WICHITA FALLS, Texas -- Hershel “Woody” Williams weighed only three pounds when he was born on a farm in Quiet Dell, West Virginia. His early education took place in a one-room schoolhouse. As a young man, he joined the Marine Corps Reserves believing he would never be shipped overseas, but still wanting to guard the United States from the home front.
Williams thought wrong. He soon found himself cutting through the waves of the Pacific and eventually hitting the beaches of Guam and then the black sands of Iwo Jima during World War II. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions on the volcanic island, February 23, 1945.
When I was growing up there were two Marines, who would visit my hometown and they always wore their dress blue uniforms. We kids would hang around those guys as much as they would let us. The dress blue uniform impressed me.
I never dreamed of being in the military. Other than those two Marines, we seldom saw anyone from the military.
I was in the Civilian Conservation Corps, with about 260 people, from all over the country, when Pearl Harbor was bombed. I had never heard of Pearl Harbor. They told us we had a choice to make.
I asked for my release, so I could go home to be in the military. When I got home, I wanted my mother, my father was deceased, to sign the papers, so I could go into the Marine Corps. She wouldn’t do it. When I turned 18, I went to the recruiting office and filled out the paper work. The Marine didn’t even look at it. He just looked at me and said, “Sorry you’re too short.”
I went home. If I couldn’t go into the Marine Corps, I wasn’t going to go at all. Early in 1943, the Marine Corps started accepting Marines of a shorter height. The recruiter looked me up and asked if I still wanted to go. I said, yes I still want to go.
I didn’t know, at the time I went into the Marine Corps, that I would ever leave the United States. The concept most of us had going into the service was we were going to stay right here in America to protect the country because our freedom had been threatened. It wasn’t until I got through boot camp that I learned we were going overseas. I didn’t even know we had a Pacific ocean.
When I completed boot camp, I went to a place called Jacques Farm at Camp Pendleton. We took to training, there, on how to work with tanks. It was a tank-training farm. After six weeks there, we began infantry training at Camp Pendleton. December 1943 we were shipped overseas.
I got sent to the 3rd Marine Division, which happened to be on Guadalcanal at the moment. That’s where I became a flamethrower demolition operator. No one was trained to operate it. The gunnery sergeant in charge didn’t like the phosphorous gel of the flamethrower. With one stream, you’d waste all your fuel before you got on target.
We began experimenting with other fluids. We started diesel fuel with airplane gasoline because it burned hotter than regular gasoline. Somebody said, “You put this on your back and if you get hit, you’re going to explode.”
So, we set it out in the field and shot at it with M1 rifles and .30 caliber machine guns trying to make it explode. We really tried to penetrate it, but we couldn’t do it.
On Iwo Jima, I was back with Headquarters Company the whole time supplying demolition Marines with whatever they needed. The commanding officer had a meeting in this huge crater, which was made by a large bomb. We were looking for ways to move forward. We had tried several times and every time we were overpowered and we had to move back. I was asked to use the flamethrower to take out some of the pillboxes that were holding us up.
It is very possible that if two Marines, on Feb. 23, 1945, had not given their lives protecting mine; I would not be privileged to wear this medal. I was assigned two riflemen and two battlefield assault riflemen. I put a battlefield assault rifleman and a rifleman on each side of the area I was going to approach, so they could shoot the pillbox I selected. That’s when I lost two of them. Two of them got killed.
The pillboxes had an aperture in front with about a six to eight inch opening in the front. That’s where they could put their rifles and machine guns out and have a complete field of fire on you because it covered almost the whole front of the pillbox, which was about eight to 12 feet long.
That day, I did the work, which resulted in my receiving the medal. I used up six flamethrowers. I was crawling up a ditch. They had dug ditches between the pillboxes, so they could come out and crawl on their belly to the next pillbox and you couldn’t see them. They were below ground level.
I could see a light machine gun. As I crawl up the ditch he starts firing at me. I’m low enough in the ditch that his bullets were ricocheting off my flamethrower on my back. He was firing about 750 rounds-per-minute. When I was close enough, I crawled around the side to get out of the field of fire. I crawled up the sand on top of the pillbox and stuck my flamethrower down the vent pipe.
I should have been evacuated March 6. I got hit with piece of shrapnel. It had gotten me inside the left leg. I slid in a grazed out piece of ground. The corpsman came. He took his forceps and pulled it out and said, “Do you want this?” I said, “I sure do!” It was still hot. I still have it.
Then the corpsman wrote out his report sitting there on the ground next to me. We had been told if a corpsman ever tagged you, you have to go back. He put that yellow tag on my lapel. I reached up and jerked the tag off, so I stayed. Of course for several days I walked with a big, long limp.
We left Iwo Jima and came back to Guam after the campaign was over. The engineers had built some false fronted buildings, like it was a street. We began to learn how to street fight. Up until that time, we had no idea what fighting in streets would be like. We were headed for Kyushu, Japan. If the bombs hadn’t dropped on Japan and the war hadn’t ended, we would have landed all six Marine divisions in Kyushu.
Woody made it home from the volcanic island, not all service members were lucky enough to return home.
For information about the Hershel “Woody” Williams Medal of Honor Foundation visit www.hwwmohfoundation.org