This Flamethrower Operator is the Last Living Medal of Honor Recipient from the Pacific Theater

This Flamethrower Operator is the Last Living Medal of Honor Recipient from the Pacific Theater


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On February 23, 1945, Hershel “Woody” Williams crawled toward a string of Japanese guard posts with a 70-pound flamethrower strapped to his back. His Marine Corps unit had suffered heavy casualties since arriving on the island of Iwo Jima a few days earlier and had now become bogged down under intense machine-gun fire.

“As we attacked, they would just mow us down, and we would have to back off,” Williams tells HISTORY. Even tanks failed to make any progress.

In desperation, a superior officer asked Williams to try his luck with a flamethrower. Williams selected four Marines to provide cover fire, two of whom wouldn’t survive, and proceeded to singlehandedly take out one concrete pillbox after another over the course of the next four hours. At one point, he climbed atop one of the dug-in forts and fired through the air vent, killing the Japanese troops inside.

On another occasion, he incinerated a group of Japanese soldiers charging him with bayonets. When a flamethrower ran out of fuel—each lasted for only a few blasts—he would return to American lines to secure a new one and then re-enter the fray. Williams describes those four hours as somewhat of a blur, though he does vividly recall machine-gun fire ricocheting off the back of his weapon, as well as a pillbox going up in smoke.

Thanks in part to Williams’ actions, the Marines renewed their advance and within weeks had taken control of the island.

At the time, Williams says, “I didn’t think I’d done anything special at all. I was just doing my job.” The military, however, felt differently. When World War II concluded, Williams was invited to the White House, where President Harry Truman presented him with the Medal of Honor, the highest U.S. military decoration, for “unyielding determination and extraordinary heroism in the face of ruthless enemy resistance.”

Williams recalls Truman stating at the ceremony that he would rather have this award than be president. (“I’ll trade you,” one of Williams’ fellow Medal of Honor recipients apparently quipped.) “I was absolutely scared to death,” Williams says of meeting the president. “I couldn’t think of anything. I couldn’t say anything.”

Williams has been working with veterans organizations ever since, including a 33-year stint with the federal Veterans Administration. His latest venture is the Hershel Woody Williams Medal of Honor Foundation, a nonprofit that provides scholarships to Gold Star children and facilitates the establishment of Gold Star family memorial monuments.

Williams’ longevity puts him in rarefied company. Of the hundreds of Medal of Honor recipients from World War II (many of whom received the award posthumously), only four remain alive. He is the sole member of the quartet who fought in the Pacific Theater, as well as the sole Marine.

Born on October 2, 1923, Williams grew up on a dairy farm in the tiny community of Quiet Dell, West Virginia. The youngest of 11 siblings, only five of whom reached adulthood, partly due to the devastating 1918 flu pandemic, he recalls attending elementary school in a one-room schoolhouse. Each morning, he would bring the cows in from pasture and milk his portion of them by hand. Yet, with the Great Depression raging, “money was just nonexistent. You could work all day for 10 cents.”

After dropping out of high school—the school was seven miles from home, a commute he sometimes made on foot—he followed a brother into the Civilian Conservation Corps, a Depression-era work relief program. Williams expected to stay in West Virginia but was instead packed off to Montana, where he was stationed on December 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

Two of Williams’ brothers subsequently entered the Army, but he was determined to join the Marines instead. “They were wearing that brown ugly Army uniform,” Williams jokes. “I didn’t want to be caught dead in that thing. I wanted to wear dress blues.”

But when the 5-foot-6-inch Williams tried to enlist, he was rejected for falling short of the Marines’ height requirement at the time. Undeterred, Williams tried again in early 1943, soon after the height requirement was dropped, and this time he was accepted. “My thought was, ‘I’m going into the Marine Corps to protect my country and my freedom,’ never dreaming I’d end up in the South Pacific, because [prior to the war] I didn’t even know we had a South Pacific,” Williams says.

Following boot camp in San Diego, plus some additional training, Williams shipped out to the island of Guadalcanal, which the United States had recently finished seizing from Japan. While there, he learned how to use a flamethrower and was put in charge of a six-man flamethrower demolition unit. Williams saw his first combat in July 1944, participating in the Battle of Guam.

He recalls the initial few days of fighting as particularly brutal, as U.S. troops struggled to advance from the beachhead to the top of a ridge. Upon gaining the high ground, they then swept across miles of jungle, attempting to pick off the remaining Japanese who had camouflaged themselves in the thick foliage. “We lost a lot of Marines simply because we didn’t know where they were,” Williams says. “We couldn’t see them.”

By re-taking Guam, which had been in Japanese hands since December 1941, the United States gained a base from which its B-29 bombers could reach Tokyo, explains Richard B. Frank, an Asia-Pacific War historian who will accompany Williams next year on a tour of Pacific battle sites. Moreover, Frank says, the United States wanted to sever Japanese lines of communication, plus it felt an obligation to liberate the local populace, which had remained steadfastly loyal to America.

Frank notes that Williams’ experience tracks with his own research on Guam. “It was an extremely ferocious fight for the first few days,” he says, “but eventually they were basically ground down.”

From Guam, Williams traveled in February 1945 to the tiny, pork chop-shaped island of Iwo Jima, the site of a well-fortified Japanese airbase. “They told us that probably we would never get off the ship,” Williams says. Contrary to previous battles in the Pacific, the Japanese let U.S. troops land relatively unmolested. However, they then rained down heavy fire, and pinned so many Marines along the beach that Williams’ 3rd Marine Division couldn’t find a place to disembark. (Williams and his cohorts spent a whole day in landing craft, traversing huge waves and taking turns vomiting over the side.)

The Japanese knew they probably couldn’t win on Iwo Jima, Frank explains, but “they wanted to make it as difficult, costly and time-consuming as possible.” The United States, on the other hand, Frank says, wanted Iwo Jima as a base for fighter aircraft and as a refuge for damaged B-29s returning from bombing campaigns to the Japanese mainland.

Upon finally securing a toehold on Iwo Jima, Williams’ 3rd Division was positioned at the head of the operation and told to split the opposition in two. Williams recalls a difficult struggle to advance across an airfield and then running into the concrete guard posts, which were reinforced by steel rods and impervious to aerial bombardment. By the time he assaulted the string of pillboxes, for which he would earn the Medal of Honor, all the other members of his flamethrower demolition unit had been killed or wounded.

Williams would continue fighting, receiving a Purple Heart for injuries suffered on Iwo Jima that March. He later returned to Guam and trained for a planned invasion of the Japanese mainland that was rendered unnecessary by Japan’s surrender in August 1945.

With the conflict now over, Williams took his first-ever plane ride from Guam to Hawaii and then shared a flight to San Francisco with American prisoners of war who had just been liberated. “They almost looked like skeletons,” Williams says. “They had lost so much weight. They were real thin, their bones were all sticking out, and their jaws were all sunken. But even though they were in that shape, they were the happiest group I’ve ever seen because they were on their way home from unknown torture.”

After that, Williams boarded a cross-country train, surprising his fiancée at her West Virginia home and then proceeding to Washington, D.C., for the Medal of Honor ceremony on the White House lawn.

The award turned Williams into a reluctant public figure, who utterly failed in his first attempt to engage an audience, at a parade. “It was the shortest speech in history,” laughs Brent Casey, Williams’ grandson and the executive director of his foundation. “He just said, ‘uh, uh’ twice and then sat down.”

Gradually, however, Williams learned to speak eloquently of his wartime experiences and to use his platform to advance causes he believes in. After retiring from the VA, he maintained a demanding schedule, running a veterans home, teaching Sunday school, raising show horses, and serving as chaplain of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, among other activities. His foundation, meanwhile, has erected dozens of Gold Star family memorial monuments since its establishment in 2010.

“He inspires so many people,” says Casey. “Most 94 year olds would be relaxing and enjoying retirement and sitting on the front porch watching traffic, but he just refuses to do that. He’s going to make the most of every hour of every day.”

This story is part of Heroes Week, a weeklong celebration of our heroes in the armed forces. Read more veterans stories here.


This Marine received the Medal of Honor for his skills with a flamethrower

Born out of World War I, the flamethrower could only shoot flames for a matter of seconds, but it was essential for rooting out the enemy from entrenched positions. The flamethrower was a simple innovation – one canister for fuel, one for propellant. Launch fire. Charlie Mike.

