The Story of Hershel “Woody” Williams – Medal of Honor Recipient, Part 2: Today we continue interviewing our special guest, the only living Medal of Honor recipient from World War II. In a generation of snowflakes, it’s important that we take time to contemplate the kind of grit, bravery, and character that purchased our precious freedoms AND pass on those stories to the next generation! Tune in to hear the conclusion of our interview wit hveteran Hershel ‘Woody’ Williams and hear what got him through his darkest days…and what keeps him so alive today!
Air Date: 8/10/2021
Guest: Hershel “Woody” Williams
On-air Personalities: David Barton, Rick Green, and Tim Barton
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Transcription note: Â 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.
Faith and the Culture
Welcome to WallBuilders Live, the intersection of faith and the culture. I’m going to skip our normal intro because we have such a cool program today. We’re just going to dive right back in and pick up where we left off yesterday with Hershel Woody Williams, last surviving Medal of Honor recipient from World War II, amazing story. If you missed yesterday, it’s available at our website wallbuilderslive.com right now. Let’s jump back in with Hershel Woody Williams.
…Well, there was no shrubbery. They had bombed that thing for days and days and days before we got there. If they hadn’t the tunnels, and here again, depends on who’s writing the story, I guess, but I read where the tunnels that they had carved out in that volcano was something like 16 miles or 19 miles, depending on whose story you’re reading. But it was miles of tunnel that they had dug out, and they could go in there at night and during the day, where they had protection and we had none.
They could get from pillbox to pillbox through those tunnels as well.
That’s right. Exactly. Yeah.
Flamethrowers and Pillboxes
So you guys are trying to move on the island. And as you’re moving inch by inch and digging in these pillboxes, they’re totally protected by concrete, literally, with these little holes, they’re able to fire you guys at will? And so it’s critical to take out the pillboxes and this is the action for which you received the Medal of Honor because you took your flamethrower and managed to get up to these pillbox.
I cannot imagine what was going through your mind as you’re somehow reaching that pillbox. I understand there were four riflemen trying to cover you as you go up and literally stick your flamethrower into the pillbox in order to take those guys out and stop the firing from the pillbox. Is that correct?
And you ended up taking out several of these?
Yeah. And you know, much of that day, I don’t remember. And I’ve talked to specialists about it, but they don’t have an answer either. But it was about a four hour period of time that I was able to eliminate the enemy within seven of those pillboxes.
Yeah. And I used up six flamethrowers that had 4.5gallons of fuel in it, high octane gasoline and diesel fuel. If you just opened it up and fired it, they were last 72 seconds. But we were trying not to do that.
That’d be a waste of fuel and waste of everything else. So we’d use it in short bursts, like three seconds or four second bursts and only shoot it when you really add a target to shoot at. So I used up six of those flamethrowers that day.
But that’s one of the things that I can’t recall that’s bothering me all my life and still does. How did I get the extra frame throwers? I knew I can remember putting on the first one and taking off toward the pillboxes.
That I remember very well. But the others, how I got them, they were back in our supply unit in our company, so how I got them, I don’t know. I’ve jokingly said I don’t think any marine said hey, just wait out there I’ll bring you one. I don’t think that ever happened.
It’s absolutely miraculous. And even the fact that for four hours, you were able to do this, and I mean, had to have gone back to get the other flamethrower, so you’re crossing that enemy fire constantly, and not taken out until five weeks long later, right? I mean, you fought for another, what, 4.5 weeks before you were finally injured on the sixth of March?
Yeah, I was there 34-36 days.
I was [inaudible 04:31], and the corpsman who treated me, I picked up a piece of shrapnel in my left leg and he came in to me and put a pressure bandage on me so I wouldn’t bleed and told me I had to be evacuated, and I refused, wasn’t very smart you know that piece little bit about how smart I was, I have refused, and kept on going. And my reason for that I am convinced that on the 5th of March, we got a brand new group of Marines that have never been in combat.
Most of them had never had any experience with some of the weapons we were using and particularly the flamethrower, and heavy machine gun. So we spent most of the night of the 5th giving them some idea of what they’re going to expect the next day when we go into battle. And those guys I had some in my squad, and I just felt I couldn’t abandon those guys. I had to stay, so I did.
