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ORAL HISTORY

Hershel W. 'Woody' Williams, WWII Medal of Honor recipient, on surviving Iwo Jima

By STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 18, 2015

Hershel Williams, 91, received the Medal of Honor for valor during the World War II Battle of Iwo Jima.

The citation that was read when he received the nation's highest military honor from Pres. Harry Truman noted that his "unyielding determination and extraordinary heroism in the face of ruthless enemy resistance were directly instrumental in neutralizing one of the most fanatically defended Japanese strong points encountered by his regiment and aided in enabling his company to reach its objective."

Williams has been an active participant in Congressional Medal of Honor Society events over the years, and his latest project has been an effort to build memorials honoring Gold Star Families in all 50 states.

In 2014, Williams sat down with Stars and Stripes to tell his story.

Joining the military

During the peacetime period, before World War II, the Marine Corps was really trying to make its way, I guess. The dress blues had come into play, and one of the best ways to get advertising was to see these guys in dress blues. Immediately, "hey, that's the Marine Corps." It's different than any other uniform. I have to say that the army uniform during that period of time, that old brown, was certainly not an attractive uniform. So the Marine Corps sort of stood out, wherever they were.

We had a couple of fellas in our community that, they didn't like to do farming or hard work, maybe, so they joined the Marine Corps ... really, to make a living. They were not related, didn't really know each other, perhaps. But anyway, when they came home, they'd always have to wear the dress blues. That was their orders, that they wore the dress blues all the time. In those days, you got one 30-day furlough a year. That was it. Once you used up your 30 days, you're done until the next year. So they would come home, and during that period of time we kids would get around them and they'd tell us all kinds of crazy stories. Probably most of them weren't true ...

But anyway, we were sort of enthralled with those guys, and in my mind, I said, you know, I ever ... and I had no desire to go in the military. I'm going to be a farmer the rest of my life. But if I ever do, that's what I want to look like. A couple of reasons for that: One, they were always tall and straight, very proud. Very polite, very polite to women, always "yes, ma'am, yes sir" and all that stuff. So they really created a great image in my mind. I said "if I ever do this, or do anything, I want to be a Marine. I want to look like that guy."

So that's why I wanted to go in the Marine Corps. Had no idea what the war was. This was 1942.

In December of 1941, I was in the Civilian Conservation Corps, out in the state of Montana, when Pearl Harbor was bombed. And of course they called us out, there were about 265 of us -- youth, boys, up to 25 years of age -- in that camp. They were from all over the country -- there were New Jersey, New York, Tennessee, West Virginia, Ohio -- and they told us that America had been bombed at Pearl Harbor. Nobody in the group knew where Pearl Harbor was or what it was. Didn't mean a thing. Associated it with the United States, somehow. So they gave us a choice: You could go straight into the Army -- because we wore Army uniforms, we were paid by the army, treated medically by the army, they ruled us, that sort -- we could go straight into the army, or you could request release and go home to enter into the military. So that's what I did, because I wanted to be a Marine. I didn't want to be in the Army. So they turned me loose.

I was so naive that I thought, if I go in the military, go in the Marine Corps, I'm going to stay right here in the United States. to protect America. Because that's what they said [enemies] were trying to do, take America and take our freedom away from us. And I'd never heard of the Japanese ... I didn't even know we had a South Pacific. So I'm going to stay right here in the United States. All of us will be here, and we just dare anybody to come try to take our country. Because they're not going to get in, you know?

Quite a shock when they told me I'm going to the South Pacific, to some islands I never knew existed.

Iwo Jima

Iwo Jima was a different kind of a combat. I'd been in a previous campaign, when we took Guam back, and Guam was still mostly jungle. Once we got off of the beach and over the first ridge line, we began encountering really thick jungle fighting. And that's the way it was until we got to the other shore. But Iwo ... none of us, of course, had ever heard of it; they didn't tell us that's where we were going until they got us aboard ship and they brought out this board with a diagram on it that showed what Iwo Jima would look like. Guam was 19 miles from one shore to the other. This one, 2½ miles. It looked awful small, compared to what we had just been through.

And of course the officer during the briefing said we would probably never get off ship. We'd be gone about five days, as a reserve. Probably would never need us, never use us, but we were there, in case. So none of us were very anxious about this thing, 'cause we're just going for a boat ride.

But after the first day, and the loss of casualties on that first day, they decided they were going to need some more Marines, and we were ordered then to prepare to go in.

