Hershel “Woody” Williams is literally one of a kind. At 97, he is the last living recipient of the WWII Medal of Honor. But it’s the way he’s lived all these years since that really sets him apart.
“I felt I owed more than I could ever give,” he told CBS News national security correspondent David Martin.
He grew up on a farm in West Virginia during the Great Depression. “There were 11 born in my family,” he said. “Only five of us survived to adulthood.”
After, he tried to enlist in the Marines, but was rejected for being too short. When the Marines began to suffer horrific casualties fighting the Japanese across the Pacific, the height limit was relaxed – and he ended up becoming a Marine.
Martin asked, “How did you first taste combat? “
“Extremely scary,” he replied.
In February 1945, a massive invasion fleet gathered off the Japanese-held island of Iwo Jima. “We didn’t know they had 22,000 Japanese on the island; we didn’t know they had miles of tunnel dug into a volcano,” Williams said.
The Japanese held fire until the Marines disembarked, then turned the beach into a slaughterhouse: “The beach was full of anything you can think of – trucks and tanks had just exploded.”
More than 6,000 Marines would die. Williams said, “I just stacked them, yeah, like rope wood.”
Finally, the Marines reached the summit of Mount Suribachi for the most famous flag raising in American history.
Martin asked, “Did you know the flag was up? “
“No, I didn’t,” Williams said. “I think my head was buried in the sand.”
The flag was raised, but the battle for Iwo Jima was far from over: “There was no protection. We were running from shell crater to shell crater, if we could find one, and finally we hit this long line of bunkers, reinforced concrete. casemates. “
The Japanese machine guns inside the casemates shot down the advancing Marines, until the commanding officer of Williams turned to him: “He said, ‘Do you think you could do something with the flamethrower? ? ‘ “
“What were you supposed to do with the flamethrower?” Martin asked.
“Put some flame in the pillbox to annihilate everyone in this pillbox.”
With fire covering from four riflemen, Williams crawled towards the first pillbox with Japanese bullets ricocheting off his flamethrower.
“I look over this pillbox and see a little blue smoke coming out of it,” said Williams. “So I crawled… I got on that pillbox, and here’s a pipe that’s about the same size as my flamethrower nozzle, so I just stuck it on and let it go. It was my first pillbox. “
Williams is credited with pulling out seven pill organizers in four hours.
It was February 1945. When Japan surrendered in September of that year, Williams was at the time of Guam’s death when he suddenly received a summons: “‘You are going to see the general.’ And I said, ‘What for?’ “
“It can’t be good news!” Martin said.
“That’s what I thought!” Williams laughed. “I’m scared to death, but I follow orders, you know, so I go into the tent, I go to his office.” And he said, “You are ordered to return to Washington.” I had never heard of the Medal of Honor. I didn’t know such a thing existed.
The boy from Dell, West Virginia, found himself in the White House being awarded the Medal of Honor by President Truman. “I never even dreamed of being able to see a President of the United States, and I’m standing there shaking his hand. Now you’re talking about a scary moment! I was a wreck, I really was. ! “
He overcame the nerves, but never the responsibility that comes with the coin, especially when he learned that Corporal Warren Bornholz and Private First Class Charles Fischer, two of the riflemen who had provided cover fire during those four hours fiery hell, had been killed.
“Once I learned that, my whole concept of the medal changed. I said, ‘This medal is not mine, it belongs to them.’ So I wear it in their honor, not mine, they sacrificed their lives to make this possible.
Williams learned early on what this sacrifice meant for their family. Before joining the Marines, he delivered Western Union telegrams informing mothers that their sons had been killed in action. “When I handed her the envelope, well, it just collapsed,” he recalls. “As an 18 year old boy, I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t do anything. I left. You know, I didn’t know what to do.”
“You did a good job catching up with yourself,” Martin said.
“Well, it left a lasting impression on my mind. Made me realize what it costs just to have our freedom and to be who we are,” he said.
He worked for the Department of Veterans Affairs for 33 years. He subsequently established the Woody Williams Foundation to support Gold Star families and designed a monument in their honor. “We are in all 50 states,” he said.
“Does this require a lot of travel on your part?” “
“We try to attend every dedication and every innovation.”
Before COVID hit, this 90-plus-year-old would be on the road more than 200 days a year.
Martin asked, “Why are you driving like this? At your age, everyone would understand if you begged.”
“It’s my way of making sure our Gold Star family is not forgotten,” Williams replied.
This April, Charles Coolidge, the only other living recipient of the WWII Medal of Honor, passed away.
Martin said, “Now you’re the last man standing. “
“Does that add to the feeling of responsibility? “
“Yes it is. It is.”
“Have you ever wondered why you’ve been given so long to live?” “
“Maybe I’m making someone else’s life a little better, a little more meaningful,” he replied.
“Woody” Williams has led the most meaningful life possible, although he puts it differently: “I am absolutely the luckiest person you could lay eyes on,” he said.
And one more thing we learned about The Last Man Standing: He’s also the coolest 97-year-old man in America.
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Story produced by Mary Walsh. Publisher: Joseph Frandino.