The Last of the Last

 

Hershel “Woody” Williams, the last of America’s Medal of Honor recipients from WWII, has passed away at the age of 98.

In 2009, my wife was invited to a function in Washington, DC. Our local library had won a prestigious national award and, as treasurer of one of the library’s most popular community programs, she was asked to attend. When she arrived, she found herself seated at a table with an elderly gentleman in his mid-80’s. Raised on a dairy farm in West Virginia, he had lived quite a life. He had worked odd jobs and drove both trucks and a taxi for a living before he joined the Civilian Conservation Corps. He was working on a project through them in Montana on December 7, 1941.

Like most healthy American males, he went to enlist but he was rejected for military service for being too short. By May 1943, with the war dragging on, he was finally accepted into the Reserves of the United States Marine Corps. A little over a year later, this young man would be in combat with the 1st Battalion, 21st Marines on Guam and, in February of 1945, on the island of Iwo Jima.

It was on Iwo that he truly distinguished himself. With advancement stalled by a series of pill boxes built into the black volcanic sand, he became a one-man assault force. Covered by only four riflemen, he fought with a 70-pound flame thrower on his back and took out the enemy positions with fire and explosives. When his fuel tank was empty, he crawled back behind the lines and rearmed. Again and again he did this, for four long hours under withering Japanese fire.

Now my wife’s table companion, this small, elderly man was there as the guest of the Pritzker Military Museum & Library, a co-winner of that year’s National Medal for Museum and Library Service. The Pritzker, you see, is where his Congressional Medal of Honor found a permanent home to be displayed for all to see.

When my wife told him our (then) 13-year old son had an interest in the Corps, Williams reached into his pocket and pulled out a challenge coin. “Here, you give this to your son. Tell him he can do no better than the Corps.”

My son has now left the Corps after eight years. This coin remains one of his most prized possessions.

Woody spent the last years of his life fighting for veterans and for Gold Star families. Now it’s our turn to say, “Rest easy, Marine.”

(Parts of this essay were originally written to commemorate the Marine Corps Birthday in 2015.)

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  1. JennaStocker Member
    JennaStocker
    @JennaStocker

    I’m heartbroken by the news. Williams is the man who makes America a great nation, it is upon his shoulders we stand, and his legacy that we have to fight for. We have to be worthy not just of him and what he represents, but of the men and women who died on those battlefields in Iwo, Okinawa, Chosin, Vietnam, Afghanistan…those who didn’t make it to twenty-eight, let alone ninety-eight. Thank you, @ejhill for a moving tribute. Semper Fi, Marine.

    • #1
  2. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    I feel humbled and grateful for his dedication and bravery. Thanks for telling us about him, EJ

    • #2
  3. Henry Racette Member
    Henry Racette
    @HenryRacette

    Beautiful. Thanks, EJ.

    • #3
  4. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    Rest in Peace

    • #4
  5. EJHill Podcaster
    EJHill
    @EJHill

    Sentiment shared with my son after hearing the news, “By God, if there’s going to be a last man standing on the face of this earth it will be a United States Marine.”

    Damn straight.

    • #5
  6. CACrabtree Coolidge
    CACrabtree
    @CACrabtree

    I will never forget my chance encounter with this American Hero.  About five years ago I came upon an intersection in Ashland, Ky and in the turn lane was a car with a license plate bearing the inscription of West Virgina and MOH.  I knew there was only one individual who could be in that car.  I pulled up in the adjacent lane and rolled down my window. Sure enough, sitting in the passenger seat, there was Williams.  

    I saluted and sure enough, he grinned and saluted back.  He then pointed up at his head.  I realized that he had recognized the ballcap I was wearing with my Vietnam unit insignia.  I believe I had goosebumps for the rest of the day.

    I always believed that Williams was the best example of those men who came out of the small towns and “hollars” of Appalachia to do their duty for this nation.  We will not see their like again.

    • #6
  7. navyjag Coolidge
    navyjag
    @navyjag

    Great post. Dad a Marine Corps transport pilot who was also at Iwo Jima.  Remember him  telling me how astounded he was flying over the flamethrowers getting real close to the caves there. 

