Consider the following paragraph, from a recent story in the Gazette-Mail describing actions by Hershel “Woody” Williams that earned him the Medal of Honor for his part in the fighting on Iwo Jima during World War II.
“Armed with a flame thrower and exposed to near-constant enemy fire, Williams neutralized a series of concrete-reinforced Japanese machine gun positions that had stalled his company’s ability to move off the beach and advance on the enemy.”
That’s action hero stuff. But, of course, this wasn’t done for glory. It was done out of necessity as U.S. forces attacked the heavily fortified island. And “neutralized” is a polite way of describing the grizzly task Williams had to perform. Williams is quick to point out the human cost on his side of the line, crediting fellow Marines with providing covering fire just so he could move without getting killed himself.
“Two of those Marines sacrificed their lives that day to protect mine,” Williams said at an appearance in Charleston last week.
The 95-year-old Williams, a native of Harrison County who now lives in Barboursville, was at Yeager Airport to attend the dedication of a new flight operations center for armed forces training. Williams didn’t realize that the facility would be named for him, and dabbed away tears when he found out.
“My gratitude is extremely deep for the recognition shown me here today,” he said.
Williams is the last surviving Marine Corps Medal of Honor recipient from World War II. He fought in one of the bloodiest and most difficult battles in the Pacific Theater. U.S. Marines first landed on the island on Feb. 19, 1945. The battle for control of Iwo Jima, used as a staging area for Japanese aircraft, would last five weeks. By the end, about 21,000 Japanese soldiers were dead, along with 7,000 Americans.
It was, no doubt, a horror that haunted soldiers on both sides who were fortunate enough to live through it.
For his part, Williams deserves all the recognition that has come his way, including a recent renaming of the Veterans Affairs hospital in Huntington to honor him. There’s also a U.S. Navy vessel bearing his name, and his face has been on a stamp.
But it’s not just his action on the battlefield that has made Williams a treasure to the military and the state of West Virginia. He’s worked hard over the years to recognize military veterans, including efforts to complete memorials for Gold Star families, making sure service members who lost their lives are properly honored.
Williams will be the first to tell you that none of this is about personal recognition or his own status as a veteran. That, in no small part, is exactly why he deserves to be honored.