The last living Medal of Honor recipient from World War II – a Marine who was recognized for his actions in the Battle of Iwo Jima – died on Wednesday at the age of 98.
Hershel “Woody” Williams was born West Virginia in 1923, and at just 21 years old, he found himself at Iwo Jima with the 21st Marines, 3rd Marine Division. Days after turning 22, Williams received the Medal of Honor from President Truman for his “valiant devotion to duty” and service that “enabled his company to reach its objective,” according to the Woody Williams Foundation.
Iwo Jima proved to be one of the toughest battles of World War II and one of the bloodiest the U.S. Marines would ever fight. It required 70,000 Marines to dislodge the 18,000 Japanese soldiers who were dug into the island. Nearly 7,000 Marines were killed over 36 days of fighting and 20,000 were wounded, and all but a few hundred Japanese soldiers were killed.
Williams’ actions earned him one of the 27 Medals of Honor given to U.S. personnel for the Battle of Iwo Jima – 22 were given to Marines and five were given to Navy Sailors.
According to Task and Purpose, Williams “repeatedly assaulted enemy positions armed with a flamethrower and demolition charges in order to clear the way for the Marines who remained pinned down under the brutal enemy onslaught.”
“Over the course of four hours, Williams attacked a system of fortified concrete pillboxes,” Task and Purpose reported. “He fought the enemy at point-blank range when they charged him with bayonets. At one point, he climbed atop a bunker, inserted the nozzle through an air vent and unleashed a burst of flame that killed the occupants.”
Williams stressed that his mission couldn’t have been carried out without the help of four Marines who covered him as he attacked the bunker, two of whom died. Williams said he wore his Medal of Honor for them.
“Two Marines gave their life that day, on February the 23rd, 1945, protecting mine,” he said. “I say almost every time I begin to speak: This medal does not belong to me. I wear it in honor of those Marines who gave their life protecting mine.”
After retiring from service, Williams served veterans in his home state with the Department of Veterans Affairs, and veterans there will continue to be reminded of his legacy of service. The Huntington VA Medical Center was renamed the Hershel “Woody” Williams VA Medical center in 2018.
Williams will also continue to have an impact on active-duty Marines and Sailors. In 2020, an expeditionary ship was commissioned as a Navy warship, now the USS Hershel “Woody” Williams.
“I’m grateful to all those who have the expertise to put something like this together,” Williams said then. “And may all those who serve aboard this ship that will bear my name be safe and be proud. And may she have God’s blessings for a long life of service to the greatest country on earth.”
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