    • #7
  8. JAW3 Coolidge
    JAW3
    @JohnWilson

    His MOH citation

     

    For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as demolition sergeant serving with the 21st Marines, 3d Marine Division, in action against enemy Japanese forces on Iwo Jima, Volcano Islands, 23 February 1945. Quick to volunteer his services when our tanks were maneuvering vainly to open a lane for the infantry through the network of reinforced concrete pillboxes, buried mines, and black volcanic sands, Cpl. Williams daringly went forward alone to attempt the reduction of devastating machine-gun fire from the unyielding positions. Covered only by four riflemen, he 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 strongpoints encountered by his regiment and aided vitally in enabling his company to reach its objective. Cpl. Williams’ aggressive fighting spirit and valiant devotion to duty throughout this fiercely contested action sustain and enhance the highest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service.

     

    I have no words for such bravery.  We are very fortunate brave men like Woody volunteered so bravely to protects us.  

    • #8
  9. CACrabtree Coolidge
    CACrabtree
    @CACrabtree

    JAW3 (View Comment):

    His MOH citation

     

    For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as demolition sergeant serving with the 21st Marines, 3d Marine Division, in action against enemy Japanese forces on Iwo Jima, Volcano Islands, 23 February 1945. Quick to volunteer his services when our tanks were maneuvering vainly to open a lane for the infantry through the network of reinforced concrete pillboxes, buried mines, and black volcanic sands, Cpl. Williams daringly went forward alone to attempt the reduction of devastating machine-gun fire from the unyielding positions. Covered only by four riflemen, he 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 strongpoints encountered by his regiment and aided vitally in enabling his company to reach its objective. Cpl. Williams’ aggressive fighting spirit and valiant devotion to duty throughout this fiercely contested action sustain and enhance the highest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service.

     

    I have no words for such bravery. We are very fortunate brave men like Woody volunteered so bravely to protects us.

    Every time I read this, I always wonder, “How could he be awarded only 1 Medal of Honor for this action?”

    • #9
  10. Dotorimuk Coolidge
    Dotorimuk
    @Dotorimuk

    Who’s going to fill his shoes?

    • #10
  11. Henry Racette Member
    Henry Racette
    @HenryRacette

    Dotorimuk (View Comment):

    Who’s going to fill his shoes?

    Our sons and grandsons. Raise them right.

    • #11
  12. EJHill Podcaster
    EJHill
    @EJHill

    From WSAZ (Huntington, WV): “Williams, 98, died early Wednesday morning at the Hershel “Woody” Williams VA Medical Center in Huntington, West Virginia.”

    Dying in a hospital that already has your name on it.  That, my friends, is going out like a boss.

    • #12
  13. Nathanael Ferguson Contributor
    Nathanael Ferguson
    @NathanaelFerguson

    One can only echo President Reagan’s rhetorical question on the 40th anniversary of the D-Day invasion: “Where do we find such men?”

    • #13
  14. Front Seat Cat Member
    Front Seat Cat
    @FrontSeatCat

    Wow – an amazing soul and a real hero.  He never saw his size as a deterrent.   Thank you for this gift of learning about him.

    • #14
  15. Stad Coolidge
    Stad
    @Stad

    I saw the article, and I felt a twinge in my heart.  We’re losing our institutional memory of what it takes to fight evil.  After seeing that poll about how many citizens would not fight to defend our country, I’m a little more in despair now . . .

    • #15
  16. J Ro Member
    J Ro
    @JRo

    CACrabtree (View Comment):

    JAW3 (View Comment):

    His MOH citation

     

    For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as demolition sergeant serving with the 21st Marines, 3d Marine Division, in action against enemy Japanese forces on Iwo Jima, Volcano Islands, 23 February 1945. Quick to volunteer his services when our tanks were maneuvering vainly to open a lane for the infantry through the network of reinforced concrete pillboxes, buried mines, and black volcanic sands, Cpl. Williams daringly went forward alone to attempt the reduction of devastating machine-gun fire from the unyielding positions. Covered only by four riflemen, he 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 strongpoints encountered by his regiment and aided vitally in enabling his company to reach its objective. Cpl. Williams’ aggressive fighting spirit and valiant devotion to duty throughout this fiercely contested action sustain and enhance the highest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service.

