Wearing the Medal of Honor he earned during World War II on a blue ribbon around his neck, Hershel W. “Woody” Williams talked humbly about what it was like to be an American hero during a visit to Aiken on Thursday.
“This medal does not belong to me,” he said. “I am just the caretaker of this medal. It belongs to those who didn’t get to come home.”
Williams, 93, was the guest speaker during a fundraiser for the Matthew Dillon Scholarship Fund at Houndslake Country Club.
The League’s James L. Hammons Detachment No. 939 established the fund in 2007 to honor a former Aiken resident who was killed in action in Iraq in 2006.
“War is a terrible, terrible thing,” Williams said. “I don’t understand why we, as a civilized group of people in this world, haven’t been able to find some other solution for settling our differences. It’s my prayer that, sometime down the road, somebody is going to be smart enough to make it happen.”
Williams received the Medal of Honor for his actions as a Marine during the Battle of Iwo Jima on Feb. 23, 1945, and his presentation at Houndslake marked the 72nd anniversary of those valiant efforts.
According to Williams’ Medal of Honor citation, he “daringly mounted a pillbox to insert the nozzle of his flamethrower through an air vent, kill the occupants and silence the gun.” In addition, the citation said, Williams “grimly charged enemy riflemen who attempted to stop him with bayonets and destroyed them with a burst of flame from his weapon.”
During a film shown before Williams’ speech at Houndslake, he said he “knocked out” seven of the reinforced concrete pillboxes in all during four hours of fighting.
Two of the four riflemen covering Williams died soon after he started attacking the Japanese.
“Don’t ask me how I did it. I don’t know,” Williams said in the film.
A native of West Virginia, Williams weighed only 3 pounds at birth. Raised on a dairy farm, he knew little about the rest of the world until he joined the Marines.
“I had never heard of the Japanese,” Williams said, “but I wanted to protect and save my country.”
Taught by his parents that killing was wrong and punished for using his slingshot to knock birds off of limbs, Williams faced a difficult adjustment as the Marines prepared him for combat.
“They began telling me and teaching me that I was gong to have to take the lives of other people,” he said. “They emphasized that it was necessary if we wanted to preserve our way of life and our freedom. It didn’t make it any easier, but they trained me to overcome my hesitancy.”
That training, however, didn’t prevent Williams from being haunted by the Japanese lives that he destroyed on Iwo Jima.
“It took 25 years before I finally was able to seek forgiveness, receive it and forgive myself,” he said. “For a long time, I couldn’t forgive myself, and if you can’t forgive yourself, you can’t be forgiven.”
Dede Biles is a general assignment reporter for the Aiken Standard and has been with the newspaper since January 2013. A native of Concord, N.C, she graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
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