The video below outlines exactly how the weapon worked and why it became a fundamental weapon for a World War II unit to have in the arsenal.

This video also introduces Hershel “Woody” Williams, a WWII-era Marine and flamethrower operator who fought on Iwo Jima. (He’s shown wearing the Medal of Honor he received for his actions there.)

What the video doesn’t tell you is that Williams is the last living Medal of Honor recipient from Iwo Jima. He singlehandedly took out seven Japanese pillboxes with his flamethrower that day.

“I remember crawling on my belly,” Williams told Weaponology. “I remember ’em coming, charging around that pillbox toward me. There were five or six of them. And I just opened up the flame and caught them. It was like they went from real fast running to real slow motion. But by cutting out those seven pillboxes, it opened up a hole and we got through.”

The humble Marine forgot to mention the seven fortifications he took out were part of a network of hardened, entrenched positions, minefields, and volcanic rock protected by withering machine gun crossfire that held the entire American invasion back.

For four hours, Woody Williams singlehandedly crawled to the pillboxes with only four Marine riflemen for cover. Since his flamethrower only fired for a matter of seconds, he had to repeatedly return to his lines for a new tank of fuel.

“The Japanese were really scared to death of flamethrowers,” Williams recalled.

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&aposBeyond the call of duty&apos

On Oct. 5, 1945, President Harry S. Truman presented Williams with the Medal of Honor during a group ceremony at the White House in Washington, D.C.

Truman recognized Williams for “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty,” according to his citation.

Williams “daringly went forward alone to attempt the reduction of devastating machine-gun fire from the unyielding positions” and, on one occasion, “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.”

His citation said: “His unyielding determination and extraordinary heroism in the face of ruthless enemy resistance were directly instrumental in neutralizing one of the most fanatically defended Japanese strong points encountered by his regiment and aided vitally in enabling his company to reach its objective. Cpl. Williams&apos aggressive fighting spirit and valiant devotion to duty throughout this fiercely contested action sustain and enhance the highest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service.”

Williams was one of 27 members of the military to receive the Medal of Honor for their actions on Iwo Jima, the most for any battle in American history.

All total, 473 United States military personnel earned the Medal of Honor during World War II, according to homeofheroes.com. Although Williams was initially underwhelmed with receiving the medal, getting the honor and serving on Iwo Jima have both significantly impacted his life.

“I&aposve lived it ever since I got home,” Williams, now 96, said. “Even though we&aposre (at) the 75th anniversary, it&aposs something that&aposs been part of my life ever since I came back in 1945.”


Medal of Honor recipient creates legacy honoring Gold Star families

Williams is the last surviving Marine Corps, World War II Medal of Honor recipient. Photo by Staff Sgt. William Holdaway.

On Feb. 23, 1945, then- Marine Corps C pl. Hershel “Woody” Williams stood with his back to Mount Suribachi when his fellow Marines in the 1 st Battalion, 21 st Marine Regiment , 3 rd Marine Division began firing their weapons in celebration. Only 5 -feet 6 -inches tall, Williams turned and craned his neck to see the Stars and Stripes flying atop Iwo Jima’s highest peak . The flag raising on Mount Suribachi would become the iconic image of World War I I.

Two days later, Williams would etch his own name in to World War II history bo oks when the flamethrower operator cleared the enemy from inside a previously impenetrable row of “pillbox” bunkers , thwart ing the U.S. military’s advance across the island.

Williams , 96, w as awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions that day , but his service to his countr y has been lifelong. Williams was discharged from the Marine Corps in 1945, but served in the Marine Corps Reserve until his retirement. Following the war, he s pent 33 years as a Veterans Service Offic er within the Department of Veterans Affairs and concluded his career as c ommandant of the Veterans Home in Barboursville, W est Virginia .

But h is lasting legacy is the Hershel “Woody” Williams Medal of Honor Foundation . Established in 2012, the 50 1( c ) ( 3) nonprofit has spearheaded c onstruction of 60 Gold Star Family Memorial M onuments across the United States, with another 66 registered projects under way from New York to Guam . Each multipaneled granite monument honors the families and relatives of service members who have made the ultimate sacrifice. The organization also sponsors Gold Star f amily outreach programs , provides Living Legacy scholarships to eligible Gold Star c hildren and advocates for educational benefits for all Gold Star f amily m embers.

Williams autographs a ceremonial gold-tipped shovel for Gold Star Mother Belinda Jividen during the Gold Star Families Memorial Monument groundbreaking ceremony in West Virginia. Photo by Bo Wriston.

While the history of “ Gold Star mothers ” dates to World War I, Gold Star f amilies were n’t formally recog nized until 2011 , when P resident Barack Obama expanded “ Gold Star Mother’s Day ” to include all Gold Star f amily members .

“For years and years, no one spoke of a person other than Gold Star m other when somebody was lost in the military , ” admits Williams , who as a teen deliver ed telegrams to families wh ose loved one s had been killed or wounded in action.

Williams received his wake-up call in 2010 after concluding a speech highlighting Gold Star m others. The father of a soldier killed in Afghanistan approached Williams. With t ears r olling down his chee k s , he told Williams, “Dads cry too.”

“I decided we had to do something, at least in our own state of West Virginia , to honor and pay tribute to the families–we’ve got 11,000 names on a veterans’ memorial in our capit o l grounds,” Williams said . “We had never done anything to mention the families. I thought we had to recognize the fact they had lost a loved one.”

Williams began design ing a monument to honor Gold Star families . With the assistance of Williams’ two grandsons, Br yan and Br ent Casey , t he foundation was established . T he first Gold Star Families M emorial M o nument was dedicated in 2013 on Williams’ 90 th birthday at West Virginia’s Donel C. Kinnard Memorial State Veterans Cemetery . Within a year, the nation’s second Gold Star Families Monument was dedicated in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. Other projects soon followed across the country.

Construction of a monument honoring those who have lost loved ones while serving in the military.

“It’s like the old saying, ‘A person dies two deaths. The day their soul leaves their body and the second when we cease to speak their name,’” said Foundation CEO and President Chad Graham, one of Williams’ five grandsons. “That’s an important part of what we do. The best way we can serve these families is not only to provide support to them, but also to remember their loved ones by saying their name and keeping their sacrifice in our minds.”

One of 11 children, Williams grew up on a dairy farm in West Virginia. When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, he was building fencing on government ranchland in Montana as part of the Civilian Conservation Corps . He had d ropped out of high school to participate in the Depression -e ra public relief program.

“I was 17-years-old and had no particular interest or desire to be in the military,” Williams admits. “I knew nothing much about it. But when Pearl Harbor was bombed, they called us out the next morning and told us America was going to war. Well, no ne of us had ever heard of Pearl Harbor. None of us had heard of the South Pacific. ”

The ir fabled dress blue uniform s attracted Williams to the Marine Corps . But when he attempted to enlist after turning 18, he was rejecte d for failing to meet the service’s 5-feet 8-inch height requirement. When th at standard was relaxed in 1943, Williams joined the Marines.

World War II Medal of Honor Recipient and Gold Star Family Member Memorial Founder Hershel “Woody” Williams poses for a photograph with Marine Corp. infantrymen at a dedication ceremony held at Hawaiian Memorial Park in 2018. Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Somers T. Steelman.

Williams saw his first combat action in the Battle of Guam in July 1944. Well-trained by combat-hardened Marines, Williams knew f ear was not an option.

“ If you control your fear, where it doesn’t control you, you continue to operate efficiently,” Williams explains. “But if the fear ever gets to the point where it is in control, you are done. They have to evacuate you. You’re finished. That happened to many individuals because we’re all different. One person will sacrifice his life to save somebody else, and the other guy reaches a point where he says I can’t take it anymore and leaves.”

Seven months later on Iwo Jima, a bigger challenge awaited. Williams describes his commanding officer’s decision to have a flamethrower a ttempt to neutralize the Japanese pillboxes as an act “bordering on desperation.” Williams volunteered, knowing he was the only flamethrower operator remaining in his company. F ive others had been killed or wounded.

“That was my job. That was what I was trained to d o,” Williams explains .

“Much of that day is a dream ,” he adds . “ Much of it I don’t even remember.”

With four riflemen — two of whom were killed during the mission — providing cover , Williams spent four hours evading enemy fire as he systematically attack ed pillbox es, retreated to reload flamethrowers and demolition charges, then headed out again. All totaled, h e destroyed seven pillboxes . His MOH citation cites two examples of his heroism that day: m ounting a pillbox to sho o t flame down the air vent and kill its occupants and charging attacking enemy soldiers and destroying them with a burst of flame.

