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The Story Of Hershel Woody Williams – Medal Of Honor Recipient Part 1 – The future does not belong to the faint hearted, but to the brave. The last surviving WWII Medal of Honor recipient, Hershel Woody Williams, tells his personal story of service during WWII, and his involvement in the bloodiest battle of the Pacific Theater. Join us today for part 1 of 2 of this amazing story!

Air Date: 08/09/2021

Guest: Hershel Woody Williams

On-air Personalities: David Barton, Rick Green, and Tim Barton


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Transcription note:  As a courtesy for our listeners’ enjoyment, we are providing a transcription of this podcast. Transcription will be released shortly. However, as this is transcribed from a live talk show, words and sentence structure were not altered to fit grammatical, written norms in order to preserve the integrity of the actual dialogue between the speakers. Additionally, names may be misspelled or we might use an asterisk to indicate a missing word because of the difficulty in understanding the speaker at times. We apologize in advance.

 

Rick:

You find your way to the intersection of faith and the culture. This is WallBuilders Live. You can learn more about the program at wallbuilderslive.com. That’s where you can get archives of the program for the last few weeks. That’s also where you can learn more about us, the host, David Barton, he’s America’s premier historian and our founder here at WallBuilders; Tim Barton is a national speaker and pastor and president of WallBuilders; and my name is Rick Green, I’m a former Texas legislator and America’s constitution coach.

Again, wallbuilderslive.com, that is also the place you can make a one-time or monthly contribution. And I mentioned those archives there’s actually a set of archives it’s on a CD, and it’s some our favorite interviews. We got to interview so many veterans, World War II, Korean, Vietnam, Desert Storm, and you name it. And we’ve got a lot of those in the archives there at the website. But we’ve also got a CD and an mp3. Tim always reminds me, most people don’t use CDs anymore, Rick. But we have mp3 of this as well. And the reason I’m mentioning that is because today and tomorrow we have a World War II veteran, it’s going to be really cool. And we’re going to be talking about what happened actually, probably, I don’t know, David, is this considered the bloodiest the worst battle in World War II, Iwo Jima?

David:

It is. It is considered the bloodiest single battle in World War II on the Pacific side. Battle on the Bulge on the Atlantic side is the other. But as far as the Pacific theater is concerned, this was the battle. This is certainly where the Marines last more than any other battle. This is where you had more Marines wounded than any other battle. It is one of the hardest, toughest battles in World War II, and especially probably the single hardest battle on the Pacific theater.

Rick:

Well, part of the reason we highlight these veterans is because we’ve lost a lot of those stories. We don’t know the price that’s been paid. And like President Ronald Reagan said, if we forget what we did, we won’t know who we are. And we’ve become a little bit of, not a little bit, a lot of a snowflake generation culture. And if we remember what our ancestors did, if we remember what our DNA is made up of as Americans, and I think it will embolden us and will rediscover who we are and not operate out of fear so much. And again, Ronald Reagan, who said the future does not belong to the fainthearted, but to the brave.

And boy, you talk about brave this gentleman we’re going to have on later, before we even introduce him and who he is, back to Iwo Jima. Now, folks may be familiar with Clint Eastwood did that movie on Flags of Our Fathers and then they accompany movie that was from the Japanese point of view. That book, I remember reading that book 20 years ago and just being blown away. It was about the guys that raised the flag on Iwo Jima became the most famous photo in history.

But man, I did not know until I read that book, how awful this battle was, and how long it went and how horrific it was from the standpoint of the trenches that the Japanese were in and guys getting pulled into those. I mean, it was horrific. And then come to find out my wife’s grandfather, that’s where he fought. He fought on a lot of the Pacific Islands. And that’s what he got a Purple Heart there. That’s where he lost an eye, was there at Iwo Jima. So, this one’s a little bit personal for me today.

But let’s educate folks a little bit more about what that was like. We often think of storming the beaches. You know, a lot of people have seen Band of Brothers or they’ve seen maybe Saving Private Ryan, all of that is European Theater. And so, the Pacific theater and Iwo Jima, different in several ways. But I mean, one that is hard to imagine is the black sand rather than the white sand. And then secondly, how much they bombarded that beach before they landed and yet it didn’t get the Japanese out of their trenches because they had this thing called pillboxes.

