Medal of Honor recipient devotes life to veterans
Click here to listen to an audio clip from Woody Williams' interview.
ONA, W.Va. -- It defines him: The Medal of Honor.
The moment President Truman placed that ribbon around his neck, his life, his entire identity, dramatically and irrevocably changed.
He wasn't just Hershel "Woody" Williams anymore. He had new purpose, a new role, an obligation to promote and protect the real meaning behind the prestigious tribute paid to him.
He views the coveted medal as a memorial symbol. He wears it in remembrance of all the soldiers who did not come home -- specifically the two Marines who died saving his life.
The feat that earned him the country's highest citation for valor occurred on Iwo Jima, just hours after AP photographer Joe Rosenthal snapped the iconic picture of the American flag rising on Mount Suribachi.
Once rejected by the Marines because he was too short, the plucky 21-year-old farm boy from Fairmont strapped a 70-pound flamethrower on his back and slithered repeatedly across an open field through fierce gunfire to take out seven concrete bunkers shielding Japanese soldiers with machine guns.
Just doing his job, he said.
He spent the rest of his life working in some way as an ambassador for veterans. Sharp and energetic at 88, he still flits from one engagement to another, giving speeches and attending significant military events.
During an emotional and detailed interview, West Virginia's only living Medal of Honor recipient shares his story as a special feature for Memorial Day.
"I was born and raised in a little town called Quiet Dell, just a wide place in the road, right out of Fairmont.
"My dad started a dairy farm when I was about 4. There were 11 in the family. I was the last. Only five of us survived because most were born in the teens and the 1918 flu got them.
"We ended up with about 35 cows, and they all had to be milked twice a day the old-fashioned way. We delivered the milk to town in bottles. When we weren't in school, we kids would go with the milk truck, a Model A Ford.
"My mother was a widow. I was 9 when my father died of a heart condition. My older brother took over the role of dad.
"I started school in a one-room schoolhouse about a mile and a half from the house. When the Work Progress Administration came into play, they built another school with two rooms, one for grades 1 to 4 and the other for grades 5 to 8.
"I rode the milk truck to town to go to high school. I went to East Fairmont one year. It got too difficult. We began losing our customers, so the truck wasn't going as often, and I had no way to get there.
"We very seldom saw a person in uniform. We had two young fellows who didn't like to farm, so they went in the Marine Corps. When they would come home in their Marine dress blues, we kids would gather around them like a magnet. I decided if I ever did go in the military, I wanted to look like one of those guys.
"When the war happened, I was in the Civilian Conservation Corps out in Montana. I had a brother who joined the CCC to make some money. They paid $20 a month.
"We didn't have any money. On Saturday, whenever we couldn't work on the farm, we could go to town. They would give you a dime. The movie was a nickel. An ice cream cone was a nickel. A hot dog was a nickel. So you could go to the movie and have a hot dog or an ice cream cone, but you couldn't do all three.
"My brother would come home on weekends with dollar bills. I seldom saw a dollar bill. I thought I would join the CCC and go where he went, to Pickens up near Elkins. They sent me to Morgantown, then moved that whole group to Montana.
"Our job was to cut pine trees and make them into pine posts they would use to build fences around government property.
"One day, they called us out in formation and announced that America had been bombed. None of us had ever heard of Pearl Harbor. I didn't even know a South Pacific existed.
"They said we could go directly into the Army, because the Army supervised the CCC units. Or they would discharge you for the purpose of going home and going into the military. I told them I wanted to go in the Marine Corps.
"I was still only 17. My mother wouldn't sign the paper authorizing me to go in before my 18th birthday. She said she needed me on the farm. I turned 18 in October. In November of '42, I went to go into the Marine Corps. I handed my paper to the Marine. He just looked at me and shook his head. He said I was too short. The Marine Corps had a requirement of 5-8.
"In early 1943, they removed the height limitation. And they got back to me.
"I was driving a taxi from 6 in the evening until 6 in the morning, waiting on my notice to report to the Marine Corps. Ruby worked in town. Sometimes she had to work over and take a taxi home because the buses had quit running. I enticed her to always call me. We got engaged.
"She had this ring she bought at Murphy's 10-cent store. It had a ruby in it not as big as a pea. A red piece of glass is what it was. She said she wanted me to wear the ring and think of her every time I looked at it. It would turn my finger green, but I wore it all the time I was in the Marine Corps.
