CHARLESTON, W.Va. — One of the most iconic images of the United States Marine Corps is the raising of the flag on Mt. Suribachi on the island of Iwo Jima.
West Virginia native Woody Williams was there the day it happened. During a 2019 interview with MetroNews on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the event, Williams explained he didn’t get to actually see it because he had his back turned.
“I saw it immediately after it was up. The reason I saw it was there were Marines around me who began yelling, screaming, and jumping up and firing their weapons in the air. I didn’t see it go up, but I turned and it was the bigger flag, the second one that went up, so we could see it. I was about a thousand yards away. So I began doing the same thing they were doing, firing my weapon and celebrating Old Glory is on Mt. Surribachi,” Williams recalled.
Listen to “Woody Williams Interview from 2019” on Spreaker.
It would be later that day Williams put himself repeatedly in harm’s way to clear a path for Marines to continue their advance on another part of the island.
“They had us stalled. We couldn’t move. They’re inside protected and we’re outside trying to advance. Every time we tried to jump up and advance, they would just mow us down,” he said.
Williams and his commanding officer came up with a plan. Williams selected four riflemen to fire on the opening of each pill box as he crawled toward it with a flame thrower. Roughly the plan was to keep the Japanese soldiers’ heads down so he could get close enough to pour flames into the concrete bunkers.
“We tried to keep them from shooting at me. On some it worked, on others it didn’t, but they never touched me,” he said.
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Using the daring method, Williams was able to eliminate seven of the Japanese gun emplacements and break the logjam so troops could advance.
“I used up six flame throwers and by that time, I was done. But once we eliminated those seven it left a hole so we could move on,” he said.
The whole incident took several hours under constant enemy fire. Williams was never touched by the enemy during the engagement. He always added the footnote to the story they got him a couple of days later.
Williams never shied from sharing the story with anybody wanting to know about it. He was proud of the accomplishment, but never gloated. He always paused to point out many others, including the four men he picked to cover him with rifle fire that day, were killed in the engagement.
“They said I did something that was a little outstanding, so my commanding officer recommended me for the Medal of Honor,” he said.
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Williams considered the Medal an obligation to tell the story of those who did not make it home. He spent his life working to honor their memory. He also spent the rest of his life advocating for veterans with his work through the V-A and in later years working to erect monuments across the nation dedicated to the families of those killed in action. They were known as Gold Star Family Memorials. The first was installed in 2013 at the Donel C. Kinnard Memorial State Veterans Cemetery
“This is a symbol and tribute to those families who lost a loved one because they gave more for our freedoms than I did,” Williams told MetroNews the day the marker was unveiled.
As of today, there are 103 of the monuments in place and 72 are under construction. They are located in all 50 states and one U.S. Territory.