Tim:

Well, yeah, and Rick, this is something too that I think that the movie Hacksaw Ridge, right, highlighting the story of Desmond Doss. It gives a little perspective, because it does show that, right, for the Desmond Doss scenario, when they were trying to take that top portion above that cliff, and they’re bombing and they’re bombing it, but the Japanese had gone down in these tunnels. And actually, it shows the pillboxes were the fully concrete enclaves where they would be able to put the muzzles of guns out, and they were fully protected.

And actually, in some of these pillboxes, they were even bomb proof, because they were so thick, the American bombs were unable to penetrate them and get through them. And so from these pillboxes, and again, that’s what these concrete kind of enclaves were called, from these pillboxes, the Japanese were able to sit back there and just do incredible amounts of damage. And then when bombings did start, they could just kind of go down underground in these tunnels.

And so Hacksaw Ridge does give a little perspective of something along those lines. What’s significant is the individual we’re going to talk to, he is the last surviving Medal of Honor winner from World War II. But he’s one of the guys who, not singlehandedly, because when you’re in the middle of a lot of firefights, there’s a lot of other guys shooting and things happening, but he’s the guy who was at the very forefront of this; his guys are laying down cover fire.

He’s one of the guys going up, and he is credited with clearing multiple of these pillboxes. Again, and nearly by himself, not totally, because obviously, there’s a lot of guys helping off recover fire along the way. But this is a very different kind of warfare. It’s a very different style, certainly than European Theater. And the Japanese were very tough and brutal. But this is a pretty amazing story.

David:

Yeah. And Tim, even what you’re saying about pillboxes, and so they’re really immune from not only bombs overhead, but from artillery, from direct hits. And so you generally have a two man crew inside these pillboxes, two man crew on a 50 caliber machine gun. They could stick the barrel that machine gun out, it was just a narrow slit. They could look through the slit. It was really, really tough to get any kind of ammunition of bullets going into that slit because it’s so small and narrow. And they place those pillboxes overlooking slopes where that you had to come up the hill toward them. To get to that pillbox, you had to go right into the heart of the fire.

And so for Woody Herschel, I mean, he is credited with clearing seven pillboxes with a flame thrower. And so as narrow as those slits were with that 50 caliber out of it, I mean, a 50 caliber can shoot for hundreds of yards. And so if you’re downhill from this thing, and you’re an American with a M1 Garand you’re trying to shoot uphill into that little slit, it is a hard target to hit.

Now, if you could get enough cover, sometimes there were accounts of guys who could make it up close enough or come up from behind, and reach over and flip a hand grenade into that little slit and blow up the guys inside. But it was just really hard to get there coming up the hill against that fire, very hard to even hit the target from as far away as we had to shoot at them. They were so tough, and the Germans use them over on the Atlantic side and Patent had the same difficulty over there. It was just almost impossible to dislodge these guys. And yet that’s what Woody Herschel did.

Rick:

And you know, Tim, you mentioned Medal of Honor recipient, and let’s not gloss over how rare that was. 16.5 million served in World War II, only 472 received the Medal of Honor. So I mean, this is the elite of the elite, and he’s the last surviving recipient of the Medal of Honor. We are honored to have him on our program. Stay with us, we’ll be right back with Hershel Woody Williams here on WallBuilders Live.

WORLD WAR II VETERANS

Hey, friends, if you’ve been listening to WallBuilders Live for very long at all, you know how much we respect our veterans and how appreciative we are of the sacrifice they make to make our freedoms possible. One of the ways that we love to honor those veterans is to tell their stories here on WallBuilders Live. Once in a while we get an opportunity to interview veterans that have served on those front lines that have made incredible sacrifices, have amazing stories that we want to share with the American people.

One of the very special things we get to do is interview World War II veterans. You’ve heard those interviews here on WallBuilders Live from folks that were in the Band of Brothers to folks like Edgar Harrell that survived being Indianapolis, there’s so many other great stories you’ve heard on WallBuilders Live. You have friends and family that also serve.