“Those instances I remember,” he sa id . “But all the details it took to get there and accomplish that. Those details are not there . ”

Seven m onths later while on Guam , Williams was ordered to his commanding general’s tent.

“I was so scared.” Williams notes. “The words I do remember are, ‘You are being ordered back to Washington, D.C.’ If he did use the words ‘Medal of Honor,’ it didn’t mean a thing because I never heard of it. I didn’t even know the Medal of Honor existed. The only thing that registered with me is I get to go home.”

Those three words, however, would alter Williams’ life. Until President Harry Truman awarded him the MOH in October 1945 , Williams ’ plan was to return to farming . I nstead , he became a reluctant hero.

“From the minute the medal was presented to me, I took on a new life,” Williams said. “I changed from a country boy to a public figure. It was very difficult for me to make that adjustment. I was very shy, very bashful , backward. I had one year of high school. Speaking before groups of people was absolutely devastating.”

That would change as Williams became an advocate for veterans in West Virginia and throughout the nation . Since the founding of his foundation, Williams has attend ed nearly every Gold Star Families M onument dedication — 57 of 60 to date . He spent 220 days on the road last year in support of Gold Star f amily and veterans causes .

On March 7 , the last living MOH recipient from the Pacific Theater will travel to Norfolk, Va., for a nother seminal event , the commissioning of the USS Hershel “Woody” Williams (ESB-4) , an E xpeditionary S ea B ase S hip .

“ A country boy from West Virginia that never dreamed of ever being in public has a ship that weighs 90,000 tons, that’s 10-stories tall, 825 feet long, that’s going to carry helicopters and all kinds of armaments and sail our seven seas with his name on it ,” Williams said . “ How can that happen to a little guy like me? Y et it does happen in America, because that’s America.”

Williams will wear his MOH when he attends the commission. While most recipients don’t shine their medals, Williams polishes his.

“I shine it for a reason,” he sa id . “I keep it shined for those two Marines that sacrificed their lives to make it possible. I wear it in their honor.”


This Flamethrower Operator is the Last Living Medal of Honor Recipient from the Pacific Theater - HISTORY

On Feb. 23, 1945, then-Marine Corps Cpl. Hershel “Woody” Williams stood with his back to Mount Suribachi when his fellow Marines in the 1st Battalion, 21st Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division began firing their weapons in celebration. Only 5-feet 6-inches tall, Williams turned and craned his neck to see the Stars and Stripes flying atop Iwo Jima’s highest peak. The flag raising on Mount Suribachi would become the iconic image of World War II.

Two days later, Williams would etch his own name into World War II history books when the flamethrower operator cleared the enemy from inside a previously impenetrable row of “pillbox” bunkers, thwarting the U.S. military’s advance across the island.

Williams, 96, was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions that day, but his service to his country has been lifelong. Williams was discharged from the Marine Corps in 1945, but served in the Marine Corps Reserve until his retirement. Following the war, he spent 33 years as a Veterans Service Officer within the Department of Veterans Affairs and concluded his career as commandant of the Veterans Home in Barboursville, West Virginia.

But his lasting legacy is the Hershel “Woody” Williams Medal of Honor Foundation. Established in 2012, the 501(c)(3) nonprofit has spearheaded construction of 60 Gold Star Family Memorial Monuments across the United States, with another 66 registered projects under way from New York to Guam. Each multipaneled granite monument honors the families and relatives of service members who have made the ultimate sacrifice. The organization also sponsors Gold Star family outreach programs, provides Living Legacy scholarships to eligible Gold Star children and advocates for educational benefits for all Gold Star family members.

While the history of “Gold Star mothers” dates to World War I, Gold Star families weren’t formally recognized until 2011, when President Barack Obama expanded “Gold Star Mother’s Day” to include all Gold Star family members.

“For years and years, no one spoke of a person other than Gold Star mother when somebody was lost in the military,” admits Williams, who as a teen delivered telegrams to families whose loved ones had been killed or wounded in action.

Williams received his wake-up call in 2010 after concluding a speech highlighting Gold Star mothers. The father of a soldier killed in Afghanistan approached Williams. With tears rolling down his cheeks, he told Williams, “Dads cry too.”

“I decided we had to do something, at least in our own state of West Virginia, to honor and pay tribute to the families–we’ve got 11,000 names on a veterans’ memorial in our capitol grounds,” Williams said. “We had never done anything to mention the families. I thought we had to recognize the fact they had lost a loved one.”

Williams began designing a monument to honor Gold Star families. With the assistance of Williams’ two grandsons, Bryan and Brent Casey, the foundation was established. The first Gold Star Families Memorial Monument was dedicated in 2013 on Williams’ 90th birthday at West Virginia’s Donel C. Kinnard Memorial State Veterans Cemetery. Within a year, the nation’s second Gold Star Families Monument was dedicated in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. Other projects soon followed across the country.

“It’s like the old saying, ‘A person dies two deaths. The day their soul leaves their body and the second when we cease to speak their name,’” said Foundation CEO and President Chad Graham, one of Williams’ five grandsons. “That’s an important part of what we do. The best way we can serve these families is not only to provide support to them, but also to remember their loved ones by saying their name and keeping their sacrifice in our minds.”

One of 11 children, Williams grew up on a dairy farm in West Virginia. When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, he was building fencing on government ranchland in Montana as part of the Civilian Conservation Corps. He had dropped out of high school to participate in the Depression-era public relief program.

“I was 17-years-old and had no particular interest or desire to be in the military,” Williams admits. “I knew nothing much about it. But when Pearl Harbor was bombed, they called us out the next morning and told us America was going to war. Well, none of us had ever heard of Pearl Harbor. None of us had heard of the South Pacific.”

Their fabled dress blue uniforms attracted Williams to the Marine Corps. But when he attempted to enlist after turning 18, he was rejected for failing to meet the service’s 5-feet 8-inch height requirement. When that standard was relaxed in 1943, Williams joined the Marines.

Williams saw his first combat action in the Battle of Guam in July 1944. Well-trained by combat-hardened Marines, Williams knew fear was not an option.

“If you control your fear, where it doesn’t control you, you continue to operate efficiently,” Williams explains. “But if the fear ever gets to the point where it is in control, you are done. They have to evacuate you. You’re finished. That happened to many individuals because we’re all different. One person will sacrifice his life to save somebody else, and the other guy reaches a point where he says I can’t take it anymore and leaves.”

Seven months later on Iwo Jima, a bigger challenge awaited. Williams describes his commanding officer’s decision to have a flamethrower attempt to neutralize the Japanese pillboxes as an act “bordering on desperation.” Williams volunteered, knowing he was the only flamethrower operator remaining in his company. Five others had been killed or wounded.

“That was my job. That was what I was trained to do,” Williams explains.

“Much of that day is a dream,” he adds. “Much of it I don’t even remember.”

With four riflemen — two of whom were killed during the mission — providing cover, Williams spent four hours evading enemy fire as he systematically attacked pillboxes, retreated to reload flamethrowers and demolition charges, then headed out again. All totaled, he destroyed seven pillboxes. His MOH citation cites two examples of his heroism that day: mounting a pillbox to shoot flame down the air vent and kill its occupants and charging attacking enemy soldiers and destroying them with a burst of flame.

“Those instances I remember,” he said. “But all the details it took to get there and accomplish that. Those details are not there.”

Seven months later while on Guam, Williams was ordered to his commanding general’s tent.

“I was so scared.” Williams notes. “The words I do remember are, ‘You are being ordered back to Washington, D.C.’ If he did use the words ‘Medal of Honor,’ it didn’t mean a thing because I never heard of it. I didn’t even know the Medal of Honor existed. The only thing that registered with me is I get to go home.”

Those three words, however, would alter Williams’ life. Until President Harry Truman awarded him the MOH in October 1945, Williams’ plan was to return to farming. Instead, he became a reluctant hero.

“From the minute the medal was presented to me, I took on a new life,” Williams said. “I changed from a country boy to a public figure. It was very difficult for me to make that adjustment. I was very shy, very bashful, backward. I had one year of high school. Speaking before groups of people was absolutely devastating.”

That would change as Williams became an advocate for veterans in West Virginia and throughout the nation. Since the founding of his foundation, Williams has attended nearly every Gold Star Families Monument dedication — 57 of 60 to date. He spent 220 days on the road last year in support of Gold Star family and veterans causes.

