He Is Out in the Garage

By Major Van Harl, USAF Ret.

On 23 Feb 1945 photographer Joe Rosenthal was shooting the now world famous picture of the six men raising the flag atop Mt.Sribachi, on the island of Iwo Jima. On that same day another young Marine was fighting for his life on Iwo Jima.

Corporal Hershel "Woody" Williams was trained to operate a flame thrower. When a group of Japanese reinforced concrete pillboxes had to be neutralized, to put their murderous machineguns out of action, Corporal Williams rose to the challenge. A small in stature young man weighting only 150 pounds, he strapped on his seventy pound flame thrower and over the course of four hours he silenced the enemy guns.

The flame thrower is made out of two large tanks and a small one. You can not crawl on the ground with these tanks on your back, so you have to maneuver to and fight your enemy standing up in the open. Given the terror and horrible, painful destruction that a flame thrower can produce in combat, a flame thrower operator can draw the enemy fire unmercifully.

Corporal Williams had to take the fight to the enemy with no cover or concealment. The fuel in his tanks did not last long so he also had to leave the fighting, return for re-supply and then maneuver back into action. All the while standing straight up and making an excellent target for the Japanese. At one point Japanese soldiers charged him with fixed bayonets in an effort to stop Corporal Williams; he destroyed them with is burst of flame. He was also carrying heavy demolition charges to the Japanese fortifications and then under intense fire placed the charges and destroyed the enemy bunkers.

For his efforts Corporal Williams was awarded the Medal of Honor. The issue with being a Medal of Honor recipient is you don't get your medal that evening, after the combat action is over. It takes research and documentation and approval at the most senior levels of military and civilian government. So while the men around you know you are a hero, nobody pulls you off the line and takes you out of harm's way.

Of the six men who raised the flag that day three of them would never leave Iwo Jima alive. Corporal Williams continued to fight and in fact was wounded on March 6th. That wound could have killed him and his family would have received both his Purple Heart and his Medal of Honor posthumously.

But Corporal Williams did survive his combat and was sent back to the states. No one told him he was going to receive the Medal of Honor. He reported to Washington DC on 4 Oct 1945 and was then told the next day President Harry Truman would be awarding him the medal at the White House. He thought when he was ordered to report to DC and bring his mother and wife-to-be that perhaps he was getting a Purple Heart for his wounds on Iwo Jima.

I got to meet Mr. "Woody" Williams at the 2007 reunion of Iwo Jima Veterans, in Wichita Falls, Texas. What this medal did was take a young man from a small town in West Virginia, who most likely would have never seen the world, and make him a living, breathing, continuing educator of our American history.

He travels the country and makes seventy to eighty public appearances a year. He carries gold dollars in his pockets and awards them to people in his audience who can correctly answer his questions on history, and not just military history. He told me we have to "continue the need for history."

Woody Williams continues to serve his country and remind us of our history. He stayed in the Marine Corps reserve and retired a Chief Warrant Officer. His civilian career was working for the Veterans Administration where he continued serving his nation and his fellow veterans.

When I called his home to get some additional information his wife answered. After telling her who I was she said "just a minute he is out in the garage, I will get him." True heroes serve their nation in time of need and then go back home and get on with their lives. They pay their bills, raise their families and serve their communities. Woody Williams did all that, and in his spare time he is an American Hero and a walking National Treasure. If you need Woody Williams he may be out in the garage working on a project, but he will always answer "the call."

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Copyright 2007, 2016 by Major Van Harl USAF Ret. All rights reserved.