If you have World War II veterans in your family that you would like to have their story shared here on WallBuilders Live, please email us at radio@wallbuilders.com, radio@wallbuilders.com. Give us a brief summary of the story and we’ll set up an interview. Thanks so much for sharing here on WallBuilders Live.

Rick:

Welcome back to WallBuilders Live. Thanks so much for joining us today. I am so excited about today’s interview. In fact, I’ve wanted to do this one for several years, and it worked out. Hershel Woody Williams is with us, last surviving recipient of the Medal of Honor from World War II. Mr. Williams, it is an honor, sir, thank you so much for joining us today.

Hershel:

It is my pleasure. Thank you.

Well, I got to start at the beginning, at least the beginning for you. Is it true you were 3.5 pounds when you were born?

Hershel:

That is true. And there were 11 hours in the family, and none of us ever had a doctor. So I didn’t even have a birth certificate.

Rick:

No kidding. And this was in West Virginia. Correct?

Hershel:

Correct. Yeah.

Rick:

Quiet Dell, is that the Quiet Dell, West Virginia?

Hershel:

Yeah. Now, there’s two Quiet Dells in West Virginia. One is in one county, another in another. And I’m from the one in Marion County, West Virginia.

Rick:

Marion County. Alright. Well, we’re glad to have you. And you’re in your home today in West Virginia?

Hershel:

That is true.

Rick:

Alright. Let’s start with the military and then we’ll get to what happened after that and how you ended up back in West Virginia. I understand you tried to enlist in 1942 with the Marines, and they said no initially?

Hershel:

That is true. When Pearl Harbor happened on December the 7th, I was in what was known as the Civilian Conservation Corps. President Roosevelt started that in the mid-30s, and anybody, any boy over 16 years of age could go into the Civilian Conservation Corps. And they had camps all over in every state. In fact, West Virginia had 29 of those camps. And the purpose was to give the youth something to do and to earn little money, because there were no jobs. You know, there was just nothing, you couldn’t go anywhere to get a job.

So they came up with that idea of taking them in there, and they would at least learn something about working. Many of them did all kinds of construction work, building buildings, building parks. And when Pearl Harbor was bombed, I was in the state of Montana at a little town called Whitehall, Montana. And our job there, we had about 265 young boys in there, I thought the oldest was 24.

And our job was to cut posts, hang posts up in the Rockies, and make from those posts what they called a Jack fence, the ACK. Why? I don’t know, build a jack fence around government property so that the people who were leasing government reservations scout people and ship people, they would keep their animals [inaudible 12:00] separated. And we did that, I’d been there for almost a year when Pearl Harbor was bombed. And when they called us out the next day, and told us that America was going to war, I had never heard of Pearl Harbor, and not others have ever knew anything about what was taking place in the world really with Japan, and the other islands in the Pacific.

So if you were over 18 years of age at that point, these camps were run by army personnel. We had a commanding officer and a first sergeant, combat sergeant, and all those. You can go directly in the army from the CCC. But I was only 17, I couldn’t go unless my mother would agree. My father died when I was 11. So I knew she wasn’t going to approve. So I came home with the idea of joining the Marine Corps to protect my country, not to fight a war. I didn’t know anything about war. And I didn’t know that I would even leave the United States at that point in time. And all I was doing was joining up to protect my country and my freedom.

Rick:

Yeah. And why the Marines? What made you want to go Marines?

Hershel:

Well, I had two brothers that were drafted in early 1942 under a program that the military started of having one year service, that was their plan. They would take people in for a year, teach them something about military and then discharge them and have them as kind of a reserve group in the event war would occur. But war did occur, so they never got out. They kept them. And I had two brothers that went with that ugly army uniform, and I didn’t want to be on that, so I joined the Marine Corps who had a better looking uniform.

Rick:

So, you won that contest huh?

Hershel:

Yeah.

Rick:

Well, so you joined and got in in 42, or 43?