On March 7, the last living MOH recipient from the Pacific Theater will travel to Norfolk, Va., for another seminal event, the commissioning of the USS Hershel “Woody” Williams (ESB-4), an Expeditionary Sea Base Ship.

“A country boy from West Virginia that never dreamed of ever being in public has a ship that weighs 90,000 tons, that’s 10-stories tall, 825 feet long, that’s going to carry helicopters and all kinds of armaments and sail our seven seas with his name on it,” Williams said. “How can that happen to a little guy like me? Yet it does happen in America, because that’s America.”

Williams will wear his MOH when he attends the commission. While most recipients don’t shine their medals, Williams polishes his.

“I shine it for a reason,” he said. “I keep it shined for those two Marines that sacrificed their lives to make it possible. I wear it in their honor.”


Williams’ actions on Iwo Jima

While U.S. tanks were trying to make their way through the island’s formidable defenses of mines, obstacles, and pillboxes, Williams and several riflemen were ordered to move ahead with explosives in an effort to neutralize Japanese positions, which were unleashing crippling fire onto his fellow troops. On their way to the pillboxes, all of the men accept Williams were injured, forcing him to do it alone.

Hershel W. Williams, USMC, Medal of Honor recipient. (Photo Credit: U.S. Marine Corps)

His Medal of Honor citation describes his heroism perfectly: “Covered only by four riflemen, he fought desperately for four hours under terrific enemy small-arms fire and repeatedly returned to his own lines to prepare demolition charges and obtain serviced flamethrowers, struggling back, frequently to the rear of hostile emplacements, to wipe out one position after another.”

The Japanese resistance on the island was some of the fiercest the U.S. had encountered during its entire time in the Pacific Theater. 21,000 Japanese troops were on Iwo Jima when the U.S. attacked, but by the end of the battle, only 216 were captured alive.

Still alone, Williams climbed on top of a Japanese pillbox, a defensive structure with openings to fire and observe from, and inserted “the nozzle of his flamethrower through the air vent, killing the occupants, and silencing the gun.”

“They dug caves called pillboxes to protect the island, and they were built in such a way that mortars and artillery couldn’t affect them,” Williams said after reuniting with a flamethrower at the event.

“So the enemy can stay in those pillboxes, and the flamethrower was the only way you can actually get through them. Once you eliminated the enemy in the pillbox, you were required to detonate an explosive to ensure they weren’t going to survive,” He added.

Continuing on, he “grimly charged enemy riflemen who attempted to stop him with bayonets and destroyed them with a burst of flame from his weapon.”

Video: Williams letting loose with the flamethrower at a veterans picnic


At 96, WWII veteran and Medal of Honor recipient saw sacrifices first-hand

At 96, Woody Williams is the second oldest living recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor and the only one from World War II attending the Medal of Honor Society's convention this week in Tampa.

TAMPA, Fla. - At 96, Woody Williams is the second-oldest living recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor and the only one from World War II.

Williams feels thankful to be able to join਍ozens of our nation&aposs heroes at this week&aposs Medal of Honor Society਌onvention in Tampa. But he&aposs always thinking of those heroes who never made it home.

"They really sacrificed their lives protecting mine," he told FOX 13&aposS Lloyd Sowers.

In 1945, Williams was a young Marine corporal, landing on a Pacific island he&aposd never heard of, Iwo Jima. The raising of the flag would become famous, but what Williams did helped turn the tide.

To capture an airfield on the island, he had to get to Japanese troops holed up in bunkers.

"I was actually the only flamethrower operator in my company," says Williams. "To either get flame in there or an explosive that would kill them."

Along with four Marines providing cover fire, Williams killed enemy troops in seven bunkers. Two of the Marines who covered him were killed. Other Marines went on to capture the airfield. Williams was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Harry S. Truman on October 3, 1945.

"27 Medals of Honor were awarded for Iwo Jima, 13 of us got home, the others sacrificed their lives earning it," says Williams. "And I am now the last of the 13."

He&aposs also among the last who remembers the Battle of Iwo Jima first-hand.

"There are still parts of it that are still very vivid in my mind. I&aposll take it with me when I go to Heaven" he says. "It will always be there."

He believes he survived for a reason.

"Am I serving that reason or purpose? I hope I am," he says.  

He&aposs living history and an ambassador for his nation&aposs highest military honor. He served in the Marine Reserves for many years and went on to make a career at the Veteran&aposs Administration.

At 96, he remains active speaking at public events and working on behalf of Gold Star Families. 


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Williams, the youngest of eleven children, was born and raised on a dairy farm in Quiet Dell, West Virginia, on October 2, 1923. [1] [2] At birth, Williams weighed 3 1/2 pounds and was not expected to live. His mother, Lurenna, decided to name him after the doctor who arrived at their farm several days after his birth. By the time he was 11, his father had died of a heart attack and several of his siblings had died of a flu pandemic. [3] Williams worked a series of odd jobs in the area, including as a truck driver for W.S. Harr Construction Company of Fairmont, West Virginia and as a taxi driver. When Pearl Harbor was attacked, he was working in Montana as a Civilian Conservation Corps enrollee. [4] [3]

Williams was drawn to the Marines by their dress blue uniforms that he had seen several men in his community wear. He disliked the Army's brown wool uniform that he considered ". the ugliest thing in town . I decided I did not want to be in that thing. I want to be in those dress blues." Aside from the appearance of the uniform, Williams knew nothing of the Marines. [3] Standing 5-foot-6, when Williams tried to enlist in the Marine Corps in 1942, he was told he was too short for service. After the height regulations were changed in early 1943, he successfully enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserve in Charleston, West Virginia, on May 26. [5] [6] [3]

Williams received his recruit training at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego, California. Upon completion, he was sent to the Camp Elliott training center in San Diego, where he joined the tank training battalion on August 21, 1943. The following month he was transferred to the training center's infantry battalion for instruction as a demolition man and in the use of flamethrowers. [5] The training, Williams said, was technical and focused on the flamethrower's design: three tanks, two of which held a mix of diesel fuel and aviation gas and a third tank that held compressed air. There was little training on the operational use of the weapon. "We had to learn that ourselves", he said. [3]

Williams was assigned to the 32nd Replacement Battalion on October 30, 1943, and left for New Caledonia in the southwest Pacific on December 3 aboard the M.S. Weltey Reden. [7] In January 1944, he joined Company C, 1st Battalion, 21st Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division at Guadalcanal. [7] [5] In July and August 1944, he was attached to Headquarters Company and participated in action against the Japanese during the Battle of Guam. In October, he rejoined Company C. [5] [7]

Medal of Honor action Edit

Williams' next and final campaign was at the Battle of Iwo Jima, where he distinguished himself with actions "above and beyond the call of duty", for which he would be awarded the Medal of Honor. On February 21, 1945, he landed on the beach with the 1st Battalion, 21st Marines. Williams, by then a corporal, distinguished himself two days later when American tanks, trying to open a lane for infantry, encountered a network of reinforced concrete pillboxes. [5] Pinned down by machine gun fire, his company commander asked one of his men to attach a high explosive charge to a pole and with the support of Williams and his flamethrower and several Marine riflemen, shove the improvised weapon into an opening in the enemy's pillbox. As they fought their way to the pillbox, all of the men, except Williams, became casualties. Undeterred, Williams arrived at the first pillbox, shoved the flamethrower nozzle into the pillbox opening and fired the weapon, killing all of the soldiers inside. He then returned five times to his company area, refueled his weapon, and moved forward to destroy the remaining pillboxes. [3] [8] [5] [6]

Covered by only four riflemen, he fought for four hours under terrific enemy small-arms fire and repeatedly returned to his own lines to prepare demolition charges and obtain serviced flame throwers. He returned to the front, frequently to the rear of hostile emplacements, to wipe out one position after another. [5] At one point, a wisp of smoke alerted him to the air vent of a Japanese bunker, and he approached close enough to put the nozzle of his flamethrower through the hole, killing the occupants. [6] On another occasion, he was charged by enemy riflemen who attempted to stop him with bayonets and he killed them with a burst of flame from his weapon. [8] [5] Williams has said that much of the action "is just a blank. I have no memory." [9]

These actions occurred on the same day that two flags were raised on Mount Suribachi, and Williams, about one thousand yards away from the volcano, was able to witness the event. [10] [6] He fought through the remainder of the five-week-long battle even though he was wounded on March 6 in the leg by shrapnel, for which he was awarded the Purple Heart. [5]

In September 1945, he returned to the United States, and on October 1 he joined Marine Corps Headquarters in Washington, D.C. He and thirteen other servicemen were presented the Medal of Honor by President Harry S. Truman on October 5, 1945, at the White House. [5]

On October 22, 1945, he was transferred to the Marine Barracks, Naval Training Center Bainbridge, Maryland, for discharge. He was honorably discharged from the Marine Corps Reserve on November 6, 1945.

