‘Rest In Peace, Sir’: Hershel ‘Woody’ Williams, The Last WWII Medal of Honor Recipient, Dies At 98

Hershel W. “Woody” Williams, who was the last living World War II Medal of Honor recipient, passed away on Wednesday — just a few months short of what would have been his 99th birthday.

Williams was born on October 2, 1923, on a West Virginia dairy farm. When World War II began, he served his community by delivering Western Union telegrams — often informing families that their loved ones had been reported missing or killed in action.

He continued that service by enlisting in the United States Marine Corps, and he served in the Battle of Iwo Jima with the 21st Marines, 3d Marine Division — where his “valiant devotion to duty” prompted then-President Harry S. Truman to award him the Congressional Medal of Honor on October 5, 1945.

An honor of a lifetime to meet WWII hero and Medal of Honor recipient Hershel “Woody” Williams at the groundbreaking of the ⁦@MohMuseum⁩ in March. His foundation confirms he passed away this morning at the age of 98. Rest In Peace, sir. 🇺🇸 pic.twitter.com/f10YXBEwPX

— Jake Tapper (@jaketapper) June 29, 2022

The United States Department of Defense shared some of the details of Williams’ exploits on Iwo Jima in an article published in November of 2021.

According to that report, Williams’ unit landed on the island two days after the battle had begun — but the steep volcanic-sand beaches had made it difficult for the American troops to gain any ground. The Japanese pillboxes — bunkers — that dotted the island also complicated progress because even bazooka fire couldn’t penetrate their thick walls. Flamethrowers were the only remaining option — but those required proximity to the enemy, and a number of the demolitions sergeants were picked off by the Japanese soldiers in the pillboxes before they could get close enough. By February 23, 1945, Williams was the only one left.

He volunteered to continue the mission himself, with four riflemen providing as much cover fire as they could. And in just four hours, Williams was able to take out seven pillboxes.

“That made a hole big enough that [the company] could go through and get behind any other pillboxes that were in that area,” Williams explained. “Once you got behind the pillboxes, then we had the advantage.”

Williams’ actions that day earned him the Medal of Honor — alongside ten other Marines and two sailors who were also honored for their service — but even then he said that the honor truly belonged to the men who had died protecting him while he completed the mission.

“This medal doesn’t belong to me. It belongs to them because they gave their lives for me. I was just doing a job that I was trained to do,” he said.

Asked on multiple occasions where he’d found the courage to get through that day, Williams said he’d never really been able to pin down the answer.

“Everybody has some instinct of bravery. And, as long as they can control the fear, you can be brave. But if fear overtakes you and becomes the dominant instinct, you cannot operate. You cannot operate under fear. Your brain won’t let you,” he said. “I feel that our upbringing had some influence on our bravery because we were taught in the depression years, if you didn’t have it, you had to make it. And the only way you could make it was to work at it. Our upbringing gave us the confidence that developed into bravery.”

In the years after the war, Williams returned to serving Gold Star families — creating the Woody Williams Foundation in an effort to make sure those families are recognized.

“To date, Woody and his foundation are responsible for establishing 103 Gold Star Families Memorial Monuments across the United States with more than 72 additional monuments underway in 50 states and 1 U.S. Territory. The Foundation continues to grow its reach by being involved in multiple initiatives across the country,” the website states.

“If we lose our freedom we lose America,” Williams said, adding that freedom and America were always worth fighting for.

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