America's last World War II Medal of Honor recipient, Hershel “Woody” Williams, has died at the age of 98.
"At 3:15 a.m., Hershel Woodrow Williams, affectionately known by many as Woody, went home to be with the Lord. Woody peacefully joined his beloved wife Ruby while surrounded by his family at the VA Medical Center which bears his name," Williams' family wrote in a statement.
Born on a farm in Marion County, West Virginia, Williams was a flamethrower with the Marine Corps at the Battle of Iwo Jima in 1945. His acts of service to his country were later rewarded with the Medal of Honor, presented to him by President Harry Truman.
“On February 23, 1945, five days into the battle, Williams was the only surviving Marine in his six-man demolition team, all the others having been killed or wounded," the National Medal of Honor Museum Foundation said in a statement following Williams' death. "His division faced networks of mutually supporting Japanese pillboxes, reinforced with concrete and extremely hard to eliminate. Hindered by the black volcanic sand, American tanks were unable to destroy them. Desperate to break through, Woody’s company commander asked if he could use his flamethrower to knock out some of the pillboxes. 'I’ll try,' Woody replied.
The statement went on:
Williams later stated that he could never explain how, over the following four hours, he eliminated seven pillboxes with six different flamethrowers. Covered only by four Marine riflemen, Woody braved enemy fire again and again to prepare and employ his flamethrowers and demolition charges to devastating effect. Once, he jumped onto one of the pillboxes from the side and, shoving the nozzle of his seventy-pound flamethrower into an air vent pipe, incinerated everyone inside. Another time, he charged several bayonet-wielding Japanese soldiers and killed them with one burst of flame."
For Williams, though, he was just doing his job.
“It wasn’t anything outstanding that particular day, February 23, 1945,” Williams said in an interview in 2020. “It was just another day of battle, as far as I was concerned. I was just the guy who was trained to do the flamethrower.”
But the U.S. Navy didn't see things quite that casually, eventually naming a ship after Williams later that year - one of the few ships to be named after a still-living service member.
Williams will be memorialized in two services on Saturday, July 2 and Sunday July 3 in Charleston, West Virginia.