Post-war service Edit

In March 1948, he reenlisted in the inactive Marine Corps Reserve, but was again discharged on August 4, 1949. [5]

On October 20, 1954, he joined the Organized Marine Reserve when the 98th Special Infantry Company was authorized by Headquarters Marine Corps to be located at Clarksburg, West Virginia. He transferred to the Marine Corps Reserve's 25th Infantry Company in Huntington, West Virginia on June 9, 1957, later becoming the (Interim) Commanding Officer of that unit as a warrant officer on June 6, 1960. He was designated the Mobilization Officer for the 25th Infantry Company and surrounding Huntington area on June 11, 1963. [5]

He was advanced through the warrant officer ranks during his time in the Marine Corps Reserve until reaching his final rank of Chief Warrant Officer 4 (CWO4). Although CWO4 Williams technically did not meet retirement requirements, he was honorarily retired from the Marine Corps Reserve in 1969 after approximately 17 years of service. [5]

Williams' military decorations and awards include:

1st row Medal of Honor Purple Heart
2nd row Navy Presidential Unit Citation Navy Unit Commendation Selected Marine Corps Reserve Medal
with two service stars
3rd row Vietnam Civilian Service Award American Campaign Medal Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal
with two 3 ⁄ 16 " bronze stars
4th row World War II Victory Medal National Defense Service Medal West Virginia Distinguished Service Medal

Medal of Honor citation Edit

Williams' Medal of Honor citation reads:

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as Demolition Sergeant serving with the First Battalion, Twenty-First Marines, Third Marine Division, in action against enemy Japanese forces on Iwo Jima, Volcano Island, 23 February 1945. 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, Corporal Williams daringly went forward alone to attempt the reduction of devastating machine-gun fire from the unyielding positions. Covered only by four riflemen, he fought desperately for four hours under terrific enemy small-arms fire and repeatedly returned to his own lines to prepare demolition charges and obtain serviced flame throwers, struggling back, frequently to the rear of hostile emplacements, to wipe out one position after another. On one occasion he daringly mounted a pillbox to insert the nozzle of his flame thrower through the air vent, kill the occupants and silence 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. His unyielding determination and extraordinary heroism in the face of ruthless enemy resistance were directly instrumental in neutralizing one of the most fanatically defended Japanese strong points encountered by his regiment and aided in enabling his company to reach its' [sic] objective. Corporal Williams' aggressive fighting spirit and valiant devotion to duty throughout this fiercely contested action sustain and enhance the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service. [8]

After World War II, Williams accepted a job as a Veterans Affairs counselor and retired with thirty-three years service. [10] For years, he struggled with the after-effects of combat stress until 1962, when he experienced a religious renewal. He later served as chaplain of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society for 35 years. [6] He was also a member of the Sons of the American Revolution and the Marine Corps League. Williams' Medal of Honor is on display at the Pritzker Military Museum & Library in Chicago. [11] [12]

Recognition and honors Edit

In 1965, Williams received West Virginia's Distinguished Service Medal. In 1967, he was honored by the Veteran's Administration with the Civilian Vietnam Service Award for service as a civilian counselor to the armed forces. In 1999, he was added to the City of Huntington Foundation's "Wall of Fame". He received the 2014 Founder's Award for extraordinary contributions to the mission of the Pritzker Military Museum & Library and the preservation of the heritage of the Citizen Soldier. [13]

The West Virginia state legislature has included Williams in the Hall of Fame for the state named him a Distinguished West Virginian in 1980 and in 2013. He is on the “Wall of Fame” in the Civic Center in the city of Huntington, West Virginia, nominated and selected by the former recipients who received this honor. In his hometown of Fairmont, West Virginia, the 32 million dollar Hershel “Woody” Williams Armed Forces Reserve Center is the only National Guard facility in the country named after a Marine.

In 2010, the not-for-profit Hershel Woody Williams Congressional Medal of Honor Education Foundation, Inc. was established "to honor Gold Star Families, relatives, and Gold Star Children who have sacrificed a loved one in the service of their country." [14] Williams currently serves on the foundation's Founders Advisory Board. [15]

On February 4, 2018, Williams along with 14 other living Medal of Honor recipients was honored at the Super Bowl LII during the coin toss. [16] He is the only living Marine Corps Medal of Honor recipient from World War II. Williams was selected to do the official coin toss for the game. [17] The coin toss ceremony set a record for most coin toss participants as Super Bowl LII was dedicated to them.

  • Hershel "Woody" Williams VA Medical Center at 1540 Spring Valley Dr, Huntington, WV 25704.
  • Hershel "Woody" Williams VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) Post 7048 in Fairmont, West Virginia 1310 Morgantown Ave. Fairmont WV 26554. Armory in Fairmont, West Virginia
  • Bridge at Barboursville, West Virginia and
  • Athletic field at Huntington, West Virginia. (ESB-4), a Mobile Landing Platform built by General Dynamics NASSCO at their San Diego shipyard. [18] In August 2016, Williams was joined by Edward Byers at the ship's keel laying ceremony. [19]
    • On 7 March 2020, Williams was present for the ship commissioning ceremony. [20]

    In a 2020 Washington Post interview remembering the 75th anniversary of the Iwo Jima battle, Williams credits his religious awakening with ending his nightmares and transforming his life.

    "It's one of those things you put in the recess of your mind. You were fulfilling an obligation that you swore to do, to defend your country. Anytime you take a life, there's always some aftermath to that if you've got any heart at all." [3]

    Two of the four riflemen covering Williams were killed. In 2020 Williams said, "Once I found out that this happened, this Medal of Honor took on a different significance. I said, from that point on, it does not belong to me. It belongs to them. I wear it in their honor. I keep it shined for them, because there is no greater sacrifice than when someone sacrifices their life for you and me." [9] In 2017, UPS executive Pat O'Leary and one of Williams's grandchildren discovered through documentaries the identity of the two Marines who sacrificed their lives for Williams during the Battle of Iwo Jima. They were identified as 24-year-old Corporal Warren Harding Bornholz, [21] of New York City, and 20-year-old Private First Class Charles Gilbert Fischer, [22] of Somers, Montana. They were killed in action while protecting Williams from Japanese enemy fire on February 23, 1945.