The second day, they didn't have enough room for us. They hadn't taken enough ground that we could get in behind them, so we went back aboard ship and spent another night. Then the next day they did have enough ground. By that time they were surrounding Mount Suribachi, and there was enough beach area to get us ashore. And then we became the spearhead for the island.

Our job was to go up the center and split it, drive them in each direction toward the other two divisions that were on there. And on the 23rd, I was a flamethrower operator, demolition individual. I was in charge of six Marines. I was a corporal. We had what we called a special unit, a special weapons unit. So we'd been trained to either blow something up or burn something up, and we could do either one. We could be an operator for the flamethrower, or we could be a demolition person.

But by the 23rd of February, five days in the campaign, those guys ... I'd lost them. They'd either been wounded or killed. I didn't have anybody left in the company. So we had lost a great number of our squad leaders, all but three of our officers. We were just ... it was devastating. So our commanding officer called a meeting. Wanted all the NCOs there. And as a corporal I was not classified as an NCO. But I was told because ... they didn't say because, but I was told I should go to the meeting simply because there were so few of the NCOs left.

So I joined the group and we huddled in a great big shell crater. Probably a bomb crater. But it was big enough that all of us could get below ground so that we couldn't be shot at with grazing fire. That's where we met, and of course the commanding officer was looking for ideas or ways in which we might be able to break through a series of reinforced concrete pillboxes that we'd encountered, and they were self-protecting. If you were to visit Iwo Jima today. you would find that they're built in pods of three, and you can't get to one without one of the other of them being able to see you. And that's the way the general wanted it to be. But he asked me if I could do anything with a flamethrower, knock our some of those pillboxes, because they were reinforced with what we call rebar today. In those days we just called it iron rods. But they were reinforced with that, and bazookas and artillery, even mortars dropping on the top of it ... that didn't do anything. So the only way to eliminate it was, burn it out with a flamethrower or blow it up with demolition.

I've said many times, I don't know my response to him when he asked me that question, "could I do anything with a flamethrower?" Some of the men who survived said that I said I'll try ... so, I went to work.

He gave me four Marines. Their job was to ... as I would pick out the pillbox that I'm going to work on, their job was to shoot at that aperture in front of it, because that was their field of fire. That was their only field of fire, but it covered the whole area. That aperture was about eight inches [high], and across the front of the pillbox. So they could stick their rifles out, or machine guns, and have a whole field of fire out there. But [the Marines'] job was to fire at that, try to keep the Japanese from being able to fire at me. I would pick the pillbox and start toward it, and that was their job. Two of those Marines got killed that day, because the Japanese were shooting at them. One of them was an automatic weapons man, and the other was a rifleman. Automatic weapons, [the Japanese] didn't like those any more than they liked flamethrowers, so we lost a couple of those guys. So actually they gave their life protecting mine. There's no way I could ever repay that.

You go in automatic drive when something like that happens, I think. Much of that four hours, I don't remember. I attribute that to fear. Because to say I wasn't scared would be the biggest lie that's ever been told. Because you do experience fear.

Flamethrowers

We used, instead of a napalm -- I guess that came from Vietnam -- we had back at that time a gel. We called it a phosphorus gel because it had phosphorus in it, and it was like a single stream of water. But if it landed on you, it stuck. It was sticky. And if you tried to brush it off, it had phosphorus in it, so all you'd do is spread the phosphorus. You'd just make it worse by trying to brush it off.

But while we were still on Guadalcanal and still training, the gunnery sergeant that was our instructor ... we'd never seen a flamethrower before, so we had a manual, and that was our method of learning how to operate this thing and what to do with it. Our first fluid, or stuff to fire out of it, was this gel. And you only have 72 seconds of it. So by the time -- you can't aim the weapon because you're holding it down here -- by the time you got to target, you're out of stuff. And if you don't hit the target, then you've wasted all the stuff. [The gunnery sergeant] hated it. He didn't like that stuff at all. He was just absolutely dead set, there's got to be a better way of doing this.

So we began experimenting while we were on Guam. We used kerosene, and we used motor oil, and we used regular gasoline, and mixed it together and tried to come up with some kind of a something that 1500 pounds per square inch of pressure would shoot out and shoot it a distance anyway. And finally we came up ... one day he drove in -- he had a jeep -- and he drove in with a 55-gallon drum in the back of that jeep. Never did  did know -- of course, nobody ever asked the gunnery sergeant where -- we never did know where he got it, but it was 130 octane airplane gasoline.