Hershel:

Actually, I didn’t go into 43. I tried to, it went as 42 in November, right after my 18th birthday. My mother would not sign my papers to let me go when I was 17. So I had to wait till I was 18. And I tried to go in in November, but the recruiter turned me down because at that time, the Marine Corps had a high school requirement of 5’8 or better, and I was already 5’6.

Rick:

Oh, wow.

Hershel:

So they turned me down because I was too short.

Rick:

They almost missed out on one of their best warriors for two inches.

Hershel:

Well, they turned a lot of the guys down because there were not a lot of people real tall back to my days. I don’t know why. But anyway, we had a lot of octagonal boys in our community, because their fathers and grandfathers had come there to work in the coal mines, and they were turned down also, because most of them were under 5’8. So then in early 43, we were already getting casualties from Europe and the Pacific, because war now had been known for a few months. And they took the height requirement down so that they can accept people that didn’t meet that height requirement.

And the recruiter looked me up and asked me if I still wanted to go, and I said, yes. And he said well, I can take you now. So I enlisted in January of 43. But I didn’t get to go until May of 43, because so many people were going into the Marine Corps, they just didn’t have enough drill instructors and housing and that sort of thing to take care of. So they had a waiting period. And I waited almost three months, well, is almost five months to get in.

And even when I got to California, I wasn’t supposed to go to California, I was supposed to go to Parris Island, South Carolina. But they had so many people coming in there, they couldn’t handle them, so they begin shipping us out to California. And even when I got out there, they didn’t have any shoes for us. We had to wear our own shoes in bootcamp, because they were coming in so fast: they just couldn’t produce enough.

Rick:

Just couldn’t keep up. Yeah.

Hershel:

Yeah.

 Rick:

So you got there in San Diego, I guess in August of 43, and what made you decide that you wanted to end up with a flame thrower?

Hershel:

Well, it was actually in January of 44, I shipped overseas in August, then finally ended up on Guadalcanal in December 43. And in January of 44, we got these great big wooden crates come in to the company and you couldn’t tell what were in them. And we didn’t have any idea why we were getting them. Of course, the command did, but troops didn’t. So when we broke them open, there was a piece of equipment that neither of us had ever seen before. It was a flame thrower. And there were no instructions of how to use it in combat. There were manual with it that showed how to take it apart, put it together, and how much it weighed and how much fuel it held and all that stuff. But so far is how you use the thing to fight a war, there were no manual.

Rick:

No manual and nobody there to train you on it.

Hershel:

That’s right.

Rick:

Oh, wow.

Hershel:

None of us had ever seen one.

Rick:

You had to figure it out on your own?

Hershel:

We had to work it out ourselves…

Rick:

Wow. That’s a pretty, let’s just say, interesting toy to be figuring out on your own.

Hershel:

Well, we made several mistakes. You learn by your mistakes.

Rick:

Those could be big mistakes like oops, we burned down the barracks. We don’t want to do that again.

Hershel:

Well, we lived in camps over there. We did have a barracks.

Rick:

Oh, wow. So hopefully, you didn’t burn out too many tents then.

Hershel:

We take it out into the field. You know, there wasn’t anything around.

Rick:

Yeah.

Hershel:

So, that’s how we learned to use it.

Rick:

And that was on Guadalcanal where you were doing that?

Hershel:

Yeah. Yeah.

Rick:

If I’m picturing the regiment, how many guys would be doing what you’re doing with a flame thrower out of that whole regiment?

Hershel:

Well, we started with the company. We had a regiment, 21st Regiment, and a regiment had three companies. Ours was A, B, and C companies. And each company had to form their own special weapons unit. And there were seven of us selected. We didn’t volunteer. They just said you and you. And seven of us were selected to be in this facial weapon unit to learn how to be a flame thrower operator, and at the same time, train on demolition.

None of us knew anything about demolition. I just knew there was dynamite, but I didn’t know anything about it. But we had to learn to be a demolition person as well as a frame thrower operator. Because if you burned out a cave or put flame in a cave, or in a pillbox, the next objective was to put in an explosive in there to make sure that whoever was in there is not coming out.

Rick:

Then this would become absolutely critical at Iwo Jima?

