News anchor Tom Brokaw described the Americans who grew up in the Great Depression and went on to serve in the U.S. military in World War II as “the Greatest Generation.” It is unlikely this nation will ever see their kind again.
This week, one of the greatest of the greatest generation has passed away.
The Last Medal of Honor Winner
Hershel W. “Woody” Williams was the last remaining Medal of Honor recipient from the Second World War. He was awarded the nation’s highest military honor for his heroics during the Battle of Iwo Jima in early 1945. As a young Marine corporal, Williams went ahead of his unit and eliminated a series of Japanese machine gun positions.
What is truly remarkable is that Williams was just 22 years old.
His actions on the rocky island in the Pacific helped clear the way for American tanks and infantry. According to the U.S. military’s official Medal of Honor website, Williams was “quick to volunteer his services when our tanks were maneuvering vainly to open a lane for the infantry through the network of reinforced concrete pillboxes, buried mines, and black volcanic sands. Williams daringly went forward alone to attempt the reduction of devastating machinegun fire from the unyielding positions.”
Later that year, Williams received the Congressional Medal of Honor from President Harry Truman at the White House. He was the last of the 473 American service members to receive the highest award for valor during the conflict.
“For me, receiving the Medal of Honor was actually the lifesaver because it forced me to talk about the experiences that I had, which was a therapy that I didn’t even know I was doing,” Williams said during a 2018 Boy Scouts recognition ceremony in Fairmont.
The Marine Corps pauses to honor Woody’s legacy and contributions to the Corps and fellow Marines earlier this week.
“On behalf of all Marines, Sgt. Maj. Black and I are heartbroken to learn of Woody’s passing. From his actions on Iwo Jima to his lifelong service to our Gold Star Families, Woody has left an indelible mark on the legacy of our Corps,” said Commandant of the Marine Corps, General David H. Berger, and Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps, Sgt. Maj. Troy E. Black. “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. The Marine Corps is fortunate to have many heroes, but there is only one Woody Williams. Semper Fidelis, Marine.”
Truly an American Great
He landed on Iwo Jima on Feb. 21, 1945, with 1st Battalion, 21st Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division. Williams fought desperately for four hours under terrific enemy small-arms fire and repeatedly returned to his own lines to prepare demolition charges and obtain serviced flamethrowers.
Williams passed away on Wednesday at the Huntington, West Virginia, Veterans Affairs hospital named after him. He was 98.
“Woody peacefully joined his beloved wife Ruby while surrounded by his family at the VA Medical Center which bears his name,” according to the statement on the foundation’s Facebook page. “Woody’s family would like to express their sincere gratitude for all the love and support.”
Now a Senior Editor for 1945, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes.