Jackson Newspapers - Ripley, WV
  • Hershel 'Woody' Williams: An American hero without a cape

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  • RIPLEY - Every American kid has picked up a comic book at some point in their life. Whether it's the imperious use of vivid colors in the illustrations that draw you in or the story of other worldly feats by caped crusaders that captures your young imagination - Everyone wants to be Superman for a day.
    Hershel "Woody" Williams was honored by The Cpl. Walter L. Mann Detachment of the Marine Corps League last Thursday at the American Legion Building in Ripley.
    Williams, 89 is the only living West Virginia Congressional Medal of Honor recipient. He received his Medal of Honor for combat action on Iwo Jima during World War II.
    A mere month away from his 90th birthday, Williams is sharp, alert, intelligent and incredibly charming. His sense of humor is keen and quick.
    "I am incredibly thankful for my health. I think it is the most valuable thing we can possess. There is no secret behind it. I worked awfully hard as a young man and I think that has something to do with it," said Williams.
    "Woody" was born on October 2, 1923 in Marion County. He learned to call Quiet Dell his home, a small town between Grafton and Fairmont.
    "It was a tight knit farming community in those days," said Williams. "We were dairy people. We milked cows and sold milk to people in Fairmont. Every day we would take milk, eggs and butter to Fairmont."
    Williams joined the Marine Corps in May 1943 at the tender age of 19.
    "I can remember all the boys wanting to join and help with the war effort," he said.
    With boot camp looming, Williams assumed he would be sent to Parris Island, South Carolina.
    "Parris Island boot camp couldn't handle all of the men, there were so many signing up. They sent a group of us to San Diego, California."
    Flamethrowers came into play during World War II. They were designed to flush the Japanese out of caves and holes in the ground that they were known to prefer for protection. Williams became a Flamethrower Demolition Specialist and was to put that training to the test when he stepped foot on Iwo Jima.
    In those days, bunkers were referred to as "pillboxes." The Japanese erected the concrete structures covered in sand and they were extremely hard to penetrate.
    The flamethrower was the perfect weapon for that task. It could penetrate through the aperture in the front of the structures. A flamethrower weighed about 75 pounds and was strapped to Williams' back. The soldier weighed only 150 pounds at that time. To carry something half your weight could become cumbersome at times to navigate. They could last for 72 seconds of continuous use before reloading.
    Williams was able to knock out seven of those structures in a four-hour period. He is quick to cite that there were Marines covering him during that time and two of them were killed in the process.
    Page 2 of 2 - "Any time that I wear the Medal of Honor, I say that it belongs to them. I am simply its caretaker,"
    After the war Williams returned on a plane to San Francisco that had one available seat because a prisoner of war who had been rescued had died. Williams claims that it is a very emotional memory for him to this day.
    He took a train back to West Virginia from California. It was when he touched down in San Francisco that he learned why he had returned to the states. It was to receive his Congressional Medal of Honor. Williams was honored on October 5, 1945 by the then President Harry S. Truman.
    He also received a Purple Heart for his wounds received on Iwo Jima.
    In 1946, Williams took a job with the United States Veterans Administration, which is now referred to as the Department of Veterans Affairs where he served for 33 years.
    The veteran has been honored in many ways over the years. The West Virginia National Guard named an armory after him, an athletic field near the now demolished Veterans Memorial Fieldhouse in Huntington carries his name and a bridge in Barboursville was tagged "Woody Williams Bridge" by former Governor Jay Rockefeller.
    When asked what he would have done with his life if he had not joined the Marines in 1943, Williams did not hesitate.
    "I would have been a farmer. It's in my blood I suppose. I look back on it all and I was such a young man when I joined the Marines. I had hardly been out of the county much less the country."
    Hershel Williams is living proof that not all super men wear capes.
    You can visit the Hershel "Woody" Williams Medal of Honor Foundation at www.hwwmohfoundation.org
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