Hershel:

That’s right, it was. So we had a Gunnery Sergeant who was in charge of our unit. He was a, what we call back in those days, a china marine. He’d been in Peking and several places in China during the Depression years. He went into the Marine Corps in 1934. And he had been in China, and consequently, they got the name of China Marine. And he was the one who was in charge of our unit, and really was the person who trained us.

Rick:

And so did he know most of those special weapons as you call them?

Hershel:

Yes.

Rick:

Now, did you see fighting that Guadalcanal or not until you got to Iwo? No, you weren’t Guam first, I think?

Hershel:

No, Guadalcanal was taken in December 42 and January 43, actually, it lasted until the end of January, sometime in February 43. And I didn’t get over there until December 43.

Rick:

Got you. Okay. And so then your first action was at Guam or at Iwo Jima?

Hershel:

Guam.

Rick:

Let’s see. So you were third Marine Division? My wife’s grandfather was Fourth Division. He was taken out of at Iwo, lost an eye there. But he had been in many of those Pacific Islands as well. But you wouldn’t have known him, I guess, because you all were in different divisions, that would have put you in totally different areas probably?

Hershel:

Yeah. Was on course, there were about $20,000 in each division.

Rick:

Yeah. Wow. And I mean, Guam was bad, but nothing compared to Iwo. Iwo was the toughest I understand of all of the islands that you guys had to fight?

Hershel:

Yeah, it was, because they were so much better prepared. They had built up, according to the stuff that I’ve read, about 200 pillbox is on Iwo Jima. And most of them were made out of reinforced concrete with what we call rebar today, which is called it an iron rod back in those days. But most of it was supported with iron rod in it. So artillery and that sort of thing really couldn’t penetrate them, but they were too well built. And so flame thrower was about the only way that you could get into the pillbox, will get something into the pillbox that would annihilate the enemy. And that flame thrower became so very popular on Iwo Jima.

Rick:

And that pillbox, for us to kind of envision that or picture that, I mean, you basically just see a small opening that they’re shooting out of at our guys on the ground?

Hershel:

That’s right. Yeah, we had no protection and they had total protection, if you would.

Rick:

And this is on the same day, and a lot of our listeners, their only familiarity with Iwo would be the famous picture of the flag being raised there at Mount Suribachi? And this was on that same day, your actions for which you received the Medal of Honor was on that initial day of battle?

Hershel:

That is true. I didn’t see either flag go up. The first one was put up before we got there. And then on the 23rd, they replaced the small flag, it was about a 3 × 5 with a 4 × 6 flag, and I didn’t see it go up. But I saw it just immediately after they got us to the top of the pole.

Rick:

After all of that fighting, what was it like to see the American flag on Suribachi?

Hershel:

It we want to remote spiritual lifting things I think could have happened, absolutely. And you can see it from almost any place on the island. Mount Suribachi about 585 feet tall. At that point in time, the Fourth Division was pinned to the beach for about three days, and they couldn’t even move. We tried to go in on the second day as support group, and they was not even enough ground, they hadn’t been able to take enough ground to let us get in. We had to go back and spend another night on the ship. Next day, actually on the 22nd of February, they finally broke through and, and gathered some ground for us to come in.

Rick:

Wow. And that was, if I remember, right, it was something like 20,000 or 21,000 Japanese soldiers on the island, by the time it was over, only 200 left? I forget the number of American lives that we lost on Iwo. Do you remember that number?

Hershel:

Yeah, it was 6,120. We had 22,000 wounded.

Rick:

Wow. Wow. I mean, that was an inch by inch battle. It really was. And that was, remind us even the sand that was black sand, how different was even trying to move on that island?

Hershel:

Well, it was very difficult because there was no coverage. About the only thing you find to hide behind, or get in to were shell craters or rocks.

Rick:

Alright, friends, we are out of time for today. That’s Hershel Woody Williams that you’re listening to. He is the last surviving Medal of Honor recipient from World War II. Just an incredible, incredible story, and we’re going to get the second half of the story tomorrow. So don’t miss it. Thanks for listening to WallBuilders Live.