By CINDY LADAGE
SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Hershel “Woody” Williams grew up on a farm in West Virginia. In 1942 he enlisted in the United States Marine Corps and ended up fighting in the Battle of Iwo Jima.
He told his story on Dec. 3 along with Dr. Mark DePue, Director of Oral History at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield. Williams recived the Medal of Honor on Oct. 5, 1945 from President Harry Truman. He is the only surviving Medal of Honor winner from the Battle of Iwo Jima.
According to the Medal of Honor Foundation, the medal was because, “During the battle, Mr. Williams displayed valiant devotion to duty and service above self as he enabled his company to reach its objective.”
“I was born in 1923 in Quiet Dell, W.Va., where farming and coal mining were the only two occupations,” Williams shared.
Of the dairy farm where he was raised, Williams said, “You raised it, or made it, or you didn’t have it. On the farm we had a Model T Ford and delivered milk, butter, and eggs, that’s how we supported ourselves. We had customers we delivered to. When I was in school, my father and brothers had to do it. My older brothers only went to the first few grades. Later we promoted up to a Model A, it was a more modern automobile.”
During his teen years, the Civilian Conservation Corps played an important part in Williams’ life. “My brother at 16 joined the CCC,” Williams said. The camp was only 80 miles from home and his brother often made it home on weekends carrying never seen dollar bills. This windfall inspired Williams and when he turned 16, he too joined the CCC.
“But they sent me to Morgantown, W.Va., 265 miles from us. I was there a few months then we were sent to Montana.” He went on to tell a story of how the cattlemen and sheep herders kept them entertained at the bar on Saturday nights. They watched the invariable fights from the porch of the hardware store, the only other building in the small Montana town.
It wasn’t long after his arrival in Montana that Pearl Harbor was bombed and the CCC camp broke up. Being only 17, Woody Williams was not old enough to go into the service without parental permission and with his father gone (he died when Woody was eleven) his mother said she needed him on the farm. If not for that, he probably would have joined the Army right then he said.
Williams said it was the uniform that drew him to become a Marine. He liked the looks of the dress blues. Working on the farm until he was 18, he went to town to join the Marines only to be told that he wasn’t tall enough. Later he said, “They took off the height requirement.”
Leaving behind a girlfriend that would later become his wife, he served at Guadalcanal and Guam where he experienced his first combat. The next stop was Iwo Jima where he never expected to engage the enemy.
“We were told we would probably never get off the ship. We were just the reserve and they thought the battle would take 3-5 days,” Williams said. Turns out they were off by about a month; the Battle of Iwo Jima lasted from Feb. 19 to March 26 1945. When it was determined that they would hit the beach Williams said, “Those landing visions are ones that will never go away. The dead were all rolled into ponchos and the bodies were stacked because there was no place to put them.”
Instructed to be the point, working with flamethrowers and his riflemen protecting him, the initiative was to break through the pill boxes
Asked how he survived, Williams said, “I never let myself think I wasn’t going to make it. I thought I’m going to make it home. It was not until years later that I learned that two men sacrificed their lives for mine.”
Williams was on Guam when he heard that he was to go to the Whitehouse, but no one told him why. He went to Hawaii to wait for a ride to the mainland. At that time they were sending returning prisoners of war home and they had first priority for flights. “I finally got on a plane and I was the last one on. I was in the first seat on the right side of the plane. Everyone else was a POW, some weighed only about 87 pounds but they were the happiest group of people I’d ever seen. One told me ‘you never know what freedom is until you’ve lost it’. I’ve never forgotten that.”
Williams soon learned he was at the White House to receive the Medal of Honor. Later after learning about those that died protecting him, Williams added, “The medal didn’t have as much significance until then. Now I wear it in their honor, not mine. They sacrificed everything they had.”
Over the years Williams came into contact with families in his own community when he delivered Western Union telegrams informing the Gold Star families of the death of their loved one. These experiences made him realize that those Gold Star families had never really been recognized so he started his own foundation the Hershel Woody Williams Medal of Honor Foundation. The Foundation is responsible for establishing 59 Gold Star Families Memorial Monuments across the United States with more than 63 additional monuments underway in 43 states.
One West Virginia farm boy made a difference at Iwo Jima 74 years ago and he is still impacting lives in a positive way today.
Hershel Williams grew up on a farm, but went into World War II and came home with a Medal of Honor. He recently spoke about his experience in Illinois.