They’ve been called the greatest generation. But Woody Williams, a 94-year-old WWII veteran, a recipient of the Purple Heart, and the Congressional Medal of Honor, doesn’t consider himself as great, or heroic even though he was at Iwo Jima.
“I’ve always said the heroes are those who never got to come home,” says Woody. “They are the true heroes, regardless of how their life was sacrificed. They still did it for us and America. So they, to my mind, are the heroes.”
Woody experienced combat for the first time on Guam in 1944, and seven months later, his heroic efforts on the small island of Iwo Jima were a key component of overtaking the island. His captain asked him to attack a Japanese pillbox with his 70-pound flamethrower. Woody then chose four fellow marines to give him cover.
“When the commanding officer said this is what we’re going to do, you never questioned that or said, ‘Well why should we do that?’ or ‘I don’t want to do that.’ That just never was done. So I don’t know that I had any particular apprehension about doing with the flame thrower. That was my job. That’s what I’d been trained to do and when he said, ‘Will you do it?’ what am I going to do? Yeah, I’m going to do it.”
The four-hour attack was successful. With its success and others like it, the Marines took control of the lone airstrip on the island.
“All of a sudden Marines around me, I’m talking about three or four or five Marines that were around me now are saying something about a flag. And they’re firing their M1s into the air. And I guess curiosity got the best of me, I want to know what they’re doing, you know. So I don’t remember whether I stand up or just look around, but here they are doing that. And they’re pointing toward Mt. Suribachi, you know. Saying something about the flag.
“But I turn around and I see the flag on Mt. Suribachi [on Iwo Jima]. But when I saw that, and these other Marines are doing this crazy stuff, I start doing the same thing, you know. Because here now Old Glory’s flying, flying on top of Mt. Suribachi. That was one of the first things that you did to make sure that the Japanese knew we’re here, you know, and Old Glory says we are.”
The iconic photo made headlines around the world. Woody remembers Joe Rosenthal, the man behind the camera.
“I talked to him two times before he died. He told me it was just an accident that he got that photo. He had that big old camera that they carried. I think it weighed 14 or 15 pounds. It was a big thing.
They developed the film, then sent it on the AP wire to the States. There is the picture. He did not know himself, he didn’t know what he had. I think that the flag on the front page of every major newspaper in the country did something for America. I really do. I think it lifted the whole spirit.”
The following October, President Truman decorated woody with the Congressional Medal of Honor.
“I don’t remember what he said to me. I was so scared, you know. I never thought I’d see a President, certainly not that close. That was a day, of course, I will never, ever forget. But I didn’t know it was going to change my life, and it wasn’t until much later that I realized that I received the medal because of others. Not just because of what I did. Others made it possible for me to receive it.
“My commanding officer, the witnesses that were willing to testify, had they not been willing to do that, you would’ve never heard of Woody Williams at all. So I have in particularly two Marines, who that day, I had no idea who they were. And I didn’t learn until this past October who they were. Two Marines that day sacrificed their life protecting mine. So even though I didn’t know their names, I did realize that happened, because of the testimony that others gave and the way we talked when we got back to Guam and that sort of thing. So I’ve always said I’m just the caretaker of it. I wear it in their honor, not mine. And I still feel that same way today.”
Woody is also a veteran of the Christian faith. He accepted Christ as his saviour on Easter Sunday, 1962. He taught Sunday School at his church for 42 years. In 2010, he established the Hershel Woody Williams Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation. The foundation honors families and relatives who have lost loved ones in service to their country. The foundation has erected statues in 38 states to honor the families.
“And these monuments that communities are putting up, I’m not doing that. I’m just a cog, I’m just a wheel, a motivator of something. But the communities that are doing that take a great deal of pride in the fact that they are, for the first time in our history, recognizing those who made that sacrifice for all of us. We couldn’t be the country we are, we couldn’t have the privileges that we have, if it were not for those individuals who are willing to go into the armed forces and protect the values that we all treasure. So every veteran has a pride in his soul. He may not express it, but deep down in his soul, I believe that every veteran feels good about what he did to keep America, America.”
–By Tim Smith CBNews