Ken Beaton: Hershel ‘Woody’ Williams

People salute the casket of Hershel ‘Woody’ Williams set up in the first floor rotunda of the West Virginia State Capitol in Charleston, W.Va., on July 2, 2022.

People salute the casket of Hershel ‘Woody’ Williams set up in the first floor rotunda of the West Virginia State Capitol in Charleston, W.Va., on July 2, 2022.
Chris Dorst/Charleston Gazette-Mail via AP

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Of the 472 World War II GIs awarded the Medal of Honor, do you know the name of the only Nevadan to receive the medal? In 1908, Bruce Avery Van Voorhis was born in Aberdeen, Washington. He grew up in Fallon and graduated from Churchill County High School in 1925 and graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, in 1929.
Ensign Van Voorhis became a naval aviator. In 14 years, he received promotions up to the rank of lieutenant commander. On July 6, 1943 he volunteered and flew solo for 700 miles to Hare Island of the Kapingamarangi Atoll. He made several passes bombing and strafing Japanese ground installations and destroying enemy aircraft. It’s believed the blast of his last bomb run destroyed his aircraft.
Naval Air Station Fallon’s “Top Gun” airfield is named Van Voorhis Field. The U.S. Naval Sea Cadet Corps, “the Van Voorhis Squadron” in Las Vegas, honors the Fallon native. Commander Van Voorhis was laid to rest in the Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis County, Missouri.
Hershel “Woody” Williams, a West Virginia native, was the last remaining World War II Medal of Honor recipient. At 5 feet, 6 inches, Williams barely made the Marine Corps’ minimum height. Weighing 135 pounds he was a muscular farm boy when he enlisted in May 1943 to become a Marine.
Williams was a 21-year-old corporal in 1st Battalion, 21st Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division. He was face down on the warm black volcanic sands of Iwo Jima on Feb. 23, 1945, the fifth day of the invasion. All of a sudden ships’ horns were blaring, Marines were shouting and firing their weapons in the air, Williams looked up to see an American flag flying on top of Mount Suribachi.
What a glorious moment for the Associated Press’ combat photographer Joe Rosenthal, who snapped a number of pictures during the flag raising and sent the roll of film to AP. This was a symbolic moment, the raising of the American flag on the Japanese prefecture of Iwo Jima. Rosenthal was awarded the 1945 Pulitzer Prize for photography. He died in 2006 at 94.
That same day, March 23, 1945, the Marine Corps’ armored vehicles were bogged down, unable to penetrate the Japanese defenses. With cover fire from four Marine riflemen, Williams worked his way to less than 20 yards from a pill box as Japanese machine gun bullets kicked up black volcanic sands all around him. Williams’ flamethrower would light up the pillbox. As enemy soldiers left the pillbox in flames his fellow Marines fired a volley of rounds to drop the enemy. Williams was so generous with his flame thrower, he had to reload with diesel fuel and high-octane gasoline five times.
Williams shared about a pill box experience, “One time, the men in one pillbox came running toward me with their rifles and bayonets poised, they ran straight into the fire from the flamethrower. As if in slow motion, they just fell down.” GIs have shared with me that the smell of burning human flesh will never leave their memory banks.
Williams returned home in 1945 to marry his girl, Ruby Meredith Williams. Woody and Ruby had two daughters, Travie Jane and Tracie Jean, who provided them with grandchildren and great-grandchildren. After being married to Ruby for 62 years, she died in 2007 leaving a large hole in Woody’s life for the next 15 years.
He retired from the Marine Corps as a chief warrant officer, CWO-4, in 1969. Williams began a foundation which raises money to award scholarships to children who lost a parent in war. Those scholarship recipients graduate from college to be productive citizens in our country and the world.
Regarding Iwo Jima, Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz remarked, “Among those who served on Iwo Jima, uncommon valor was a common virtue." Williams said, “There were 27 medals awarded, but there were countless others who did as much if not more.”
If you’re a fan of John Wayne and saw all his movies in your younger days, you probably thought Wayne won the war in the Pacific single handed. Now here’s a trivia question for you, what was the total number of Marines KIA in the Pacific during World War II compared to how many members of the USAAF Eighth Air Force were KIA in the sky over Europe? Did you place your bet? The USMC had 19,733 Killed In Action during World War II. The Eighth Air Force had 26,000 KIA. (On a single mission, the “Mighty Eighth” was able to have 2,000 bombers and 1,000 fighters in flight. The formation of 2,000 B-17s and B-24s was ten miles in length.)
On July 2, as Williams’ remains were being transported to Charleston, West Virginia, hundreds of West Virginians stood on overpasses and along highways as their way to honor a member of the Greatest Generation similar to Presidents Lincoln, Roosevelt and Kennedy. Williams was only the third West Virginian to lie in state at the state Capitol, U.S. Sen. Robert Bird in 2010 and U.S. Rep. John Kenna in 1893 were the other two.
Williams’ funeral was on July 3 with public visitation from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.; 2:15 p.m. U.S. Marines Casket March, 2:45 p.m. Marine Flyover (weather permitting), 3 p.m. Doors open at the Culture Center, 4 to 5 p.m. State Memorial Service, and 5 p.m. Wreath Ceremony, taps, gun salute at Gold Star Family Monument on the state Capitol grounds.
Thank you for all your service, Woody.


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