Hershel “Woody” Williams, the last survivor among 473 servicemen awarded the Medal of Honor for battlefield bravery in World War II, died Wednesday while surrounded by family at the VA Medical Center in West Virginia that bears his name.
His death was announced by the Woody Williams Foundation which works to support Gold Star families, those related to veterans who died in combat. He was 98.
“Woody’s family would like to express their sincere gratitude for all the love and support. They would also like to share that Woody’s wish is that people continue on with his mission,” the foundation said in a statement.
Mr. Williams enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps in 1943 after initially being rejected for being too short. He was trained in San Diego and was eventually assigned to a demolition unit as a flamethrower operator, according to the National World War II museum in New Orleans.
He fought in several battles in the Pacific theater, including on Guadalcanal and Guam, before landing on Iwo Jima in February 1945 with the Third Marine Division.
The fight for Iwo Jima gained worldwide attention from AP photographer Joe Rosenthal’s iconic image of the U.S. flag-raising on Mount Suribachi.
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The horrific battle lasted more than a month and resulted in more than 26,000 American casualties, including 6,800 deaths.
Mr. Williams was always in the thick of the fight.
According to his Medal of Honor citation, then-Corporal Williams “daringly mounted a pillbox to insert the nozzle of his flamethrower through the air vent, (killing) the occupants and (silencing) the guns. On another, he grimly charged enemy riflemen who attempted to stop him with bayonets and destroyed them with a burst of flame from his weapon.”
President Harry Truman awarded him the Medal of Honor in October 1945. He remained in the Marine Corps, retiring in 1969 as a Chief Warrant Officer 4.
In a statement released Wednesday, Gen. David H. Berger, the commandant of the Marine Corps, said he was heartbroken after learning of Mr. Williams’ death.
“From his actions in Iwo Jima to his lifelong service to our Gold Star families, Woody has left an indelible mark on the legacy of our Corps,” Gen. Berger said. “As the last of America’s ‘Greatest Generation’ to receive the Medal of Honor, we will forever carry with us the memory of his selfless dedication to those who made the ultimate sacrifice to our great nation.”
Sen. Joe Manchin, West Virginia Democrat, called Mr. Williams “the embodiment of a true American hero.”
“Americans like Woody answered the call to serve our great nation and their sacrifices allow us to enjoy the freedoms that we hold dear,” Sen. Manchin said. “Woody was a tireless advocate for all veterans and their family members.
A number of locations in his native West Virginia currently bear his name and in March 2020, the USS Hershel “Woody” Williams, a Lewis Puller-class expeditionary mobile base, was commissioned in Norfolk, Va.
Funeral details are pending, the Woody Williams Foundation said.