     

    I have no words for such bravery. We are very fortunate brave men like Woody volunteered so bravely to protects us.

    Every time I read this, I always wonder, “How could he be awarded only 1 Medal of Honor for this action?”

    It’s a miracle he survived that day, and the rest of the war. Some of Doolittle’s Raiders survived their famous mission and made it to China, but even if they weren’t captured and killed there were absorbed into other units, continued flying and never saw home again. 

    I have been privileged to visit Iwo Jima to gas up a couple of times. The Japanese staff there were kind enough to drive us around and take us to the American memorial at the top of Mount Suribachi if we had the time. Unforgettable. 

    RIP, Marine. 

    • #16
  17. CACrabtree Coolidge
    CACrabtree
    @CACrabtree

    J Ro (View Comment):

    CACrabtree (View Comment):

    JAW3 (View Comment):

    His MOH citation

    For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as demolition sergeant serving with the 21st Marines, 3d Marine Division, in action against enemy Japanese forces on Iwo Jima, Volcano Islands, 23 February 1945. Quick to volunteer his services when our tanks were maneuvering vainly to open a lane for the infantry through the network of reinforced concrete pillboxes, buried mines, and black volcanic sands, Cpl. Williams daringly went forward alone to attempt the reduction of devastating machine-gun fire from the unyielding positions. Covered only by four riflemen, he 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 strongpoints encountered by his regiment and aided vitally in enabling his company to reach its objective. Cpl. Williams’ aggressive fighting spirit and valiant devotion to duty throughout this fiercely contested action sustain and enhance the highest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service.

    I have no words for such bravery. We are very fortunate brave men like Woody volunteered so bravely to protects us.

    Every time I read this, I always wonder, “How could he be awarded only 1 Medal of Honor for this action?”

    It’s a miracle he survived that day, and the rest of the war. Some of Doolittle’s Raiders survived their famous mission and made it to China, but even if they weren’t captured and killed there were absorbed into other units, continued flying and never saw home again.

    I have been privileged to visit Iwo Jima to gas up a couple of times. The Japanese staff there were kind enough to drive us around and take us to the American memorial at the top of Mount Suribachi if we had the time. Unforgettable.

    RIP, Marine.

    Copy that.  It would have been great if John Basilone had survived the war, as Williams did.

    • #17
  18. navyjag Coolidge
    navyjag
    @navyjag

    J Ro (View Comment):

    CACrabtree (View Comment):

    JAW3 (View Comment):

    His MOH citation

     

    For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as demolition sergeant serving with the 21st Marines, 3d Marine Division, in action against enemy Japanese forces on Iwo Jima, Volcano Islands, 23 February 1945. Quick to volunteer his services when our tanks were maneuvering vainly to open a lane for the infantry through the network of reinforced concrete pillboxes, buried mines, and black volcanic sands, Cpl. Williams daringly went forward alone to attempt the reduction of devastating machine-gun fire from the unyielding positions. Covered only by four riflemen, he 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 strongpoints encountered by his regiment and aided vitally in enabling his company to reach its objective. Cpl. Williams’ aggressive fighting spirit and valiant devotion to duty throughout this fiercely contested action sustain and enhance the highest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service.

     

    I have no words for such bravery. We are very fortunate brave men like Woody volunteered so bravely to protects us.

    Every time I read this, I always wonder, “How could he be awarded only 1 Medal of Honor for this action?”

    It’s a miracle he survived that day, and the rest of the war. Some of Doolittle’s Raiders survived their famous mission and made it to China, but even if they weren’t captured and killed there were absorbed into other units, continued flying and never saw home again.

    I have been privileged to visit Iwo Jima to gas up a couple of times. The Japanese staff there were kind enough to drive us around and take us to the American memorial at the top of Mount Suribachi if we had the time. Unforgettable.

    RIP, Marine.

    Dad went back to Iwo in 2003 at a Marine Corps reunion. About 12 of them.  He was amazed that some of the folks at the reunion were Japanese vets who were captured and survived.  The Marines wanted to know how they were received back home as the assumption was they would be disgraced by not committing hari-kari. All of them said, through an interpreter, they were welcomed because there were not enough young men in Japan after the war to help them get on with life. 

    • #18
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