Wow. That’s unbelievable. I mean, that’s just incredible. I can’t imagine after that many days of hell on earth and some of the worst fighting in probably our nation’s history to be able to stay and continue to fight, you know, courage is an understatement, to say the least.
The Japanese had a totally different philosophy than ours as we know. For Americans, we would do almost anything we could to save a life. Others actually sacrifice their lives to protect other lives.
You know, we’d happy we’ll jump on grenades, and all kinds of things of that nature to protect their marine buddies. And for the Japanese to die in combat was an honor. They would receive some sort of reward if they did that.
And if they surrendered, it was like Benedict Arnold, they were traitor to their country. So they just wouldn’t give up if they had any way of continuing. And if they got in a position where they had no choice, they knew they were going to be captured, if they could find some way to commit Hara-Kari, they call them, they would kill themselves because they’re killing themselves in combat, which meant that they receive this reward, whatever it was.
Yeah. Yeah. Very different mindset and probably impossible for you to communicate that to those new guys that had just shown up? I mean, you knew from the previous five weeks the hell they were about to face and you wanted to stay there and help them through that because you couldn’t even explain to them just how insane it was about to get.
Yeah, you’re right.
Incredible. So then you were there for the rest of it. And what happened after Iwo Jima for you?
Oh, wait, all of our units we were living on Guam. After we took Guam, we had to build our own camp. We had to clear the jungle and build a camp, put up tents and buildings and dig holes and all that sort of thing.
So we were there from actually, we secured Guam on August camp, and we built the camp there during the rest of that year. And then February, early February, they told us that we were going to ship out. They didn’t say where to or where we were going or anything about Iwo Jima, but that we were going to be shipped out in February.
So we shipped out about the 12th or 13th of February to go to Iwo Jima. And after we got aboard ship, then they told us who we were going to go, and that we were a reserve division to the 4th and 5th division who are going to hit the island first. And we probably would not be used because they didn’t know how many Japanese were on that island.
They didn’t think that number of people would ever be needed. So we were sitting out in the ocean when they hit the island waiting to see if they were going to need us.
There was some expectation that the campaign would last three to five days because that was a small island compared to Guam. I mean is only 2.5 miles wide and 5 miles long, and that’s a very small piece around compared to Guam, which was anchored… many, many miles from one coastline to the other.
But after the first day and the number of injuries and wounded and killed that they had, after the first day, somebody decided we are going to have more replacements. That’s why we were called in.
That’s when they sent you in. Did you ever joke with your marine buddies from the 4th and 5th that, hey, we’re here to finally bail you guys out?
No, I’ve joke with them and said, if you hadn’t laid around on the beach in some place we wouldn’t have had to go.
Oh, man. Oh, wow. Wow, just amazing. Okay, so you get done at Iwo Jima, now when did you get back home? Or did you see more battles after Iwo Jima?
So, we came back to Guam, occupied the same tents that we left, because all of our gear was still on Guam. Then we stayed on Guam. And when we got back, our training completely changed.
Previous to that, we had been trained only in a jungle warfare. How do you fight in the jungle, and how do you penetrate a jungle, and all that sort of thing?
But when we came back from Iwo, the pioneers, we call them, they were sort of engineers. They had built some forefront of buildings and made some things that look like a street and they began training us how to street fight, because now we’re going to a city. We don’t know where.
They didn’t tell us that. I learned later as the rest of us did that we were going to Kyushu. And that was our assignment that on November the 5th, our division was to Kyushu and go to Kyushu and take one part of Kyushu.
Of course, the war ended in September, so actually, we didn’t go. But we didn’t know where we’re going to go. We just knew that we were going to have to fight a different kind of a war than we had been fighting.
A Visit to the General
Yeah. As soon as the war ended, did you get to go home or did you have to stay?
In September, early September, I got to notice, my first sergeant, then I run down to the camp and told me to come to his office. And I went to his office, and he said, we only had one set of uniform that we could wear for inspections, we call them khakis.
He said, go get your khakis ironed out, you’re going to go see the General. I’m a corporal, what am I going to see the General for?
Oh, that’s exactly right. I’m scared to death. I didn’t think I’d ever done anything that would get me in trouble to where I had to be counseled by the General.