So we began working with that, of course, under his instruction, and we finally arrived at a measurement of so much diesel fuel and so much gasoline. Diesel fuel would give it a little weight, so it would go ... if you just fired straight gasoline out of that thing, it wouldn't go 10 feet. It hits the air and just spreads out and quits. So we mixed diesel fuel with it, kept experimenting. and finally you could get about 30 yards out of it. But if you fired it into the air, it stopped. Because the air resistance killed it. If you fired it on the ground, you could roll it. Just a great big ball of fire would roll, and you could get 30 yards out of it. Roll it into the pillbox, rather than try to shoot it into the pillbox.

So that's how we trained. We set those flamethrowers out in the field, and shot at them with M-1 rifles and .30 caliber machine guns to try to blow those things up, because that thing's on your back, and [if] that thing blows up, you're going sky-high. So we tried to blast those things open; we couldn't. We could cut the hose ... you know, you could shoot the hose, because it was rubber with a wire inside that kept it stiff. You could penetrate that, then your fluid wouldn't even get to your gun. But blow 'em up ... couldn't do it. We tried every way. So they were safe as far as explosive on your back was concerned.

But they weighed 70 pounds, and the first ones that they came out with didn't have what they called a back brace on it, [so] when you sat down with 70 pounds on your back you just automatically fell over backwards. And you'd lay on your back until they got ready to ... you know, you got a 10-minute break out of every hour. And you'd just lay on your back until they'd say "OK, saddle up, we're going," then you'd roll over on your belly, then you'd get up. Because you just couldn't get up with 70 pounds on your ... you just couldn't lean forward and get up. Well, eventually somebody got smart and put a rod at the bottom so when you sat down that rod would set on the ground, and that took all te weight off your shoulders, so you could sit there comfortably and rest. Then you could roll over and get up.

Under fire

But one great experience -- I guess you could call it a great experience, certainly one of the more scary experiences -- I was crawling up this ditch, trying to get to a pillbox that was shooting at me with a Nambu machine gun. And their Nambu was like our .30 caliber, but it had a very distinct noise. You could distinguish a Nambu ... any time it fired, you knew that was a Nambu. It was a .31 caliber, ours was a .30 caliber. Ours fired about 750, theirs fired 1000 rounds a minute. They were firing at me with that thing.

And I'm crawling up this ditch, and all of a sudden the guy with the Nambu lowered it to te point where he was ricocheting bullets off of my air tank on my back. It was just ... we didn't know jackhammers back in those days; they didn't have such a thing. But as I got older it kind of reminded me of a jackhammer because it was "brrrrrrrrrr," you know? Real fast. I mean, a thousand rounds a minute is pretty fast. And it was ricocheting off my air tank, and fortunately, they went up instead of down.

Fortunately ... and I don't think I had anything to do with this in the way of conscious thought: Don't back up. Go forward. Because if I'd have backed up, I would've brought myself more into the field of fire, because he could've lowered his Nambu a little more. As I went forward, apparently he had it down as far as he could get it, and when I went forward, I got out of his field of fire. Do I have any explanation for that? Not in the world. The Master took care of that. So we don't ... there is no explanation.

Facetiously, I’ve said those other Marines back there, where the supplies were, and where they were sitting in holes and other than the four guys protecting me, waiting for me to do something out there ... I’ve said “I don’t think they liked me.” Because not a one of them ever said — after I expended a flamethrower and rolled out of it, because once you expend it, you just drop it, forget it — I said they didn’t like me because not a one of them ever said “hey, wait out there, I’ll bring you another one." (laughs) No, I had to go back and get my other one.

So I made six trips back ... well, five trips [back], really, to get flamethrowers that were already serviced. We always kept a whole bunch of them serviced and ready to go, so that when you needed them they were ready. And that was part of my job as the person in charge of this group. And we had lots of flamethrowers -- 25, 30 flamethrowers all the time, sitting around, ready to go.

On killing the enemy

They were not "people." I think if you had thought of them as a fellow human being, for me it would have been very difficult to shoot to kill, even though that's what the Marine Corps said you are going to have to do: If you are going to survive this thing, you are going to have to get them first. But they just became an object ... something that was restricting, something that didn't want you to do what you wanted to do. You lose the sense of a person being another human being. I think you have to do that, or you can't take the life of that person. So where that comes from, I have no explanation for that, except over and over we're told and we're firmly convinced that if you're going to live, you have got to kill him first. Whatever he is. You've got to kill him first. And it loses that identity as another human being.

