Crouched in an large shell crater, Marine Capt. Donald Beck gathered what was left of his company’s leaders together as bullets whizzed overhead.
“We had lost most of our squad leaders,” recalls Hershel “Woody” Williams, who was a 22-year-old corporal at the time he landed on Iwo Jima.
His unit was pinned down by Japanese fire and couldn’t break through the web of reinforced concrete pillboxes manned by Japanese soldiers in front of them. Every time they launched an assault, the unit would only lose more Marines.
Beck turned to Williams and asked him if he thought he would have success with his flamethrower against the Japanese defenses.
“I’ll try,” said Williams, now 92.
For the next four hours, Williams exposed himself to enemy fire, dashing from one bunker to another. Enemy bullets bounced off the tank on his back as he crawled toward the enemy. He fired his flamethrower at Japanese soldiers who came at him with bayonets. At one point, he crawled on top of a bunker and stuck the nozzle of his flamethrower down the air vent to silence the machine gun firing from within.
For his actions on Iwo Jima in February 1945, Williams would earn the nation’s highest award for gallantry, the Medal of Honor. He knocked out seven concrete enemy pillboxes and cleared the way for Marines to press the attack on the island. Williams was one of 38 sailors and Marines who earned the medal at the battle, including 11 who were awarded it posthumously. Williams, who grew up in Quiet Dell, W. Va., is the only living Medal of Honor recipient from that battle.
On Tuesday, one day before Veterans Day, the Marine Corps will celebrate its 240th birthday. Williams will attend several balls as a living legend from Iwo Jima, perhaps the Corps’ most iconic fight. The Navy recently announced it will name a ship after him.
The public still grapples with what heroism means. We feel more comfortable talking about heroism from World War II, the “Good War,” as if the nature of that conflict was more acceptable. Warriors, however, make no such distinctions. When bullets are flying, wars are pretty much the same. Heroism is, too.
War hasn’t changed, but the public view of it has. We feel self conscious talking about war heroes, for fear of glorifying war, so we focus instead on the trauma it produces. It’s good that society has recognized the stresses that war causes, but focusing on that has often come at the expense of exalting heroism. It does warriors a disservice.
“Heroism doesn’t make it in the news,” said Marine Col. Todd Desgrosseilliers.
It’s a tradition at the Marine Corps birthday ball for the youngest and oldest Marines present to cut the birthday cake.That’s a way of reminding young Marines of the history that rests on their shoulders and at the same time assuring them that they will be up to the task should they be called to fight.
Darol “Lefty” Lee, 91, was one of four Marines assigned to provide security for Williams as he knocked out one bunker after another on that day 70 years ago. Lee, who is retired from the postal service and lives in Winona, Minn., still struggles for words to describe what he saw Williams do on Feb. 23, 1945.
“It was unbelievable,” he says finally.
Before the Iwo Jima battle ended, Marine. Maj. Gen. Graves Erskine spoke at a memorial ceremony over the graves of freshly fallen Marines who were buried on the island. About 6,800 American servicemembers died and thousands more were injured taking the island back from 22,000 Japanese defenders.
“Even the words and phrases used by historians to describe the fight for Iwo Jima, when the piecemeal story of our dead comes to light, will still be inadequate,” Erskine said in 1945 as the fighting continued.
The survivors will tell you he was right.
Michaels, a military writer at USA TODAY, is a former Marine infantry officer.
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