But he said, I don’t know. They just called and told me have you to get ready, and they’re going to come and get you and take you to the General’s camp. I had never even been in that part of Gaum. I didn’t even know where the General camp was.
So I ironed up my khakis and went back to the first sergeant and they put me in a jeep, and took me to the General’s camp.
And when I got there, he told me that I was being ordered back to the state, and that I was to go to the White House on October the 3rd. I was to report there. I report the Marine Corps headquarters in Washington, and then I would be at the White House on October the 3rd.
I don’t know whether he knew any more than that or not. But that’s basically all he told me.
The Medal of Honor
So he didn’t tell you, you were going to receive the Medal of Honor, he just told you, you’re being shipped back to the states and you’re…?
No, he may have, you know, I was scared to death, petrified, but I had never heard of the Medal of Honor. I didn’t even know such a thing existed. So if he had said something to me that you’re being ordered back to get the Medal of Honor, it would not have meant a thing and you don’t question a General. You know, you don’t say, well, what do you mean? Well, you don’t do that with a General, or at least I didn’t.
And so, I had no idea why I was being shipped back to the state. The important thing was I was getting to come home, whatever purpose may have been, that’s okay. But never having heard of the Medal of Honor, I just had no concept of what was taking place. And nobody had ever talked to me about it.
I didn’t even know I’ve been recommended for. Under that information was ever given to me, I’ve made the comparison since computers came into the world, and we get all these new words of none of us have ever heard before, like gigabyte, and I still don’t understand it. But…
But Medal of Honor would have been one of those words?
That’s right, exactly.
So did you get to tell your mom and your siblings that you were coming home or did they not even know until you got home?
They didn’t know until I got home.
Did they get to come to the White House with you, any of them?
Dealing with the Trauma
Yeah, my mother did and my future wife did. I was engaged to this young lady all the time I was in the Marine Corps, but we had not married. This was on, of course, October the 5th.
I just reached my 18th birthday on October the 2nd. So I fed my mother and my girlfriend, we had never heard the word fiancé back in those days, didn’t know what that meant either. But they got to go with me.
That’s great. So that was a group of I think about 13 of you, 14 of you that received it that day?
Yeah, there are 13 Marine Gen corpsman.
And you after the war, if I understand right, you had a pretty hard time for a while, but something changed for you many years later?
Yeah, it did. Oh, I like so many other people who had the flashbacks and bad dreams and that kind of thing. But one of the things that happened to me that was the best thing that could have happened, I think, was when I received the Medal of Honor, my whole life changed:
I became a different person than I had ever been or ever dreamed to be. I became a public figure. And I had no choice, but to be required to talk about how did you earn the Medal of Honor? What did you do to get this medal?
So I had to talk about that. I had to share those things that were pinned up in me. And that was I think one of the best therapies I could have had. It was. But I fought still with demons, they continue to subside some. But I fought until 1962, and then the Lord came into my life, and I took on another different person. I became a Christian and began teaching Sunday school and preaching in churches and stuff that I had never dreamed I would ever do.
Becoming a Counselor
Wow. And you became the chaplain of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society. Well, I love the story of you come into the Lord and how that changed your life, and you were able to ministered to other people. Did that also translate into other veterans as well, because of your experience with the Lord being able to minister them when they were struggling with some of the same things that you had?
Absolutely, yes. Very, very fortunately, I hope and pray that I’ve had some influence on some of the individuals that I’ve dealt with. As a veteran counselor, I’ve talked to a tremendous number of people in 33 years, and many of them had the same kinds of problems I did, and I shared with them my experience. And I hope that had some influence on their life and they finally found the Lord as I did, because it gave me a piece that I’d never had before.
Amen. How young are you today?
I will be 98 in about two months.
- And I am amazed at your travel schedule. I thought I had a busy travel schedule. You’re all over the country sharing your story, and sharing the importance of defending our American way of life. It’s amazing that you’re still doing that at 97, about to be 98
Yes, I’m very, very fortunate. My health is good and I’m still able to negotiate. And my brain works reasonably well. So like everybody else I have, sometimes I can’t remember things I want to remember, but that goes with time and age.
