A WWII Medal of Honor Recipient on Fighting Fascism and Neo-Nazis
Hershel “Woody” Williams is one of two living WWII Medal of Honor recipients. On the 75th anniversary of V-J Day, he opens up about the new doc “Apocalypse ’45” and neo-Nazi punks.
On February 23, 1945, during the Battle of Iwo Jima, Hershel “Woody” Williams became a bona fide American hero. Having landed two days earlier on the Japanese island, Williams was ordered by his commander to join a squadron tasked with clearing out a series of pillboxes (concrete enemy bunkers). On their way to the first of these outposts, all of Williams’ comrades were killed, but the young Marine persevered, eliminating everyone inside the pillbox with his trusty flamethrower. Over the next four hours, he refueled his weapon five more times in order to singlehandedly take out the area’s remaining collection of pillboxes. When he was done, he witnessed his fellow soldiers raise the stars and stripes on Mount Suribachi, and following five more weeks of fighting—sometimes injured, thereby earning him the Purple Heart—he returned home and, on October 5, 1945, was awarded by President Harry Truman with the Medal of Honor for his valiant service.
Williams’ legacy is of immense courage under fire, and his story is one of many featured in filmmaker Erik Nelson’s Apocalypse ’45 (on VOD now), a stirring documentary that brings WWII’s Pacific theater to vivid life via amazingly restored color footage from the battlefield, all of it set to narration from the vets who experienced it first-hand. A companion piece to Nelson’s The Cold Blue, it’s a gorgeous and harrowing non-fiction account, rife with unbelievable imagery—including dogfight material shot from the perspective of planes’ gun turrets—and stirring commentary about combat camaraderie, chaos, and terror. At the same time, it’s also a portrait of an era in which fighting fascism, and upholding democracy, were goals that united us all—and, as such, defined who we were as individuals, and Americans. That makes it both a vital historical record and an all-too-timely film.
“With Apocalypse ’45, that was just the answer that everyone gave—they talked about the divisiveness, and their bemusement about what had happened to the America they had fought and died for,” says director Erik Nelson. “They went there on their own.”
To mark the 75th anniversary of V-J Day (today), we spoke with Williams—who, at 96 years old, is now the last living Marine Medal of Honor recipient from WWII—and Nelson about the documentary, the trauma of war, and the way the country has changed over the past three quarters of a century.
At the end of Apocalypse ’45, a vet remarks that, during WWII, Democrats and Republicans worked together for the nation’s common good. Do you feel like that’s been lost today?
Williams: I knew nothing about politics, let me start there. I was a Democrat simply because my dad and all my brothers were Democrats, and I didn’t even know what that meant. But I do think, during the Depression, we didn’t have a whole lot, so if we didn’t have it, we almost had to make it. That drew people together, because they helped each other out. It was a very common thing. I was a farm boy, and if another farmer had a field of hay down, and there was a threat of rain, everybody from one family would go help that family get their hay in. But today that wouldn’t happen, even if you paid them. We did it because we were neighbors. I think that feeling went into WWII. We still had that same thinking and feeling toward each other, and I think that drew us closer together in combat in serving our country.
Why do you think the country is less united now than it was in the 1940s?
I think we have lost that closeness, and that innate desire to help somebody else out. I don’t know where that was lost, or why. I think we became a whole lot more independent, if you will. I raised my kids just like everybody else was raising their kids—gave them everything in the world. They didn’t have to do anything to earn it; we just gave it to them. And I think that had a tremendous impact on our thinking. I think that’s what kind of separated us, even in the military—that we don’t have that closeness we had in WWII.
Is there a way for us to regain that closeness?
I hesitate to say this, but I think in order to draw us together, it’s going to take one of two things: an individual who can influence the majority of America, whoever that may be, or some sort of disastrous situation that makes us more dependent on each other. I’ve asked my grandsons and my two daughters on occasion: Is there anything in this world right now that you’d absolutely have to have? Nobody can come up with anything that they would absolutely have to have. That makes us so independent, we don’t pay any attention to the people around us.
Given your WWII service, did you ever foresee neo-Nazism, and Holocaust denialism, flourishing both here and abroad?
It is a surprise, really. I’ve said this many times on many occasions: I think the only place that we can restore a love of country, patriotism, and dependence upon each other is in our schools. Our children spend more time with somebody else during their waking hours than they do with their own parents, so the influence is coming from someplace else; it’s not coming from the parents, who don’t have time to sit down and actually philosophize with their children. They just let somebody else do it. I think that’s had a tremendous impact on our youth, and the millennials of today.