"Everybody east of the Mississippi went to Parris Island, S.C., for boot camp. But so many people wanted to get into the war that they didn't have enough drill instructors or housing, so they formed troop trains. They would come through every state and pick up people. They picked up six of us in Charleston and sent us to San Diego. The other Marines called us 'Hollywood Marines.'
"The flamethrower was new to the Marine Corps. When I arrived at Guadalcanal in December 1943, that was first time I had seen a flamethrower. We had just received a shipment of them.
"They said I had been selected to be trained as a flamethrower operator. They also trained us to be demolition people so we could be interchangeable. If we needed to blow up something, we had that ability. If we needed to burn up something, we had that ability.
"The flamethrower had two metal fuel tanks and a compressed air tank that would force the fuel out. The flamethrower weighed 70 pounds and would hold 4 1/2 gallons of fuel.
"They told us we were going to take Guam back. The Japanese had taken it from us in 1942. It was a rough campaign in that it was practically all jungle. The Japanese would hide in that thickness to where you couldn't find them.
"We shipped out for Iwo Jima as a reserve division. They told us we probably wouldn't get off the ship. They told us we would be gone about five days. The island was only about 2 1/2 half miles wide and 5 miles long. Intelligence couldn't say it was going to take 36 days to take that tiny island.
"They had no way of telling us that there were 21,000 Japanese on that island or that they had 19 miles of tunnels hollowed out. Frogmen had cleared the beach area. Beyond the beach, we had no idea what was there.
"They decided they were going to need us. We got into a boat to go ashore. We circled all day because the guys on shore hadn't gotten enough territory for us to come in behind them.
"I'd never been seasick until riding those boats all day. Waves were running 12 to 15 feet, so we were constantly bobbing. Everybody got sick. I think I got sick not from rough riding but because someone got sick on me. It was terrible.
"We got back on the ship that night. The next morning, we did get ashore. We had to cross the first airfield to advance. The airfield had no protection. We lost a bunch of Marines.
"Anybody who says he's not scared when somebody is shooting at him is crazy. You have to overcome that fear. If the fear gets the upper hand, you become absolutely useless. I saw lots of Marines become absolutely useless. They could not function.
"I kept constantly repeating to myself, 'I am not going to die. I am not going to die.' I would never let myself think that I was not going to make it. I had to get back to that girl in Fairmont that I wanted to marry. That is what kept me sane.
"The fifth day in, the 23rd of February, was the day the flag went up on Mount Suribachi. The first flag they put up was only about 3 by 5. I didn't even know that happened. When they put the bigger flag up, the Marines around me could see it and sort of went crazy.
"I was about 1,000 yards up. We had been busy trying to break through a whole bunch of pillboxes, or bunkers as we call them today. I was on the beach in a prone position.
"Marines around me starting jumping up and down and firing their weapons and yelling. I got up and saw Old Glory and started firing my weapon, too.
"It was what we needed at the very time we needed it. Morale was very low. The Japanese were in concrete pillboxes with an aperture across the front with weapons sticking out. Anytime we moved, we were in open terrain. You crawled more than you walked.
"Trying to break through the pillboxes, you would lose Marines around you and have to fall back and reorganize and try again. It was a terrible time.
"The company commander's morale was low because he had lost so many men. He called a meeting. A corporal normally doesn't attend those meetings, but I was the last of the group.
"The commander asked if I might be able to do something with those pillboxes with my flamethrower. I said I would try. He gave me four Marines to protect me as I moved across the ground. I just started working, planning what I was going to do with that 70-pound weight on my back.
"You lose track of time. The fuel we were using was a mix of high-octane gasoline and diesel, enough diesel to give it weight so it would move. The high-octane gasoline gave it the heat.
"If you just fired it in the air, it wouldn't go anywhere. Air resistance would hit it, and it would stop. The gunnery sergeant taught us to fire onto the ground and let it roll, and it would turn into a big orange flaming ball, and you could roll it for 6 to 10 yards.
"These four individuals chosen to give me protection, I put two on my left and two on my right so they could have a crossfire into the pillbox. Two of those Marines gave their lives that day protecting me. I never knew who they were. They were just picked out of squads. You don't know guys in other squads.
