Hershel ‘Woody’ Williams Medal of Honor Speaks

December 3, 2019 Hershel ‘Woody’ Williams was in conversation with Mark DePue the Oral History at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library . The conversation took place at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. Woody Williams is an amazing man, he is the sole remaining World War II Medal of Honor recipient from the Battle of Iwo Jima. Thank you ALPLM for allowing me to cover this event.

Medal of Honor
Hershel ‘Woody’ Williams was the featured speaker at the 2nd Annual Lincolniana Gala

The story

Growing up on a dairy farm, in 1942, Hershel ‘Woody’ Williams enlisted in the United States Marine Corps and served in the Battle of Iwo Jima with the 21st Marines, 3d Marine Division. He received the Medal of Honor on October 5, 1945 from President Harry Truman at the White House.  According to the Medal of Honor Foundation, the medal was because, “During the battle, Mr. Williams displayed “valiant devotion to duty” and service above self as he “enabled his company to reach its objective”. 

A Farm Boy goes to War

“I was born in 1923 in Quiet Dell, West Virginia where farming and coal mining were the only two occupations. You raised it, or made it, or you didn’t have it.”

He shared that on the farm they had a Model T Ford they used to deliver milk, butter, and eggs. “That’s how we supported ourselves.”

Later they moved up to a Model A Ford. After his brother joined the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) Woody Williams saw the benefits and decided to join as well. While his brother had been nearby and was able to come home on weekends, he ended up 265 miles away and soon shipped to Montana then Pearl Harbor happened.

Being only 17, he couldn’t join the Army and was sent back home. His mother wouldn’t let him join because she said she needed him on the farm. Seeing a local boy come home in his Marine dress blues impressed Woody Williams far more than the more drab Army uniforms of his two brothers.

When he turned 18, he went to enlist only to find he didn’t meet the height requirement. Soon that was lifted and Woody Williams became a United States Marine.

Iwo Jima

Leaving behind a girlfriend that would later become his wife, Woody Williams served at Guadalcanal and Guam where he experienced his first combat.  In an upcoming issue of Senior News & Times of Illinois I outlined what happened at Iwo Jima.

Needless to say, Woody Williams said they never expected to engage the enemy the commanders thought the battle would take 3-5 days. Instead, the battle raged from February 19th to March 26th, 1945.  The Japanese had arrived early on and dug tunnels and entrenched themselves on the island. Woody Williams and his group were required to land on the beach and take part in the horrific battle to free Iwo Jima.

The Medal of Honor

On October 5, 1945, President Truman bestowed the Medal of Honor on Hershel ‘Woody’ Williams at the White House.  Later after learning about those that died protecting him, Woody Williams added, “The medal didn’t have as much significance until then. Now I wear it in their honor, not mine. They sacrificed everything they had.”

Learning the Names of Those that died for him

Prior to the question and answer period, at the museum presentation, Patrick O’Leary shared a film that can be seen on YouTube. This touching film tells the story of Woody Williams finally learning the names of the two riflemen that died while providing cover for him while he used flamethrowers during the Battle of Iwo Jima.  After learning about their sacrifices, Woody Williams said about the medal, “I am the caretaker of the medal for them.  When someone sacrifices their life for another, it changes your life.”

For years he didn’t know the names of the marines. Through documentation on October 21, 2017 Hershel ‘Woody’ Williams learned who those Marines were in a dedication and memorial at San Diego.

Woody Williams Foundation

Over the years, Woody Williams came into direct contact with families in his own community when he delivered Western Union telegrams informing the Gold Star families of the death of their loved one. These experiences made him realize that those Gold Star families had never really been recognized so he started his own foundation the Hershel Woody Williams Medal of Honor Foundation. The Foundation is responsible for establishing 59 Gold Star Families Memorial Monuments across the United States with more than 63 additional monuments underway in 43 states.

What an amazing man who continues to make a difference to men and women who served and their families.

While at the museum be sure to see the D Day Exhibit that is there until January 12, 2019.

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  1. Erin

    I really enjoyed reading about Woody’s story. I have to agree with 18-year-old Woody that the Marines’ dress blues are quite impressive. His response to learning the names of the two men who died providing him cover at Iwo Jima was so touching. It’s great to see museums and organizations putting on events with WWII Veterans.

    1. Cindy

      I really found it touching.