The Japanese ...  and there's a little bit of, I suppose, I don't like to think of it as hate, certainly resentment ... but when we went to Guam, we were told before we got there that the Japanese, when they took Guam in 1942, they killed every American on the island. Well, that builds up ... I don't like to think of it as a hate, I don't even know these people. But it certainly builds up a resentment, and to the point where you're not going to give him an opportunity to do to you what they did to them.

And one of the other things about the Japanese that we resented very strongly is that they would trick people, particularly corpsmen, into thinking they were wounded or needed help, and you'd try to help them, and then they would take their life, and yours too. Because their philosophy of dying was an honor. Our philosophy of dying is not an honor. We've never thought of it as an honor. So as I said, you just look at them as an object that keeps you from being able to do what you want to do, what you're supposed to do, so you have to eliminate that object. I tried not to think of it as a person.

The theory that the Navy didn't do enough shelling of Iwo Jima

That's not true. That really isn't. For the last three days before they hit the beach, it was almost 24-hour, around-the-clock bombing and strafing, and there was nothing left on the top of that island. They had obliterated bushes or trees or anything else. And the Japanese were underground in caves, so it didn't really affect then a great deal. But for three days they really blasted it. And it had been bombed and strafed a number of days before that, because they were flying from carriers and bombing it and strafing it and that sort of thing. Sometimes they would catch Japanese running between holes or on the ground, and they would strafe them, but I have no idea how many tons and tons and tons of ammunition was expended before we got there.

So no, they really did pour the metal to that thing. You read different things, but somewhere around 19 miles of tunnel that had tunneled out of that thing, and some of it down as far as 32 feet below surface level, bombing didn't do anything. Rattled their ears, maybe, but it didn't do anything.

And they had really prepared. He knew we were coming a long time before we ever got there. Because that was in the route. You almost had to go by it to get to Japan. They had holes between pillboxes. They had caves that you could come up in this pillbox and get back in the cave, and go to the next pillbox and come up. So it was just tunnels everywhere. And it was easy digging in the southern part of the island, where the volcanic stuff was. Once we got up north, then the big rocks and the ground got real rough and had huge boulders and that kind of stuff. You could hardly dig a hole up there. It was really hard. Until you broke over the lip, going toward the ocean, then you ran into sand again. It was rough, the territory, the northern part was rough country.

The war ends

I was on Guam. We'd come back to Guam, and had started training on how do you street fight. We'd always been trained in jungle warfare. That's all we had done. Now, while we were on Iwo, the engineers had erected some false-fronted buildings and they weren't streets, but they represent streets between false-fronted buildings to make it look like it's a street, and maybe they'd just have the front on it, or they'd have the front and a side, maybe they'd have an open door and an open window. no doors on it, that type thing. We'd begun training: How do you approach a house? How do you get into a house? How do you go through a door? How do you go through a window? That type of thing. We'd begun training for street fighting.

Well, all we Marines knew we were going to Tokyo. Most of us didn't know there was anything in Japan except Tokyo. 'Cause Tokyo Rose said so. We didn't know.

And so, when the bomb landed [on Nagasaki] on the 8th of August, the war was over! Now we're ready to come home. And of course most of us thought we were going to be shipped back home.

Returning home

In early September, I was called to the first sergeant's office and he said ... all we had over there were khaki shirt and pants. All of our Marine greens had been taken away from us, and of course, dress blues were long gone! Never had any need for dress blues in the Pacific, I'll guarantee you. But we had khaki and dungarees

He said "put on your best khaki; you're going up to headquarters to see the general." Holy cow. Scared me to death. I had no idea why, and I didn't think I had done anything to require me to be reprimanded by a general. I had no idea, and the first sergeant didn't know. They didn't tell him either.

So I got all prepared, and they sent a driver, picked me up, put me in a jeep, off we go to the general's quarters, which was several miles away from where I was. When we got there ... we were living in a tent with the sides rolled up on it, and here he's got an enclosed tent! Stuff out on the ground, and oh boy, I'm in hog heaven ... but scared to death. Absolutely. So I get out of the jeep, and there's a colonel standing there, and I saluted him, snapped to attention, and he said "you're going in to see the general, and he's what you do." And he gave me my instructions.

