Hershel ‘Woody’ Williams, last World War II Medal of Honor recipient, dies

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Hershel W. “Woody” Williams, a Marine Corps veteran of the Battle of Iwo Jima who was the last surviving Medal of Honor recipient from World War II, died June 29 at a hospital in Huntington, W.Va. He was 98.

His death was announced by the Woody Williams Foundation, a nonprofit organization that serves Gold Star military families, and by the Congressional Medal of Honor Society. The cause was not immediately available.

Mr. Williams, who grew up on a West Virginia dairy farm, was a 21-year-old Marine corporal when he carried out the assault on the Japanese at Iwo Jima for which he received the nation’s highest military award for valor.

A farm boy became a fearsome warrior at Iwo Jima. And he did it with a flamethrower.

He found himself on the volcanic island in the first days of the U.S. invasion that began on Feb. 19, 1945.

One of the bloodiest battles in Marine Corps history, Iwo Jima is seared in American memory as the site of the flag-raising at Mount Suribachi on Feb. 23, 1945. The moment was captured in a Pulitzer Prize-winning image by Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal and commemorated in the Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington, Va.

70 years ago, Joe Rosenthal took one of U.S. history’s great pictures

Mr. Williams’s heroic actions occurred the same day. He witnessed the flag-raising but said he had limited memory of his own role in the battle, which took the lives of 7,000 Marines, including his best friend. His medal citation recounts his “unyielding determination … in the face of ruthless enemy resistance” and a display of courage that was “directly instrumental in neutralizing one of the most fanatically defended Japanese strongpoints encountered by his regiment.”

“Quick to volunteer his services when our tanks were maneuvering vainly to open a lane for the infantry through the network of reinforced concrete pillboxes, buried mines, and black volcanic sands,” the citation reads, “Cpl. Williams daringly went forward alone to attempt the reduction of devastating machine-gun fire from the unyielding positions.”

Armed with a flamethrower, and under unremitting fire, he was credited with destroying a series of Japanese fortifications.

“On one occasion,” according to the citation, “he daringly mounted a pillbox to insert the nozzle of his flamethrower through the air vent, killing the occupants, and silencing the gun; on another he grimly charged enemy riflemen who attempted to stop him with bayonets and destroyed them with a burst of flame from his weapon.”

Mr. Williams was presented with the Medal of Honor by President Harry S. Truman in October 1945, months after the Japanese surrender that ended World War II.

Mr. Williams, who attained the rank of chief warrant officer 4, later pursued a career with what is now the Department of Veterans Affairs and ran a horse farm.

“It’s one of those things that you put in the recess of your mind,” Mr. Williams told The Washington Post in 2020, reflecting 75 years later on his service at Iwo Jima. “You were fulfilling an obligation that you swore to do, to defend your country. Any time you take a life … there’s always some aftermath to that if you’ve got any heart at all.”

This obituary will be updated.

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