A conversation with Hershel “Woody” Williams
Hershel Woodrow “Woody” Williams was born in 1923 on a dairy farm outside Fairmont, West Virginia. The youngest of 11 children, six of whom died in the 1918 influenza epidemic, he served on Iwo Jima in February and March 1945, with the 1st Battalion, 21st Marines, Third Marine Division. In that battle, among the war’s fiercest engagements, 27 Americans received the Medal of Honor for valor above and beyond the call of duty; Woody is the last of those heroes still living. The U.S. Navy recently announced plans to name a warship after him. He lives in Ona, West Virginia.
You started out fighting for your life.
I only weighed three pounds. They weren’t sure I was going to make it, but after three days the doctor came from town and said I would.
Before the war you had a brush with the army.
In 1938, my nearest brother joined the Civilian Conservation Corps. In 1940, I joined, too. They sent me to Montana to cut pine trees with crosscut saws and fashion them into posts for fences we put up to keep livestock off federal land. An army second lieutenant commanded the base. On December 8, 1941, he called us out. He said Japan had attacked America, and that we were at war. I was 18. I decided to go home and get my mother’s consent and join the U.S. Marine Corps.
Why the Marines?
In the mid-1930s two fellows in our area had joined. Marines on furlough always wore their dress blues. Those dress blues sold me. I decided if I was to join the military it would be the U.S. Marine Corps.
How did your enlistment plan work out?
My mother wouldn’t sign the papers; she needed me on the farm. But on October 2, 1942, I turned 19, meaning I could sign up on my own, and that November I walked to the recruiting office in Fairmont. “Sorry, son,” the sergeant said. “You’re too short.” I was five foot six. I went back to the farm. In early 1943, that recruiter came out to our place and said the Marines had lowered their minimum height. I enlisted in March.
Did you train at Parris Island?
Parris Island was full. A troop train started down south and made its way north and west, picking up men to take them to California. The seats were wooden slats, and they were full. We ate in shifts all the way to boot camp in San Diego. I did fine there; I was accustomed to doing as I was told. After infantry training we shipped to New Zealand and then Guadalcanal.
Did you have a specialty?
I was a Browning Automatic Rifle man, but on Guadalcanal a sergeant said, “You and you and you just volunteered to be flamethrower and demolition men.” He made me a section leader. We got M2-2 flamethrowers, which were new. You strapped the air and fuel tanks onto your back—the rig weighed 70 pounds—and controlled the flame with a nozzle in your hands. We also learned to use TNT and blasting caps or fuse cord. The same guys did demolition and flamethrowers.
How did the flamethrower operate?
Flamethrowers used compressed air and the same 82-octane gas as a jeep, mixed with a powder to make a fuel that stuck to everything and couldn’t be put out. We called it phosphorus gel, or phosgel. It burned at 3,500 degrees; the idea was to use up the oxygen in a cave or pillbox and kill the occupants. I can’t tell you the number of times I singed off my eyebrows and the hair on my arms learning to use that rig. The idea was to roll the flame in bursts toward the target. The fuel tank held 4.5 gallons; if you opened up and let it burn, the tank would empty in seven seconds. You were aiming from the hip, and if you weren’t careful you would use up your fuel before you got the range.
That required teamwork.
I had an assistant to carry my pack and bedroll and grenades; all I could manage to carry besides the flamethrower was my canteen and my .45. A flamethrower man also needed an assistant because when he sat down the weight of the tanks would make him fall onto his back like an upended turtle.
Tell us about Iwo Jima.
We had no intelligence about that place. There were 23,000 Japanese dug in in caves, tunnels, and pillboxes. On February 20, 1945—D+1—we climbed cargo nets from the transport into Higgins boats that rendezvoused at an assembly point off Iwo. Our boat with 34 men stayed out all day, bobbing in 10- to 12-foot waves. You can’t ignore nature, and the sergeant told us if he caught anyone going in the boat he’d shoot him, so we had to shuffle around to let each man do his business at the bilge pump. There was vomit everywhere. After dark, we returned to the ship. We had to go up the gangplank, with the craft bobbing up and down. We lost guys who missed a step and went into the ocean. I got to the deck and collapsed. That was where they found me the next morning. We came ashore that day around noon.