So I walked in the tent, and he had a rug on the floor. It wasn't very much, but it was a rug. Wasn't dirt like ours, anyway. So I walked up to his desk and snapped to attention, because you don't salute inside in the Marine Corps unless you've got your cover on, unless you're armed. Army, you do. Marine Corps, you don't. So I snapped to attention, he called me at ease, and then began to tell me that "you are being sent back to the United States, and you're going to be flown back." I'd never been on an airplane. "You're going to be flown back to the United States, and you'll go to go to the White House, and they're going to present you with the Medal of Honor."

I had no idea what he was talking about. I'd never heard of the Medal of Honor. I didn't know what it was. All I'm doing is listening. I don't even say "yes sir" or nothing. I don't think I ever uttered a sound the whole time I was in there. He said "you'll be given a set of sealed orders, and make sure you don't open that sealed order until you're told to, or until you get to the next duty station." So the colonel was with me. He was standing off to the left. The colonel went and got this big envelope, brown envelope, it was about, I don't know, 15 or 16 inches long, and about 6 or 7 inches wide, and on the back of it -- I didn't see this until I got out -- was a piece of wax about the size of 1 50-cent piece, and in that wax was an "E". Didn't know what that was, either. But that was his seal. Erskine was his name; E was his seal, and it was in wax.

So I went back to camp, started packing my gear. Get my sea bag ready, get all my stuff.

Well, I had a .45 that I had picked up somewhere along the way, illegally -- I wasn't supposed to have a .45 -- and I had that in my sea bag. And as I'm packing, some of the guys in the tent said I understand that they now have an X-ray system of some kind that when you go through, they're going to X-ray that sea bag; you'd better not take that .45. I never did figure out whether they were trying to talk me out of my .45 or telling me the truth. But it was false. Anyway, one of them got my .45; I didn't get to bring it home.

So the next day they came and got me, put me in a jeep, took me to the airport. Well, the airport there was just a dirt track and a little hut built out there for the guys who controlled the passengers. So I reported there, and I had a set of orders I could present to show what I was supposed to be doing. I gave him my orders and he said "have a seat." I sat there all day. By evening, I'm still not on an airplane. So there's no place to eat there, there wasn't any place to do anything there. So I went over to the guy and I said "can you call my first sergeant for me," and he said "oh, yeah." I told him what outfit I was in. He called the first sergeant, and I said "first sergeant, I've been here all day and nobody has said anything to me. What am I supposed to do?" He said "I'll send a jeep for you."

So he sent a jeep, picked me up, brought me back to camp. I don't know whether somebody missed me or what, but the next morning the first sergeant talked to somebody, and they sent somebody from headquarters, Erskine's office, to pick me up and take me down. That time, I was going on an airplane.

Flew from there to Hawaii, and when I arrived in Hawaii, I was told to report to Marine Corps headquarters there, turn in this envelope. So I did, and the first sergeant took the envelope and disappeared. In a little while he came back and said "we're going to send you out here to the Navy base. As soon as we can get an airplane seat, why, we'll come and get you and put you on an airplane and send you back to the States."

I was out there for seven days. They lost me.

Well, the seventh day, I didn't have anything to do. I'm on a Navy base, there ain't no Marines here, I'm dealing strictly with Navy personnel, and finally a Marine Corps truck comes by. A six-by, one of those big old trucks. And in the window, on the passenger side, there was a sign that said "no passengers." OK. So anyway, I got out in the middle of the street and stopped this guy. And I said "are you going downtown to near the Marine Corps headquarters?" and he said "yeah, that's where I'm going." I said "can I ride with you?" and he said "yeah, get in the back." So I got in the back -- I'm the only guy back there -- and we go downtown I go back to Marine Corps headquarters, and I walk in.

The same little guy -- we called them clerks; he was a Pfc. in the Marine Corps -- he was sitting there beating on the typewriter. And I walked up to him, and I said "I'd like to see the first sergeant." He looked up at me, and his eyes got great big -- what am I doing here, you know? And he jumped up and ran back down the hallway, and the first sergeant came out. First thing he said when he walked through the door where I was standing: "What in the H are you doing here?" (laughs) Because I'm supposed to have already been gone. He got rather excited about that. So they got me a new set of orders real quick, and he personally took me to the airport. 'Cause he had goofed up. I'm convinced that he's the guy that did it.