    1. ^ Karnath, Sgt. Melissa (February 27, 2015). "Humble farmer now legendary Marine". MCINCR – Marine Corps Base Quantico, USMC.
    2. ^
    3. "Hall of Fame: Hershel Woody Williams". West Virginia State Civilian Conservation Corps Museum Association.
    4. ^ abcdefg
    5. Ruane, Michael E. (February 19, 2020). "At Iwo Jima, a warrior is forged". The Washington Post . Retrieved 23 February 2020 .
    6. ^
    7. "Hershel W. 'Woody' Williams, WWII Medal of Honor recipient, on surviving Iwo Jima". Stars and Stripes. February 18, 2015.
    8. ^ abcdefghijklm
    9. "Chief Warrant Officer 4 Hershel Woodrow Williams, USMCR". Who's Who in Marine Corps History. United States Marine Corps History Division. Archived from the original on 2016-03-16 . Retrieved July 7, 2010 . Alt URL
    10. ^ abcde
    11. Anderson, Patrick B. (July 7, 2010). "Medal of Honor winner visits Winona veteran". Winona Daily News. Winona, Minnesota. Archived from the original on July 7, 2010.
    12. ^ abc
    13. "Hershel W. Williams". The Marine Corps Medal of Honor Recipients.
    14. ^ abc
    15. "Cpl Hersel W. Williams, Medal of Honor, 1945, 1/21/3, Iwo Jima (Medal of Honor citation)". Marines Awarded the Medal of Honor. United States Marine Corps History Division. Archived from the original on 2007-02-20. This article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain.
    16. ^ ab
    17. Richard Sisk (February 29, 2020). " ' Flamethrowers Got It Done' in Close-Quarters Iwo Jima Fight, Survivors of the Battle Say". Military.com . Retrieved 2020-02-29 .
    18. ^ ab
    19. Pyles, Katherine (Winter 2016). "Hersehel "Woody" Williams" (PDF) . Huntington Quarterly.
    20. ^
    21. "Catalog record for Hershel "Woody" Williams' Medal of Honor tapestry" . Retrieved 9 March 2015 .
    22. ^
    23. "Hershel "Woody" Williams Collection". Pritzker Military Museum & Library . Retrieved 9 March 2015 .
    24. ^
    25. "Hershel "Woody" Williams Founders Award Remarks at the 2014 Liberty Gala". Pritzker Military Museum & Library . Retrieved 9 March 2015 .
    26. ^
    27. "Hershel Woody Williams Congressional Medal of Honor Education Foundation". hwwmohf.org . Retrieved 2018-02-04 .
    28. ^
    29. "Foundation Officers, Board Members and Founder Advisors". Hershel Woody Williams Congressional Medal of Honor Education Foundation . Retrieved 2018-02-24 .
    30. ^
    31. "Super Bowl coin toss salute for Medal of Honor recipients". USA Today. Associated Press. January 25, 2018 . Retrieved 2018-02-02 .
    32. ^
    33. Mayer, Jennifer (February 3, 2018). "WWII Medal Of Honor Recipient To Give Super Bowl Coin Toss". CBS Minnesota . Retrieved 2018-02-04 .
    34. ^
    35. "Secretary of the Navy Names Expeditionary Sea Base Ship". US Navy Public Affairs . Retrieved 14 January 2016 .
    36. ^
    37. Jennewein, Chris (2 August 2016). "Iwo Jima Hero Honored at Keel Ceremony for Floating Marine Base". Times of San Diego . Retrieved 1 January 2017 .
    38. ^Iwo Jima hero, 96, sees US warship commissioned in his honor, Associated Press]], 2020-03-09
    39. ^
    40. "Find A Grave - Warren Harding Bornholz" . Retrieved 2021-02-17 .
    41. ^
    42. "Find A Grave - Charles Gilbert Fischer" . Retrieved 2021-02-17 .

    This article incorporates public domain material from websites or documents of the United States Marine Corps.


    Uncovering Jackson’s heroics

    Military historian and former Marine Bryan Rigg first heard about Jackson’s heroics while researching a book on Medal of Honor recipient Hershel “Woody” Williams.

    He was struck by his “selfless act to save three of his buddies,” and that he didn’t receive a greater award.

    “The natural instinct is to jump away from it, and he could have done that nobody would have faulted him,” Rigg said.

    Rigg kept researching and found 27 service members were given the Medal of Honor on Iwo Jima — seven of them for actions similar to what Jackson did. Of the seven Medal of Honor recipients who jumped on grenades, 17-year-old Jack Lucas was the only one to survive.

    “I’m like, ‘Wait a second,’” Rigg said. “Harry did exactly what Jack Lucas did and all these other guys. And Harry, for whatever reason, was not put in for a Medal of Honor. Wasn’t put in for a Navy Cross, but was put in for a Silver Star.”

    After that realization, Rigg knew he wanted to help Jackson’s family get their father the Medal of Honor.

    “I was pretty shocked,” Rhonda Doak, Jackson’s oldest daughter, said after hearing from Rigg. “Off and on over the years people have said that my dad deserves a Medal of Honor.”

    While Jackson died in 2007 at the age of 82, Doak and her siblings — Harry Jackson Jr. and Kay Gramling — took up the cause.

    “He deserves it as much as other people who did the same thing,” said Gramling. “I want him to have it. And even though he’s not here, I want him to have that opportunity if it is possible.”


    Witnesses to World War II History

    by Alex Kershaw, Jon Saraceno and Mike Tharp, AARP, July 1, 2020 | Comments: 0

    AP Photo/Joe Rosenthal, File

    U.S. Marines of the 28th Regiment, 5th Division, raise the American flag atop Mt. Suribachi in Iwo Jima.

    En español | World War II ended three-quarters of a century ago — in May for the war in Europe and in August for the Pacific. The generation that lived through those memorable events is fast fading from the scene. Only about 2 percent of the men and women who served in the American armed forces from 1941 to 1945 are still alive.

    But there are some who can still describe thrilling, iconic moments — a man who is the only surviving witness of the German surrender signing, another who saw the raised flag on Iwo Jima, yet another who worked on the Enola Gay, the B-29 airplane that delivered the first atomic bomb and hastened the war's end. And children whose mothers were the women in the legendary Rosie the Riveter posters and photos also remember.

    Here are stories about some of the most unforgettable moments of World War II.

    Save 25% when you join AARP and enroll in Automatic Renewal for the first year. Get instant access to discounts, programs, services, and the information you need to benefit every area of your life.

    I saw the raised flag on Iwo Jima

    Hershel “Woody” Williams was a 21-year-old U.S. Marine training on the island of Guam and preparing to invade Japan when he heard that the atomic bombs had been dropped and that the war was finally over. He says there is only one word to describe how he felt: exhilaration. “We sort of went crazy. We all had weapons and we had ammunition in the camp, and so most of us ran out of tents and started shooting into the air, running around like a bunch of idiots.”

    For Williams, it was like being released from a death sentence he had lived under since earlier that year, when he'd experienced the horrors of the battle on Iwo Jima.

    Courtesy Department of Defense

    "It's not possible to describe the hell of Iwo Jima,” says the 96-year-old Williams, the last living Medal of Honor recipient from World War II in the Pacific. “It's like trying to explain how a mother feels when she is giving birth. Unless you've been through it, there's no way you can adequately understand it.”

    On Feb. 23, 1945, as a corporal in the 3rd Marine Division, Williams destroyed several Japanese positions using a flamethrower, repeatedly risking his life as young riflemen around him were slaughtered in one of the bloodiest battles of the war. That same February day, from afar, he saw the Stars and Stripes fluttering atop Mount Suribachi — the flag had first been raised that morning.

    Williams says he endured the horror of battle, thanks to superb training and, he stresses, because he had an unshakable belief that he would make it off the volcanic island in one piece. “I never let myself think I was not going to survive. You have to keep convincing yourself you'll make it. I heard Marines say, ‘I'm not going to make it,’ and they didn't.”

    Williams was wounded by shrapnel and received a Purple Heart. Almost 7,000 Americans were killed and 20,000 others wounded by the time the battle ended.

    Williams received the Medal of Honor from President Harry S. Truman at the White House in October 1945 and was honorably discharged from the Marines a few weeks later. For many years he struggled to overcome post-traumatic stress disorder. It was not until he recommitted himself to Christianity that he began to recover. He went on to serve for 35 years as the chaplain of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society.

    Most days, the war feels very distant to him. “I have attempted to wipe from my mind the bad things that took place.” But sometimes it all comes surging back. One memory in particular cannot be erased — the faces of two young Marines fighting beside him that fateful Feb. 23. “I didn't even know them. They sacrificed themselves for me. I have asked the same question thousands of times in my life: ‘Why me?’ Why was I selected to be the person to receive the Medal of Honor, to have all the accolades, when they gave all they had — their lives?”

    "It's not possible to describe the hell of Iwo Jima. It's like trying to explain how a mother feels when she is giving birth. Unless you've been through it, there's no way you can adequately understand it."

    I watched the Germans surrender

    Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

    It was one of the most significant events of the 20th century. And it is thought that only one man in the U.S. is still alive who witnessed it: the moment the Germans formally surrendered in a small schoolhouse in Reims, France, early on May 7, 1945, marking the end, in Europe, of the most destructive conflict in human history.

    Twenty-year-old Luciano “Louis” Graziano had been living in East Aurora, New York, when he was drafted in 1943. After landing on Omaha Beach and surviving the Battle of the Bulge, he became the utilities foreman with the 102nd Infantry Field Artillery Battalion, Special Headquarters Command. It was his job, in early May 1945, to keep buildings used by Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower in good order. One such building was the famed Little Red Schoolhouse.

    Graziano, now 97, says he can still clearly remember seeing German Gen. Alfred Jodl enter a crowded classroom in the three-story brick building in Reims. “The British, French, Russians, Americans had already signed. The Germans were the last to sign. [Jodl] wouldn't sign [the surrender] until the others had.” It was 2:41 a.m. when the steely-faced Jodl finally signed the formal surrender documents with a Parker 51 fountain pen.