Besides flamethrowers, what were you carrying?
We had pole charges, 2-by-2s about eight feet long on which we had stuck C2 plastic explosive—you could mold it, like Play-Doh—and attached to fuse cord. In our flamethrower tanks we had a mix of diesel and 130-octane aviation gas, which was more effective than regular gas.
What did you see?
Complete chaos, wrecks everywhere—trucks, amtracs, landing boats, jeeps, tanks. And the bodies of Marines wrapped in ponchos and stacked like cordwood. There was no other place to put them. Beyond the beach was an airfield. We lost a lot of Marines trying to cross that field.
Marines were fighting for every inch.
We made hardly any progress for two and a half days because Japanese in pillboxes on the far side of the airfield were laying down grazing fire. Nothing would take them out; they were made of reinforced concrete with sand on top that would absorb any shell or bomb. On the morning of February 23, we finally crossed the airfield. The only way to get at the Japanese inside those pillboxes was to fire into the eight-inch openings they were firing through.
What did your unit do?
Our commanding officer, Captain Donald Beck, brought the squad leaders together. The other flamethrower men were dead or wounded; I was the only one left. Captain Beck asked was there anything I could do. I don’t remember saying so but other people told me later that I said, “Well, I’ll try.” He gave me four men. One, Darol “Lefty” Lee, is still alive in Winona, Minnesota. I strapped on a flamethrower, organized my guys to provide crossfire, and started crawling. My assistant was behind me with a pole charge. A Jap bullet knocked him down. I was on my own.
There were seven pillboxes. I don’t know why or how I wasn’t hit. When I got within 20 yards of the first pillbox I rolled a burst into the embrasure. It worked well. For four hours, that was what I did. When fuel ran out I must have unstrapped my rig and got another; I don’t recall, and afterwards no one remembered crawling forward to give me a fresh flamethrower. Years later a psychologist suggested that working in a state of fear I ruled out remembering what happened, just shut it out. That has bugged me all my life.
As soon as I knocked out the seventh pillbox the CO led the troops through. We pushed to the north end of the island, where a cave was supposed to hold coastal artillery and 300 Japanese. I had two satchel charges of C2. I put men left and right to shoot into the cave mouth, which was big enough to drive a truck through. I set one eight-pound satchel charge with a 10-second fuse, stood, and heaved it. The blasting cap was bad. I prepped another charge. That was a flop, too. I had to go for another charge and fresh blasting caps. This charge went off—and set off those other charges, too. You couldn’t tell there had been an opening in that hillside.
How did you learn about your award?
When the war ended we were on Guam practicing urban warfare. I got orders to report to Major General Graves B. Erskine, commander of the Third Marines. He told me I was up for the Medal of Honor. I’d never heard of it, but he was a general and I was a corporal, so that was that. On September 28, 1945, I was on a train from Chicago to Washington, DC; I was due there on October 3 to receive my medal. I was drinking coffee in the middle of the night when a fellow dressed like a Confederate officer—white beard, gray uniform, sword, black boots, the whole thing—stopped to chat. I told him where I was from and where I was headed. He went away and came back with a conductor. “We go through Connellsville, Pennsylvania, about 40 miles from Morgantown, West Virginia,” the conductor said. “We don’t stop in Connellsville, but if we slowed down to about three miles an hour could you step off?”
“Sure,” I said. And I did. Surprised everybody at home, then I went to DC. On October 5, President Truman presented my medal at the White House lawn; I realized my life was not going to be the same. On October 17, 1945, Ruby Meredith married me. I worked for the Veterans Administration for 33 years, and then had a business training and showing horses. I ran a veterans home. Ruby died in 2007. I have had such a blessed time. Life has been full but good.