Stories of America's Greatest Heroes

Ken Harbaugh tells the stories of service members who have distinguished themselves through an act of valor. These stories feature recipients from the Civil War to present day, including a few who were originally overlooked for the medal.

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Rerun: Hershel "Woody" Williams

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Earlier this week, Hershel Woody Williams, the last surviving WWII Medal of Honor recipient, passed away. His heroism was vital to American efforts in the Battle of Iwo Jima.

Learn more about Williams here:

Ken Harbaugh: I’m Ken Harbaugh, host of the Medal of Honor podcast, brought to you in partnership with the National MOH Museum. In each episode, we’ll learn about a service member who distinguished him or herself through an act of valor.

Today, we’re re-airing our episode about Hershel “Woody” Williams. Earlier this week, Woody, the last surviving WWII MOH recipient, passed away. His legacy endures. Here is his story.

Hershel Woodrow Williams, known to his friends as Woody, was born on a dairy farm in West Virginia.

When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, he was already serving as a member of the Civilian Conservation Corps.

He decided he wanted to join the US Marines. But at 5 foot 6, Woody was too short. In 1943, the Marines reduced the height requirement and Woody enlisted.

Two years later, now-Corporal Williams landed on Iwo Jima, an island fortress south of Japan.

Iwo Jima had three airfields that could be used as a staging area for a potential invasion of mainland Japan.

Japan’s defenses had been weakened in other Pacific theater battles, so the assault on Iwo Jima was expected to last just a few days.

After an amphibious landing that encountered relatively little resistance, American forces moved inland.

A group of tanks tried to open a path for infantry when they encountered a series of heavily fortified concrete pillboxes.

Williams was the only flamethrower and demolition expert left in his company, so his sergeant asked him to “do something” about these pillboxes.

Supported by only four riflemen providing cover fire, Williams spent four hours methodically destroying one pillbox after another. He returned to American lines to prepare demolition charges and then went back out carrying those charges and a 70-pound flamethrower.

On one such trip, he faced an enemy bayonet charge and stopped them with his flamethrower.

Williams’ heroism that day was vital in hindering the Japanese position and helping clear the way for the Americans to secure Iwo Jima over the course of a five-week battle.

Woody Williams survived Iwo Jima and went on to continue serving his country in the Department of Veteran Affairs and as the commandant of a veterans nursing home in his home state of West Virginia.

Williams also dedicated himself to honoring Gold Star families through his foundation - the Hershel Woody Williams Medal of Honor Foundation.

Though Williams survived the battle of Iwo, two of the riflemen on his cover fire team were killed. In his mind, he says, the Medal of Honor belongs to them. He wears it in their memory.

Williams is the last surviving Marine to receive the Medal of Honor during World War II.

The Medal of Honor podcast is a production of Evergreen Podcasts. We are proud to support the National Medal of Honor Museum. To learn more, and to support their mission, go to mohmuseum.org. Thanks for listening.

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