    Master Sgt. Graziano and other personnel then escorted Jodl along a corridor to a room where Eisenhower was waiting. Graziano watched Jodl walk into the room and “click his heels” and salute Ike, who had refused to ever shake the hands of a Nazi and wasn't about to start now. Jodl was soon dismissed. Later that morning, Eisenhower sent the historic message: “THE MISSION OF THIS ALLIED FORCE WAS FULFILLED …”

    Given that Graziano was in Reims, heart of the Champagne region in France, it was only natural that, later that day, he celebrated with some Champagne. “Everyone was really relieved, having a good time … looking forward to going home.” V-E Day was all the more joyous and emotional given that he was also madly in love. Earlier that spring he had met Eula “Bobbie” Shaneyfelt, a Women's Army Corps sergeant. The couple got married in, of all places, Reims, in October 1945. They honeymooned in Paris and went on to have five children and many grandchildren. “She was a staff sergeant [when I met her],” Graziano remembers with a chuckle. “I was a master sergeant, so I pulled rank on her. But when we got home, she pulled rank on me.”

    My fellow nurses died in a kamikaze attack

    Courtesy Doris Howard (second from right)

    When Doris Howard, 100, saw scenes this spring of the hospital ship USNS Comfort arriving in New York Harbor, where it had gone to aid COVID-19 patients, it brought back memories from three-quarters of a century ago, when she was on the ship's namesake, the USS Comfort, in the perilous waters off Okinawa, Japan.

    Then, the danger was kamikazes — the Japanese suicide planes intent on destroying the American fleet.

    "You never knew if you were going to be next,” recalls Howard, who served as an Army nurse aboard the hospital ship during the Battle of Okinawa, the last major battle of World War II. “You just knew that the odds were that you were going to get hit. It could be any second."

    A Wisconsin native, Howard had joined the U.S. Army Nurse Corps a few weeks after Pearl Harbor was bombed. She had spent more than a year as a lieutenant aboard the Comfort, working 12-hour shifts with just one day off a month, by the time she began treating some of the tens of thousands of young Americans wounded during the battle. “Planes would come over at night, flying very low, horribly noisy, making the ship rock when they would drop bombs. If another ship was hit, we would expect a big surge of patients."

    "You never knew if you were going to be next. You just knew that the odds were that you were going to get hit. It could be any second."

    During the three-month battle that claimed 12,000 American lives, kamikaze attacks accounted for the sinking of 26 U.S. ships and for thousands of deaths. Even though the Comfort, carrying more than 500 wounded, was painted white and identified by red crosses, it was still a target. Howard's luck finally ran out on April 28, 1945, when, as she tended to wounded Marines, one of the suicide planes hit the ship. Twenty-eight people, including six of her fellow nurses, were killed in the deadliest strike on U.S. servicewomen in World War II.

    Today, Howard still vividly recalls the moment when the kamikaze hit the smokestack and then plunged deep into its operating rooms belowdecks. When the plane's fuel tank then exploded, Howard was thrown eight feet and slammed into a bulkhead.

    She was deafened and temporarily numb, from her neck to her waist. But she was back at her station within hours. She suffered permanent damage to her hearing and spine. Despite the loss of life and considerable damage, the Comfort was not abandoned, and Howard was able to stay on duty until the ship docked in Guam for repairs and to evacuate the wounded. Her fellow nurses were then buried in a deeply moving ceremony, the Stars and Stripes draped across their coffins.

    Howard returned to the States after the attack and was working in a hospital in Oakland, California, when she heard that the war had ended. “We all just felt great happiness that it was over,” she says. “Tremendous relief. We couldn't believe it. No more maimed bodies that we were trying to mend. It was over, and everywhere it was ‘Peace!’ “ Howard married and worked as a nurse in a doctor's office in the Bay Area before moving to Reno, Nevada, in 2005, to be with her son.

    Since the COVID-19 pandemic, she's been in strict quarantine. When she saw this spring that the USNS Comfort had deployed to New York, it generated strong feelings. “There was a call for retired medical professionals to return to duty, so I was trying to figure out what I could do on the new Comfort. But, being in a wheelchair on board a ship, I'm afraid I would be more of a hindrance than a help. But I sure would go if they needed me and would have me."

    I saw defeat in the faces of Japanese prison guards

    United States Navy Submarine USS Tang at sea.

    Early on Oct. 25, 1944, Bill Leibold stood on the bridge of the USS Tang, World War II's most lethal American submarine, on its fifth and final patrol. He watched in the darkness through binoculars as the submarine's very last torpedo broached the surface of the ocean and began to porpoise, with phosphorescence trailing it. To this day, the next seconds are indelibly etched in his mind.

    “There goes one! Erratic!” he shouted.

    The torpedo malfunctioned, circled back, and hit the Tang with an enormous explosion. Of the 87 crewmen, just nine survived. All nine survivors were fished from the cold waters off Taiwan, brutally interrogated by vengeful Japanese and sent to a notorious POW camp, in Omori, Japan. That's where Leibold and his fellow submariners were working in caves when, on Aug. 15, 1945, they heard the voice of Emperor Hirohito on a public address system: “We have resolved to pave the way for a grand peace for all the generations to come by enduring the unendurable and suffering what is unsufferable.”

    Leibold understood from the faces of the Japanese guards that the war was over. He had lost 70 pounds in captivity and that night celebrated with other “elated” Americans with horse-gut stew. The prisoners weren't immediately released — that day came 13 days later when American forces reached the camp. But the abuse ended after the emperor's words. And U.S. planes were able to drop rations into the camp for the starving men.

    Today, Leibold is convinced that it was love that kept him and the Tang's other eight survivors alive all those decades ago. “Seven of the nine were married,” he stresses. Some had small children, and they fought ferociously to stay alive so they could see them again. All the men aboard the submarine had been reported lost. But Leibold's wife, Grace, had clung to hope for a miracle. He was finally able to hold her in his arms in Los Angeles in late September 1945.

    As the coronavirus raged across the United States this spring, Leibold was expecting a lonely 97th birthday, restricted to his room in a care facility in California and barred from seeing his family. “It's like being incarcerated. To be perfectly honest, the situation is far stricter than it was at times [as a POW].” He is the last man alive from the 87 who served aboard the USS Tang on her final patrol. “I'm still here, and they're all gone . ”

    What will Leibold do to mark the 75th anniversary of V-J Day this summer? Not much, he says with a sigh, given that he's in strict lockdown. “It'll be just another day for me.” He looks forward to the next time he is released from a hellish confinement — and again holds a loved one tight.

    I helped build the Enola Gay

    In 1944, Russ Blauvelt was a Nebraska high school student working part time on a secret government project. He helped build modified B-29 bombers, including the Enola Gay. It took him 75 years to see the famous finished product. The U.S. bomber was manufactured at the Glenn L. Martin Bomber Co. plant in Fort Crook, Nebraska, where Blauvelt helped assemble wings.

    After two weeks of training in the fall of 1944, the 16-year-old was a “bucker” for seven months as he assisted wing riveters. Every morning, Blauvelt rode a streetcar and a bus from his home in Omaha to Fort Crook (now Offutt Air Force Base). He worked a 4 1/2-hour shift and started at 60 cents an hour.

    "I felt good that the Enola Gay stopped the damn war. Hey! They started it, and we finished it."

    On Aug. 6, 1945, the plane dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. At the time, Blauvelt had no clue that he had worked on the Enola Gay, only later matching the plane's serial numbers to his memory.

    Last year, at 91, Blauvelt climbed into the Enola Gay, preserved at the National Air and Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center near Washington, D.C. “I got inside the plane and into the cockpit,” he says. “I was surprised at how big it was. It was an emotional moment — tears came to my eyes."

    Blauvelt says he gave a “little spiel about aircrafts . what I did, what we did. We stopped the damn war. The Marines were [planning] to invade Japan I would've been in one of those divisions hitting Japan. I couldn't celebrate because I was in boot camp. But I was grateful. I felt good that the Enola Gay stopped the damn war. Hey! They started it, and we finished it."

    Blauvelt was among a group of 14 veterans treated to the Washington, D.C., trip by Wish of a Lifetime, to view memorials erected in their honor. “It's about achieving that dream for seniors,” said Jeremy Garver, manager at the nonprofit organization. “Once you get to a certain age in our society, you are no longer valued. That's something we want to change."

