It was a welcome fit for a war hero at San Francisco International Airport Friday, as the Hershel “Woody” Williams landed in the Bay Area.
Members of the USO, U.S. Marines and local law enforcement raised flags, cheered and played bagpipes to greet the last living Medal of Honor recipient who fought in the battle of Iwo Jima.
“I had no idea that was going to happen, so I was surprised and pretty well breathless,” Williams said, explaining he didn’t get the same homecoming when he returned home from World War II.
The 92-year-old West Virginian is in the Bay Area to attend a war remembrance ceremony and conference in San Jose. Williams is one of six World War II Medal of Honor recipients still living, and the only one left who fought at Iwo Jima.
“A day of infamy in my life: February 23, 1945,” Williams said.
Just 21 at the time, he carried a 70-pound flamethrower, attempting to burn out concrete pill boxes.
“I suppose the most vivid single memory, one that still continues to come back every once in a while, is the enemy in one of the pill boxes either ran out of ammunition. They charged me with rifles and bayonets on the ends of their rifles in order to eliminate me. I was fortunate enough to have enough fluid in my flamethrower to ignite the flame and I got them instead of them getting me,” Williams said.
Williams admits he was scared, but he says love, not fear overcame him.
“Yes, I was afraid, but I never permitted myself to think that I was not going to make it. I had a beautiful young lady back home waiting for me and I was determined to get back there and marry her and I finally did and we spent 62 years of wonderful life together,” Williams said.
Williams suffered from shell shock, but eventually pulled through to help other veterans. He worked as a counselor for more than 30 years, and then raised and trained horses for the next part of his life. When he retired, Williams managed a home for veterans. Since 2013, he has working to establish Gold Star Family Memorial Monuments, to honor families of veterans and military servicemen.
Still, he says the Medal of Honor is his proudest achievement – “the epitome,” Williams called it.
However, the humble hero says the medal really belongs to his fellow marines, who died protecting him 71 years ago.
“So it’s theirs. I just wear it in their honor,” Williams said.
Despite his achievements, Williams does not champion war.
“I don’t think we should have been there in the first place. I’m not sure we achieved anything we wanted to achieve. Trying to change a culture 5,000 years old is almost impossible. It didn’t work and it’s not working today,” he said.
Out of the 27 Medals of Honor awarded at Iwo Jima, “13 of us survived to get to come home, and the others gave their life in the process of earning it. And out of the 13 that came back after World War II, I am the last surviving recipient. So I feel so fortunate to do what we’re doing.”