Well, I’m 50 and I have that challenge. I do have to ask you. Last thing I want to ask you is why, why still go out there and travel and share with audiences, what motivates you at this point?
Honoring the Sacrifice of Families
Well, dealing with the survivors, being a veterans counselor over the years, before the military really got involved in the lives of the families, you know, previously, after they were notified of the official death, the military severed all relationships with the survivors: they didn’t do a thing. And having had so much experience of dealing with those survivors, I had a great compassion for those who had lost loved ones.
And for whatever reason, and I have no explanation, America has never actually honored and paid tribute and give proper recognition to the families that suffered more than any of us. They gave one of their own for our freedom and for America and we have never recognized that to any degree until we started this program of getting Gold Star family and Memorial Monuments in the country.
Now we’re in 86 communities in the country. And we’ve got 74 more in the process. And those communities may never recognize Gold Star families at all, and they didn’t even know each other, had no relationship with each other, had no organization to wish they could come together and share their grief and your stories and gain new friendships and all of that.
That’s never happened before in America. So that’s my course. My theme is, “The course is greater than I.”
Amen. And well, the good book does say render honor unto who honor is due. And it’s part of why we want to honor men like you. But I think what you’re saying is so true.
The families of those who fought, and we’ve gotten pretty good at honoring those who fought and died for our freedom. But you’re right, we don’t honor the families enough that make those big sacrifices.
Right. Well, we’ve done very well on recognizing veterans. We’ve got veterans’ memorials and monuments in every city, practically. But We never did do anything for the families.
A National Treasure
Well, that’s a beautiful cause. And I’m so glad you’re still out there. And I’m so thankful for your time today and being with us on WallBuilders Live. Thank you very much for not just your sacrifice way back then.
But the things you continue to do every day right now to help us realize how important it is to defend freedom and those that are not only on the frontlines defending that freedom, but the families back home that are sacrificing so they can be on the front lines. You are a national treasure, sir. Thank you for being with us today.
My pleasure. And thank you for having me.
Stay with us folks, we’ll be right back with David and Tim Barton:
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 [email protected], [email protected] Give us a brief summary of the story and we’ll set up an interview. Thanks so much for sharing here on WallBuilders Live.
We’re back here on WallBuilders Live. Thanks for staying with us. Back with David and Tim. And just wow, guys, two days of just an amazing interview from Hershel Woody Williams. This has been one of our coolest stories.
Yeah, it really has been and just listening to his story and what he was saying and how he doesn’t even recall all the things that he did, I just can’t emphasize enough how different it was on the Pacific side than it was on the Atlantic side. I mean, he talked about it a little bit. But the Japanese soldiers, there was no way you would get them surrender generally.
The Story Of Hershel “Woody” Williams – Medal Of Honor Recipient, Part 2
Even on the island of Iwo Jima, all the Japanese families were given a hand grenade, and if the Americans won the battle, then they were to blow themselves and their children up. I mean, this is we’re going to fight to the death; there’s no way we’re going to surrender.
He mentioned Guadalcanal, John Basilone received the Medal of Honor for action in Guadalcanal, but he and a group of about a dozen American soldiers took on 3,000 Japanese and actually killed 2,800 of the Japanese because the Japanese just wouldn’t quit coming; they wouldn’t stop. So that’s what Woody was facing, and that kind of mentality, man, what a tough way to define a warfighting.
Well, it’s interesting too as you listen to the interview, and he’s so well-spoken, and so often you do hear from guys that have a hard time telling the story. And he said, he really thinks one of the best things that happened, not just one of the Medal of Honor, but being made to tell his story over and over again, it actually helped bring healing and then obviously when he met Jesus, that helped bring healing. And so it was so neat to kind of see the summation of his life: is such an impressive story.
And certainly, guys, we talk so often about how honored we are to get to interview some of these guys, and how cool their stories are. This is definitely to, me, one of those top, maybe five top two, top one story of guys we’ve been able to talk to, really impressive guy.
Well, a big treat for us here at WallBuilders Live and for you the listener. So special, special thanks to Hershel Woody Williams for joining us. Again, if you missed yesterday, it’s available on our website right now wallbuilderslive.com, so it’s a two-part program. We sure appreciate you listening. You’ve been listening to WallBuilders Live.