    My mom was Rosie the Riveter

    She is one of the enduring symbols of the second world war, the strong, independent woman who stepped in to build America's war machine when millions of men were overseas.

    But, it turns out, there are different versions of that legend.

    For many during the war, Rosie the Riveter was the woman in the Norman Rockwell illustration that ran on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post on Memorial Day, 1943.

    His subject was 19-year-old Mary Doyle, a telephone operator in Arlington, Vermont, near the painter's home. The artist admitted that he took some “privileges” with the painting. The petite Miss Doyle became a husky woman wearing overalls and welder's goggles below her red hair. She holds a lunch box marked “Rosie,” and her right shoe rests on a copy of Hitler's memoir, Mein Kampf.

    Mary's daughter Barbara Boska, in Sparta Township, New Jersey, recalls that when she and her siblings were children, “we didn't think it was a huge deal. But as we got older we understood more of what it meant to people during the war — the women went off to work the men went off to war.” She remembers her mom in her later years “sitting with a smile, signing posters. People treated her like royalty. She did her part."

    But Rockwell's Rosie wasn't the first image of Rosie the Riveter. Another, earlier poster has become even more associated with the legend. It shows a stern young woman, wearing a blue work shirt and a red polka-dot bandanna over her hair. She flexes her bare right arm and clenches her fist. We Can Do It! appears above her head. J. Howard Miller created the poster for Westinghouse's war effort.

    John Parrot/Stocktrek Images

    Iconic J. Howard Miller poster

    So who is that Rosie? There are at least a couple of candidates.

    Stephanie Gregg, 75, grew up believing it was her mother, Geraldine Holt Doyle, who looked amazingly like the girl in the poster.

    When Geraldine turned 18 in Ann Arbor, Michigan, she started work at a local factory. “She was very glamorous,” says her daughter, “beautiful brown eyes, dark wavy hair.” A UPI photographer came to the plant and made several pictures of Geraldine.

    She left the factory soon after, married her husband, Leo Doyle, in dental school and moved to Maryland.

    Later in life she embraced the Rosie persona, speaking at schools, union halls and before the state legislature about the ethic embodied by “We can do it!”

    "The essence of her being was all about perserverance, courage, an unspoken confidence,” her daughter says.

    But there is another candidate for the Rosie of Miller's poster: Naomi Parker, working in the Alameda Naval Air Station. Her photograph was taken by a UPI wire photographer and sent across the country in 1942. She, too, looks remarkably like the woman in the iconic poster.

    Her daughter-in-law Marnie Blankenship, 70, remembers Naomi telling stories of working at the Navy plant repairing damaged planes.

    It wasn't until 2015 that the woman, whose married name was Naomi Fraley, found out she was a likely candidate for Rosie the Riveter. She had only three more years to live. In a documentary video she made before her death, she talked about the famous motto: “We all said, ‘We can do it,” she noted. As for the famous red polka-dot bandanna, “We got those at the five-and-dime."

    That no one Rosie has emerged may be fitting. During World War II, around 5 million women worked in the defense industry and other sectors, according to the Defense Department site, and another 350,000 served in uniform.

    "Rosie and the real women she represented were essential cogs in the war machine,” says James Kimble, a professor of communications at Seton Hall University. “Their effort is every bit as important to remember as the many other sacrifices made by the Greatest Generation."

    Center for American War Letters Archives

    Millions marked the end of the war with letters home to loved ones

    The Center for American War Letters at Chapman University in California, directed by Andrew Carroll, works to seek out and preserve correspondences from every U.S. conflict. Within the center’s collection are thousands of World War II letters. Here are some excerpts:

    Medical Officer Allen Boyden writes to his wife from Europe on V-E Day, May 8, 1945

    The war is over! It’s hard to believe when I look back on the state of the war at the time I left for overseas — exactly 29 months ago. At that time I’m happy I did not realize that it would take so long….

    It is wonderful to know that Germany at last is completely beaten. The wickedness and bestiality has finally ceased, aside from a bit of sporadic fighting here in this country. These people have been oppressed 6 long years . and their genuine welcome of the Americans brings tears to our eyes. They are truly grateful. We walk down the streets to have flowers thrust upon us, people smiling and waving and saluting us from all sides….

    Seeing the joy on the faces of these people — free again after so long — has taught us something of the meaning of freedom. Enough for tonight. I love you, and know in my heart that we will soon be together.

    Lydia Klepac, in Detroit, Michigan, writes to her husband, Cpl. Walter Klepac, about their infant son, who was born after Walter had deployed

    Dearest Walter: Oh my darling! You are really coming home to see us! Gee, I can hardly believe it and I keep reading your letter of May 28 over and over. But I’ll really believe it when I can touch your face, honey, and feel your loving arms around me once again. Will you please pinch me hard — to see if I’m only dreaming. Okay I’ll wait until you get home, then we shall see.

    Oh happy days. Sonny will really be with his dear daddy.

    You’ll have to take it a little slow with him at first, honey, but I’m sure it won’t be long for you two to become real pals. This will be the first time he really sees you, Daddy, and naturally you’ll be a stranger to him at first. He has heard “Daddy” repeated so many, many times that I’m sure he knows that such a person exists. Besides, he can say “ta-ta” perfect now and he has kissed his daddy’s picture a millions times already….

    I’ll close with God’s blessings and a Good-nite.

    1st Lt. William Lee Preston writes a more reflective letter to his brother John about the news of the German surrender

    Yes, the war in Europe is over. I don’t know what the reaction was in the States as a whole. Over a patched-up radio, we heard that ticker tape and paper floated down from New York buildings. We heard that there were wild celebrations in the streets in London by civilians, English and American soldiers. But, John, the frontline troops didn’t celebrate. Most of the men merely read the story of victory from the division bulletin sent to the troops, and said something like “I’m glad,” and walked away. Perhaps it was a different story in their hearts, or perhaps they were too tired, or thinking of home too much, or thinking of their buddies who didn’t live to see the victory, to do much celebrating or merrymaking. But I’m sure of one thing — the troops were glad they wouldn’t have to fight anymore — I was.

    What our future is, we don’t know, but everyone is sweating out the South Pacific troop movement.

    My love to Eleanor and Troy.

    1st Officer Henry “Hank” Ketchum describes to his loved ones on hearing about the Japanese surrender — and the unexpected (and somewhat lighthearted) reaction some soldiers had about returning to the States

    I got the urge to write early this morning and so thought it would be a good idea to get a long letter off to you.

    We were in Luliang, China, at a movie when they stopped everything and announced that the Japanese had offered to surrender.

    The whole camp, or rather, base about blew up. Anti-aircraft guns shooting, flares going up, tracer machine gun fire, pistols, rifles, and every noise possible could be heard.

    Everyone was ready to go home and be a civilian again, and then most of us stopped dead in our tracks. Be a civilian? Earn our own money? Look for a job? What kind of a job? .

    Well, all for now! Love and miss you all.

    Assistant Army Physician Robert S. Easterbrook writes to his parents about tending to Hideki Tojo, after Tojo’s failed suicide attempt

    I don’t imagine you could ever guess where I am as a write this letter. At present, I’m sitting in a chair about 3 feet from the bedside of the ex-premier of Japan — Hideki Tojo.

    We were in duty last night, in surgery — when he arrived at approximately 9:40 P.M. .

    As there was no whole blood available at the moment, we gave him 600 cc of blood plasma, after which he perked up enough to make a statement. He told Gen. Eichelberger (thru the interpreter) that he was sorry to cause so much trouble. He had planned on shooting himself in the head, but had been afraid it would muss up his face too much — so had decided on the heart. He used a 38 caliber automatic, & the bullet entered just below & medial to the left breast & emerged from the back about 2 inches higher. I’m damned if I know how it missed his heart.

    It’s almost 1 o’clock & time to check him. Back in a few minutes.

    Blood transfusion started. It will take about an hour….

    The transfusion has ended & everyone except the two nurses, the guard & myself has cleared out. Tojo is resting quietly & the color is coming back a little.

    Phew, that was nice! He developed a severe chill & pain in the heart & wound from the blood given him. It was a little questionable there for a while, but he came out of it OK. (dammit). You know, it’s funny to be taking care of someone & not knowing whether you want him to live or not.

    Well, folks, it’s almost time for my relief so I’ll close off for now, take another check on him & call it a day.

    P. S. In my next letter I’ll send a piece of his shirt. It has blood on it—but don’t wash it. Just put it away in my room.