Hershel ‘Woody’ Williams, last remaining Medal of Honor recipient from WWII, dies at 98

Hershel W. “Woody” Williams, the last remaining Medal of Honor recipient from World War II, whose heroics under fire over several crucial hours at the Battle of Iwo Jima made him a legend, died Wednesday in his native West Virginia. He was 98.

Williams’ foundation announced on Twitter and Facebook that he died at the Veterans Affairs medical center bearing his name in Huntington, W.Va.

“Today, America lost not just a valiant Marine and a Medal of Honor recipient, but an important link to our nation’s fight against tyranny in the second World War,” U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III said in a statement. “I hope every American will pause to reflect on his service and that of an entire generation that sacrificed so much to defend the cause of freedom and democracy.”

As a young Marine corporal, Williams went ahead of his unit in February 1945 and eliminated a series of Japanese machine gun positions at Iwo Jima, where Marines planted the American flag on Mount Suribachi, a moment captured in one of history’s most iconic war photographs. Williams said he saw the flag from a distance after it went up as troops around him celebrated.

Later that year, at age 22, Williams received the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award for military valor, from President Harry Truman at the White House.

“For me, receiving the Medal of Honor was actually the lifesaver because it forced me to talk about the experiences that I had, which was a therapy that I didn’t even know I was doing,” Williams said during a 2018 Boy Scouts recognition ceremony, according to the Times West Virginian newspaper.

Williams’ actions in battle to clear the way for American tanks and infantry are detailed on the U.S. military’s Medal of Honor website. He was “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. Williams daringly went forward alone to attempt the reduction of devastating machinegun fire from the unyielding positions,” the site states.

Facing small-arms fire, Williams fought for four hours, repeatedly returning to prepare demolition charges and obtain flamethrowers.

Williams remained in the Marines after the war, serving a total of 20 years, before working for the Veterans Administration, now the Department of Veterans Affairs, for 33 years as a veterans service representative.

In 2018, the VA medical center in Huntington was renamed in his honor, and the Navy commissioned a mobile base sea vessel in his name in 2020. In February 2018, Williams and 14 other Medal of Honor recipients were honored during the coin toss before Super Bowl LII in Minneapolis.

Williams may not have gotten as much attention nationally as another West Virginia native, Air Force Brig. Gen. Chuck Yeager, the flamboyant World War II fighter pilot ace who became the first person to fly faster than sound in 1947. Yeager died in December 2020. Yet in his home state, Williams was a household name.

Williams was born the youngest of a family of 11 on a dairy farm on Oct. 2, 1923, in the northern West Virginia community of Quiet Dell. Prior to joining the military, he served in the Civilian Conservation Corps and worked as a taxi driver as a teenager in Fairmont, sometimes delivering Western Union telegrams to the families of fallen soldiers.

Hershel “Woody” Williams waves at spectators during a Fourth of July parade in 2006 in Frostburg, Md.

(John A. Bone/Associated Press)

It was that passion that later led Williams and his Louisville, Ky.-based nonprofit foundation to raise money for and establish more than 100 Gold Star Families Memorial Monuments in recognition of relatives of lost service members across the United States, according to his website.

Although his two older brothers were serving in the Army, Williams wanted to take a different path. He knew some Marines from his area and admired their blue uniforms whenever they returned home. But at 5-foot-6, Williams was rejected because of his height when he tried to join in 1942. A year later, the Marines allowed him in at age 19.

Williams later said he relied on his fiancée, Ruby, to get him through the often anxious times during the war, when he would tell himself he had to get back to the girl he was going to marry.

Their marriage lasted 62 years. Ruby Williams died in 2007 at 83. The couple had two daughters and five grandsons.

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