Seventy-three years ago on the island of Iwo Jima, Hershel “Woody” Williams randomly chose several fellow Marines to give him rifle cover as he made a one-man charge with his flamethrower against a network of Japanese pillboxes.
He spent four hours unleashing flames into the pillboxes that had stymied advance for days, racing back to the Marine Corps lines to refuel the flamethrower, and then running again into battle — all while covered by only four riflemen.
Williams was ultimately awarded the Medal of Honor on Feb. 23, 1945, for “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty,” as the official citation describes it. He “daringly went forward alone to attempt the reduction of devastating machinegun fire” coming out of reinforced concrete pillboxes, on which bazooka and mortar rounds had no effect.
At one point, Williams mounted a pillbox, stuck the flamethrower’s nozzle through an air vent and killed the enemy within it.
Two of the Marines covering Williams died that day, but he never knew their names, and never knew where their remains rested until just a few months ago.
On Saturday, Williams, with the Medal of Honor hanging around his neck, stood over the Hawaii grave of Charles Fischer, one of those “guardian angels” who helped him survive that day and is buried in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, nicknamed the Punchbowl.
He saluted the Marine, who died a private first class that day, and then slowly bent down and placed a purple lei upon his headstone.
“I have always said I’m just the caretaker of it,” Williams said later of the Medal of Honor. “It belongs to them. They sacrificed for it. I didn’t.”