‘Woody’ Williams, WWII Medal of Honor recipient, dies at 98

The last surviving Medal of Honor recipient from World War II died early Wednesday morning. Hershel “Woody” Williams was 98.

Williams died at 3:15 a.m. in a hospital in West Virginia that bears his name, his foundation announced Wednesday.

President Harry Truman presented Williams with the Medal of Honor in October 1945 for Williams’ actions on Feb. 23, 1945, during the Battle of Iwo Jima.

“Williams daringly went forward alone to attempt the reduction of devastating machine gun fire from the unyielding (Japanese) positions,” his Medal of Honor citation reads.

“Covered only by four riflemen, he fought desperately for four hours under terrific enemy small-arms fire and repeatedly returned to his own lines to prepare demolition charges and obtain serviced flamethrowers, struggling back, frequently to the rear of hostile emplacements, to wipe out one position after another.”

Williams was the last survivor among 472 servicemen who earned the Medal of Honor during World War II. Some men were honored posthumously.

“Woody represented the last of the Greatest Generation,” U.S. senator and personal friend Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) said in a statement. “With the passing of Woody, their legacies and honor are laid to rest.”

Born Oct. 2, 1923, in the north West Virginia town of Quiet Dell, Williams grew up on a dairy farm with several siblings. His father died of a heart attack at age 11, leaving one of his older brothers to manage the farm.

Williams joined the Marine Corps at age 19. Years later, he said he was impressed by the Marines in their dress blues. After Pearl Harbor, Williams said he figured if anything he’d be expected to defend the U.S. and fight on home soil. Instead, he was sent first to Guadalcanal and then to Iwo Jima.

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The battle started on Feb. 19, 1945, and four days later Williams’ squad was pinned down by heavy machine gun fire from Japanese pillboxes, reinforced concrete structures built into the volcanic island.

Armed with a flamethrower, Williams took the lead in clearing the pillboxes.

“On one occasion, he daringly mounted a pillbox to insert the nozzle of his flamethrower through the air vent, killing the occupants and silencing the gun,” his citation reads. “On another he grimly charged enemy riflemen who attempted to stop him with bayonets and destroyed them with a burst of flame from his weapon.”

That same day, Marines famously raised the U.S. flag on top of Mount Suribachi, an event immortalized in a photograph and a statue.

“Suddenly, the Marines around me started jumping up and down, firing their weapons in the air,” Williams said years later. “My head was buried in the sand. Then I looked up and saw Old Glory on top of Mount Suribachi.”

Williams left active military service in November 1945 but remained a reservist until 1969 and retired as a chief warrant officer. His work later took him to a forerunner of the Department of Veterans Affairs. His foundation, the Woody Williams Foundation, worked to establish Gold Star Families Memorial Monuments across the U.S.

One of Williams’ motivations for getting home safe was a young West Virginia girl named Ruby, who he was planning to marry. They tied the knot later in 1945 and remained married for 62 years until Ruby’s death in 2007. Woody is survived by their two daughters, along with several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

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