"I went in there six times and knocked out seven pillboxes over a four-hour period. Even now, it's like a dream. Much of that day, I do not remember. I attribute that a lot to fear. Fear can take memory away.
"Once we were in control, we just kept on going. I was wounded on Iwo on March 6, a leg wound, a little piece of shrapnel. When the corpsman pulled it out, he gave it to me. I still have it.
"He put a tag on my lapel. If a corpsman tagged you, you had to get out of combat because you weren't fit to fight. I pulled off the tag and said, 'I don't have a tag on me.' He just shook his head.
"We left Iwo on April 1, 1945, and went back to Guam.
"We were training to street fight. All us dumb Marines knew we were going to Tokyo. As far as we were concerned, that was all of Japan.
"On Nov. 5, our division was scheduled to go to Kyushu to take the south end. If that had happened, the estimate is that we would have lost a million people. Instead, we dropped the big bomb. That saved my life.
"On Guam, they called me into the office and said to get into my best khakis because I was going to see the general. Talk about scared. Corporals don't go see generals unless they're in trouble.
"The general congratulated me on being called back to the States to receive a medal. I had never heard of the Medal of Honor. It didn't mean a thing to me.
"I flew to Hawaii. I'd never been on an airplane. They said they would get me to Washington as soon as they could. Prisoners of war had priority. They gave me a flight to the naval air base in San Francisco in the meantime. The seventh day, they finally put me on the plane.
"There is one vision that has always haunted me. The plane was brilliantly lit. There were like 48 individuals on that plane they had just picked up from Japan after being in prison four or five years. Individuals who had weighed 180 pounds now weighed 70 pounds and looked like skeletons. They were the happiest people I've ever seen.
"I asked the guy beside me about his experience. He said, 'You never really know what freedom is until you have lost it.' I will never forget those words.
"At the White House, 13 of us were receiving the Medal of Honor. You do everything alphabetically in the Marine Corps. By the time they got to me, I had built up such nervousness that my body started shaking and would not quit.
"When I walked up to President Truman, I was just quivering. He put the ribbon around my neck, put his left hand on my shoulder and said, 'I'd rather have this medal than be president.' I shook all the way back to my seat.
"The commandant of the Marine Corps is a Medal of Honor recipient from Guadalcanal, A.A. Vandergrift. We had to report to his office the day after receiving medal. He said, 'That medal does not belong to you. It belongs to those Marines who did not get to come home.'
"Truly, it does not belong to me. It belongs specifically to those two Marines who gave their lives protecting mine. What more can you do than give your life to protect somebody else? I don't wear the medal for what I did. I wear it in their honor. All I was doing was my job.
"I came back to Fairmont and married Ruby on Oct. 17. On Veterans Day, they had a big parade. They put me in a red Dodge convertible on the back seat and I rode that way in the parade.
"I'm a country boy. I'm out of my class. Why are they doing all this? Thousands of people were out there. They brought me back to the courthouse and there was Sen. [Matthew] Neely and judges and congressmen.
"A guy says, 'And now may I present Woody Williams for a few remarks.' Nobody told me I was to make remarks. I walked up to the microphone and said three ahs and sat down. Shortest speech in history.
"I spent the rest of my life in veterans work. It's part of the debt I owe. I started working for the VA in January 1946. It was one of best jobs a person could have. I was commandant for the VA home and a counselor and chaplain of the Medal of Honor Society for 35 years.
"When I first became chaplain, we had about 450 Medal of Honor recipients living. Now we have 81.
"I speak to a lot of schools. We talk about the values of America and how fortunate we are to be Americans and have people still willing to give their lives to keep our freedom.
"I was raised in a horse era. Our farm had two teams of horses. I learned to handle horses and work with them and love them. It was one of my goals to do something with horses.
"I planned to retire as early as I could and start a horse training, showing and birthing farm. I began doing that prior to my retirement.
"If I could start all over again, I don't know of anything I would change. My life has been so full and varied and blessed.
"I can't imagine what would have happened to me without that medal. The day I received the medal absolutely changed my whole life. I became a new person. Otherwise, I probably would have been in industry of some kind.
"Sometimes I feel so unworthy. When I get to heaven, one of my questions to God is, 'Why me? Why was I selected when the guy beside me gave his life and wasn't selected?' I don't have the answer."
Reach Sandy Wells at email@example.com or 304-348-5173.