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A Veteran Who Was on Iwo Jima 70 Years Ago Today

A Veteran wearing the medal of honor stands between a man and a woman

Hershel “Woody” Williams with Sarah M. Tolstyka, Public Affairs Specialist, and Timothy J. Cooke, Martinsburg, West Virginia, VA Medical Center Director

By Hans Petersen, VA Staff Writer
Monday, February 23, 2015

You’ve seen the picture a thousand times. In black-and-white photos, maybe in an old movie. The raising of the flag on Iwo Jima.

Meet a Veteran who was there…70 years ago today: Corporal Hershel “Woody” Williams, United States Marine, who was awarded the Medal of Honor for action against the Japanese forces on Iwo Jima, February 23, 1945.

Williams, 91, is the last living Medal of Honor recipient for actions on Iwo Jima.

Williams joined the Marines when he was 17 and was with the group of Marines who landed on Iwo Jima on February 21, 1945.

American tanks ran into a network of reinforced concrete pillboxes and buried mines. Williams went forward with his 70-pound flamethrower to try to stop the devastating machine gun fire from the enemy positions.

He was covered by four riflemen as he fought for hours under constant enemy small-arms fire. He had to repeatedly return to his own lines to get new flame throwers and then go back to the front to try to wipe out one position after another.

Once, smoke indicated the air vent of a Japanese bunker so he went close enough to place the end of the flamethrower through the hole, eliminating the occupants. Another time, enemy soldiers charged him with bayonets drawn. He destroyed them with a burst of fire from his flame thrower.

You can watch him tell the dramatic story here.

Williams was presented the Medal of Honor by President Harry S. Truman on October 5, 1945, at the White House.

Veteran stands with a man and woman holding a Medal of Honor flag

Hershel “Woody” Williams with Sarah M. Tolstyka, Public Affairs Specialist, and Timothy J. Cooke, Martinsburg, W.V., VA Medical Center Director

“Don’t do anything to tarnish it.”

“Woody” likes to tell the story of what Marine Commandant Alexander Vandegrift told him in 1945, shortly after President Truman presented him with the Medal of Honor.

“That medal does not belong to you,” Vandegrift said. “It belongs to all the Marines who never came home. Don’t do anything to tarnish it.”

“Those words stuck,” Williams remembers. “I wear it especially for two Marines who, on Feb. 23, 1945, gave their lives protecting mine,” he adds. “I claim only to be the caretaker of the medal.”

 I wear it especially for two Marines who gave their lives protecting mine. 

Though Williams struggled with the after-effects of combat stress until 1962, he experienced a religious renewal and later served as chaplain of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society for 35 years.

The Martinsburg, W.V. VA Medical Center plans to honor the 44 Medal of Honor recipients from their area by constructing a Medal of Honor wall.

Woody had a special request: have an honor wall in every VA Medical Center in West Virginia before he passes. When he visited the medical center to see the first phase, he presented the Medal of Honor flag to the director.

For more about Woody, his life and military history, here is a 90 minute video interview with him on C-Span.