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Hershel Williams, last Medal of Honor recipient from WWII, dies at 98

Mr. Williams, at his home in Ona, W. Va., in 2020.Rich-Joseph Facun/For The Washington Post

Hershel W. “Woody” Williams, a Marine Corps veteran of the Battle of Iwo Jima who was the last surviving Medal of Honor recipient from World War II, died Thursday at a hospital in Huntington, W.V, He was 98.

His death was announced by the Woody Williams Foundation, a nonprofit organization that serves Gold Star military families, and by the Congressional Medal of Honor Society. The cause was not immediately available.

“Today, America lost not just a valiant Marine and a Medal of Honor recipient, but an important link to our Nation’s fight against tyranny in the Second World War,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a statement. “I hope every American will pause to reflect on his service and that of an entire generation that sacrificed so much to defend the cause of freedom and democracy.”

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Mr. Williams joined fellow Marines at the Charles E. Shelton Freedom Memorial in Owensboro, Ky., in 2019. Greg Eans/Associated Press

Mr. Williams, who grew up on a West Virginia dairy farm, was a 21-year-old Marine corporal when he carried out the assault on the Japanese at Iwo Jima for which he received the nation’s highest military award for valor.

He found himself on the volcanic island in the first days of the US invasion, which began on Feb. 19, 1945.

One of the bloodiest battles in Marine Corps history, Iwo Jima is seared in American memory as the site of the flag-raising at Mount Suribachi on Feb. 23, 1945. The moment was captured in a Pulitzer Prize-winning image by Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal and commemorated in the Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington, Va.

Mr. Williams’s heroic actions occurred the same day. He witnessed the flag-raising but said he had limited memory of his own role in the battle, which took the lives of 7,000 Marines, including his best friend.

“For me, receiving the Medal of Honor was actually the lifesaver because it forced me to talk about the experiences that I had, which was a therapy that I didn’t even know I was doing,” Mr. Williams said during a 2018 Boy Scouts recognition ceremony in Fairmont, according to the Times West Virginian.

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His actions in battle to clear the way for American tanks and infantry were detailed on the military’s Medal of Honor website.

“Quick to volunteer his services when our tanks were maneuvering vainly to open a lane for the infantry through the network of reinforced concrete pillboxes, buried mines, and black volcanic sands,” the citation reads, “Cpl. Williams daringly went forward alone to attempt the reduction of devastating machine-gun fire from the unyielding positions.”

Armed with a flamethrower, and fighting for four hours under unremitting fire, he was credited with destroying a series of Japanese fortifications.

"On one occasion," according to the citation, "he daringly mounted a pillbox to insert the nozzle of his flamethrower through the air vent, killing the occupants, and silencing the gun; on another he grimly charged enemy riflemen who attempted to stop him with bayonets and destroyed them with a burst of flame from his weapon."

Mr. Williams was presented with the Medal of Honor by President Truman in October 1945, two months after the Japanese surrender that ended World War II.

“His unyielding determination and extraordinary heroism in the face of ruthless enemy resistance were directly instrumental in neutralizing one of the most fanatically defended Japanese strong points encountered by his regiment and aided vitally in enabling his company to reach its objective,” the website said.

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A copy of the Medal of Honor that Hershel "Woody" Williams received was displayed at his home. The original is in the Pritzker Military Museum and Library in Chicago. Rich-Joseph Facun/The Washington Post

Mr. Williams was born the youngest of a family of 11 on a dairy farm on Oct. 2, 1923, in the Harrison County community of Quiet Dell. Before joining the military, he served in the Civilian Conservation Corps and worked as a teenage taxi driver in Fairmont, sometimes delivering Western Union telegrams to the families of fallen soldiers.

It was that passion that later led Mr. Williams and his Louisville-based nonprofit foundation to raise money and establish more than 100 Gold Star Families Memorial Monuments in recognition of relatives of lost service members across the United States, according to his website.

Although his two older brothers were serving in the Army, Mr. Williams wanted to take a different path. He knew some Marines from his area and admired their blue uniforms whenever they returned home. But at 5-foot-6, he was rejected because of his height when he tried to join in 1942. A year later, the Marines allowed him in at age 19.

Mr. Williams said he relied on his fiancée, Ruby, to get him through the often anxious times during the war, saying he had to get back to the girl in Fairmont that he was going to marry.

Their marriage lasted 62 years. Ruby Williams died in 2007 at age 83. The couple had two daughters and five grandsons.

Mr. Williams remained in the Marines after the war, serving a total of 20 years, before working for the Veterans Administration for 33 years as a veterans service representative. He also ran a horse farm.

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In 2018, the Huntington VA medical center was renamed in his honor, and the Navy commissioned a mobile base sea vessel in his name in 2020.

Mr. Williams received a standing ovation at the end of the commissioning ceremony of the USS Hershel "Woody" Williams in Norfolk, Va., in 2020. KENNY KEMP/Associated Press

“It’s one of those things that you put in the recess of your mind,” Mr. Williams said in 2020, reflecting 75 years later on his service at Iwo Jima. “You were fulfilling an obligation that you swore to do, to defend your country. Any time you take a life … there’s always some aftermath to that if you’ve got any heart at all.”

Material from the Associated Press was used in this obituary.