A 94-year-old American hero looks back
It’s about the size of a small pancake. It hangs around the man’s neck on a ribbon.
“I use a lot of Brasso on it,” he jokes. He must, because it shines. And so does he.
Hershel “Woody” Williams is 94 years old. He is one of 464 American soldiers to have received the Medal of Honor for extraordinary service during World War II.
Only four survive. Williams is the oldest. But he is a long way from being done.
I met him a few weeks ago in New Orleans, at a conference sponsored by The National World War II Museum. Williams was the keynote speaker. If his story doesn’t buff up your sense of pride and patriotism, well, you need some Brasso.
Williams was born and brought up on a dairy farm in Quiet Dell, West Virginia. His father died when he was 11. He tried to join the Marines when he was 17, but the minimum height requirement was 5-feet-8. Since he was only 5-feet-6, he was rejected.
But in 1943, in need of more men, the Marines dropped the minimum to 5-feet-6. Williams joined that week.
One of his early assignments was delivering telegrams to the families of casualties, informing them that their sons had died in battle.
“That remains imprinted on my mind,” Williams told his audience of about 500. “The sadness, the grieving. I learned that dads cry, too.”
In 1944, Williams was shipped to the South Pacific. “I had never even heard of the South Pacific,” he said. “I didn’t know we had one.”
The next February — the 23rd, to be exact — he and his special weapons squad were on Iwo Jima, the legendary island where U.S. forces fought the Japanese for weeks and sustained heavy casualties. Williams, by now a corporal, was tasked with neutralizing enemy pillboxes at an airfield.
Pillboxes are bunkers, dug into the earth and fortified with concrete. It’s easy to fire out of them, via slits. It’s very difficult to fire into them. The only way to knock them out is to walk right up to them and start shooting.
Which Woody Williams proceeded to do.
When his commanding officer told Williams to take out as many of them as he could, “I said, ‘I’ll try,’” he recalled.
For the next four hours, armed with a single flamethrower, Williams destroyed seven pillboxes single-handedly. “Much of it I don’t even remember,” he says.
Miraculously, he was not wounded during his mission. He just kept eyeballing a pillbox and destroying it, eyeballing another and destroying it.
Is he braver than most? Williams denies it. Was he a better solider than his comrades? Williams denies it. “I have no explanation for how I accomplished what I accomplished that day,” he says.
Nor has he ever forgotten the men in his unit who were killed that day — especially a good friend named Vernon Waters.
Waters had given Williams his ring while they were on Iwo Jima. If anything ever happened to him, he told Williams, please see that the ring is returned to my family.
Once the war ended, and he was back in West Virginia, Williams bought a 1942 Dodge and drove the ring to Frawley, Montana, Waters’ home town. “It took me three days to drive it, but it was the least I could do,” Williams said.
Woody Williams has devoted much of his post-war life to helping and honoring the families of Americans killed in battle. His family foundation provides college scholarships to Gold Star children. He has been instrumental in erecting memorials to Gold Star soldiers throughout the United States.
Meanwhile, he is backing an organization called State Funeral for World War II Veterans. The organization is marshaling support for a single state funeral once the last World War II Medal of Honor winner dies. If an idea ever deserved to blossom, it’s this one.
Asked why he left the family farm in 1943 to join the Marines, Woody Williams says his reason was simple: “To protect my country and my freedom.”
Asked how Feb. 23, 1945 looks to him, all these years later, he says: “I never dreamed that a poor, little old boy from West Virginia would have such a high honor. No one could ever convince me that that could happen, except in America.”
I walked up to Williams just as the standing ovation was ending. “Mr. Williams,” I said, “I was born right at the end of World War II. I know I could never have had the life I’ve had without men like you.”
“Thank you,” said Woody Williams.
No, corporal. Thank you.
Bob Levey is a national award-winning columnist.