How did you get involved with the documentary, and did you have any hesitation about revisiting your wartime experiences?
I was asked to actually look at it, and I probably never would have, had I not been asked, because I don’t watch war movies. Not that I’m against them; I think history is very important. But for me, I don’t need to relive those moments any more than I have to. It took me many, many years to get over the fact that those memories kept coming back, and I’m trying to get rid of them, and to not think about them, because they’re not pleasant thoughts. I think one of the most therapeutic things for me was, having received the Medal of Honor, I was required by the public to make appearances, to talk about my experience, and how it came about that I have the nation’s highest award. I think that was the best therapy I could have had. Because otherwise, I don’t think I would have ever shared those things with anybody else. I didn’t share them with my family, or with my wife and children. So that was beneficial to me.
Have you seen the film, and if so, was it difficult to watch?
Yes it was. I thought it was very, very accurate, but it was difficult to look at. I go back to years and years ago, when Saving Private Ryan first came out. I had a couple of grandsons who went to see it, and they told me that I should go see it. At first I hesitated, and in fact refused to. But eventually, an author [James Bradley] writing Flags of Our Fathers called me and asked if I’d go see it and make a comparison between WWII and that movie. I got two Korean vets, two WWII vets, and two Vietnam vets to go with me, and we all went into the theater just shortly after it opened. It was very traumatic to watch. I wished afterwards I really hadn’t gone, but I did. [Bradley] had asked each of us to sit down and write about how it compared to WWII, and whether it was authentic. I had each guy write something out, and I didn’t read what they said. I just put it in an envelope and sent it to him. I don’t know if he used any of it or not, but there’s a memory of a scene in Saving Private Ryan, when they’re in that boat, that just has not ever disappeared. Don’t ask me why. I have no answer.
You confess in the film that you didn’t realize those four hours on Iwo Jima would change your life. Was that your most harrowing WWII ordeal?
It did, but of course, at the time, I had no idea that I was doing anything unusual. This was my job. These other Marines had trained me to do this kind of work, and it was just part of my duty. I was responsible to other Marines, and responsible for accomplishing whatever we were trying to do. So to me, it was a day’s work. And much of it I have no memory of, because it wasn’t that important at the time. I’m trying to stay alive. But as far as it having an after-effect [on my life], I had no thought whatsoever. It was just: something had to be done, so I went at it to get it done.
Someone in the film remarks that, in battle, you press forward because you have no other choice. Was that what drove you during that Iwo Jima mission?
Absolutely. As I’ve said many times: our only goal was to win. And how do you win? You keep moving forward. You can’t win by running backwards—it won’t work! We were pressing forward because we had been trained and educated that we are going to succeed at whatever we are going to do. Period, no exceptions.
The flamethrower isn’t a traditional WWII combat weapon. Had you been trained to use it beforehand?
In January 1944, we were on Guadalcanal, and we received these huge wooden crates. When we broke them open, it was a flamethrower. We had never seen one of those things; we didn’t even know what it was. There were no instructions with the flamethrower to tell you how to use it in combat, or what to do with it. We had to figure it out ourselves. We learned very quickly: you do not fire it directly into the air, because it’ll bounce back at you. But the only thing that came with it was a packet with phosphorous powder. The packet said we should mix it with gasoline, and it would turn into a gel, and if it got on the person, there was no way you could get it off—it just continued to burn.
What’s the primary thing that’s motivated you to continue speaking about your WWII experiences, and working with your foundation?
In 2013, we dedicated the first Gold Star Families Memorial Monument in the country. When we applied for the non-profit, we set as a goal that we’d like to have a Gold Star Families Memorial Monument in every state. Well, when it got on the internet, and other people saw it, it began to multiply and spread, and it just went wildfire from there. We’re now in 48 states, and some states [have more than one]—like West Virginia, which has six more on the books, and Ohio has ten, and they have two more on the books. Communities around the country are, for the first time, paying tribute to and recognizing the families that gave one of their own—which is more than what the rest of us gave. It’s never been done in America before.
Very, very few times have I had any requests to discuss, or participated in actually discussing, WWII. When I speak to youth—I speak to a lot of high schools and youth groups—I don’t get into that. There’s two reasons, I guess. Number one, it’s not particularly newsworthy to them. And second, they have no understanding. They haven’t been taught anything along the way about war or the residuals of war, so I’m talking to a group of people who have no concept about what I’m talking about. So I talk about other things—commitment, and service, and country.