯 one through the left shoulder and one through the left rib cage.

William鈥檚 poor luck didn鈥檛 stop there. While riding in a train taking him away from the front lines, a German pilot managed to strafe said train. After this, William 鈥溾

William was placed in a psychiatric hospital in England and wouldn鈥檛 return home until December 1945. He was never the same again and died at age 42.

鈥淗e just gave up. That’s all there was to it,鈥 Williams said of his brother鈥檚 death. 鈥淲e didn’t have any autopsy or anything like that, but the way the doctor explained it is his heart just quit. He didn’t have a heart attack. We never did understand that.鈥

(J.D. Simkins)
(J.D. Simkins)

 

Williams himself found solace through his community, his family, and the church. Non-religious prior to the war; an 鈥渁ccidental Catholic鈥 during the war after mistakenly putting the letter 鈥淐鈥 in the religion category of his enlistment papers; after the war Williams found relief from his PTSD through the Methodist Church. 

Just 18 days after returning home, Williams would marry his girlfriend, Ruby, on October 17, 1945. Together, he and Ruby would raise two daughters. 

Williams accepted a position as a veteran counselor with the Veterans Affairs and worked with men returning home who needed help transitioning. He would remain with the VA for 33 years until his retirement.

At the age of 96, Williams continues to serve his country through , which, according to the mission statement, honors “Gold Star Families, Relatives and Children by building Gold Star Families Memorial Monuments throughout the United States, by offering scholarships to Gold Star Children, by sponsoring outreach programs and events and by educating communities about Gold Star Families and the sacrifice they have endured.”

It is such a fine line that separates what a soldier does under the intense fear that such combat brings. To act without fear can lead to foolish consequences. To be frozen by it is its own form of surrender. 鈥淟ife is so precious, I believe anybody being shot at has a fear…that the fear is there, but if fear takes over you become useless,鈥 said Williams. 鈥淵ou don鈥檛 rationalize in my opinion. You start rationalizing then you start backing up.鈥

Williams walked that line and got the job done.

And what a job it was.