CHARLESTON, W.Va. — One of the most significant battles of World War II marked a 75th anniversary this week.
The battle of Iwo Jima in the south Pacific started February 19, 1945. It was one of the bloodiest engagements of the war. Over 7,000 U.S. service members were killed in action, most of them United States Marines. Thousands more were wounded. More than 21,000 Japanese troops held the island when the Marines went ashore, fewer than 300 survived, choosing to fight rather than surrender.
The battle for the blackened sands of an inactive volcano gave us the iconic image of the Marines raising the flag on Mt. Suribachi. A young Marine from Marion County, West Virginia named Hershel “Woody” Williams remembered the event well.
“I saw it immediately after it went up. There were Marines around me who were yelling and screaming and firing their weapons and saying something about a flag. I didn’t see it go up, but when they were doing that, I turned and we could see it. I was about a thousand yards away.” said Williams in a 2019 interview on his 96th birthday.
The same day the flag went up on Suribachi, was the day Williams engaged in the fight which would eventually result in his being awarded the Medal of Honor. He took out seven Japanese gun emplacements or pillboxes to enable a breakthrough.
“They had us stalled. We couldn’t move. They were inside and we’re outside trying to advance toward them. Every time we’d jump up to run, they’d just mow us down. Once we got those seven eliminated, that left a hole and we could get through,” he explained.
Williams used six flamethrowers to eliminate the gun emplacements over the course of more than four hours. He never got a scratch during the entire ordeal. He handpicked four fellow Marines to provide covering fire as he approached each emplacement. All four riflemen eventually were killed in the fight.
“Divine intervention I guess. They eventually got me later, but not while that was going on,” said Williams.
He was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Harry S. Truman for his heroic efforts. The Battle of Iwo Jima lasted two months, finally ending on March 26, 1945. Williams was one of 27 who were awarded the Medals of Honor from the battle, 14 were awarded posthumously.