We got to the airport, and of course planes were very scarce. All of our planes were fighter planes, bombers, or whatever. So there were very few passenger planes. We got to the  airport, and airplanes were coming in and out.

He put me in a little waiting room there, and disappeared. That went on and on and on, and finally, about 2 o'clock in the morning, he came and got me and said "got you a seat." Off we go. We go out, and [after the end of blackout restrictions] this place is lit up like a ... all the lights are burning, all the airport and the runway and everything ... just amazing how much light. And a big light shining on that big plane, just as bright as could be.

He said, "that plane."

So, one of the experiences that have haunted me from that day forward: I walked up the ramp, got on the airplane, all the lights on the inside were on, and this is so vivid in my mind ... Here are about 48 individuals who had just been picked up in Japan, released from prison [after] three, four, five years. They were ... some of them [once] weighed 180 pounds, now they weighed 70 or 80 pounds, they looked like skeletons. Hollow cheeks, hollowed eyes. But the happiest group of people I've ever seen in my life. They were really celebrating. And just having a ball, I thought. But that vision has stayed there all my life since.

Finally, my seat was near the bulkhead, right near one of the motors. Of course one of the prisoners was sitting beside me, really skinny guy, and as we took off we got to talking, and I began asking him questions about prison. I had no idea what being a prisoner of war was. We had no information ever furnished to us on how they were treated, or anything like that. So I was asking him about that, and he was describing some of the activities they'd been through, and difficulties that they'd had. One of the things he said to me that's stuck with me ever since: "You'll never know what freedom is until you have lost it." Tears rolled down his cheeks. Never slept between there and Frisco, I'll guarantee ... nobody was sleeping.

So we got to Frisco. Those guys were all headed for Letterman General Hospital in Michigan, where they took the POWs to build them back up again. Well, they had to drop me off in Frisco, because my orders said I had to go to headquarters, Marine Corps, in Frisco. I'm the only guy got off the plane. And this great big tarmac ... I'd never seen a tarmac before. Nobody there to meet me, I had no idea where to go.

I'm in khaki uniform. I'm out of uniform; the Marine Corps had already switched in August from khaki to greens. I started walking across this tarmac, and I see a light in a little building over there. It was shore patrol people. It wasn't dark yet, it was light. I got within 50, 60 yards from that, and these two shore patrol people came out. Didn't ask me who I was, or why I was there or anything, they just walked up and said, "you're under arrest. You're out of uniform."

So they took me in that little hut. So then I showed them my orders, and they didn't know what the Medal of Honor was. They hadn't heard of it either. Anyway, they looked at my orders and saw that I was supposed to be in Oakland, the Marine Corps base. They called over there and asked if they could send a car and get me, and I stayed there in that little hut until the Marine Corps car came and got me, took me over. First thing they did was run me over to the tailor and get me into the proper uniform so I wouldn't be arrested again.

So they cut me a new set of orders then and gave them to me, and reduced my flight eligibility to train eligibility. And it [took] five days at that time; from California to Washington was a five-day trip on a train. Unbelievable. But anyway, they gave me a berth. I got on the train, my berth was the top berth, had no idea of where I'm going or what I'm going to do, nobody to talk to, nothing. But I crawled up in that berth and I'm laying there a few moments -- I hadn't been there very long. Some guy came up. I still had my clothes on, I'm just laying there in my clothes. He takes hold of my pants leg and pulls on it: "You're in my berth!" Well he was an Army officer. Am I going to argue with him? No. So I get out of the berth.

About that time the conductor came down through the train, and asked a question, "can I help?" or whatever, and this lieutenant said "this guy was in my berth." He said, "well, what's your berth number?" He handed him the ticket. He says "you're in the wrong car." (laughs) So I was in the right car and the right berth, but he was in the wrong car. He was in the same berth number in the next car.

So they had a chow car there, and I spent a lot of time drinking coffee in the chow car. I was sitting in there one night, and looked up and here came a guy through the front door that looked like a Southern general. He had boots on, up to his knees, he had a saber on his side, he had a white beard, great big kind of a cavalry hat, and the uniform, of a southern general. And I'm sitting there by myself.

He walked up and asked me if he could sit down with me. Sure. Well, he sat down and began asking me questions -- where have I been, where am I going, yak, yak, yak, you know? -- and we started talking. I explained to him that I'd been overseas 2½ years, and now I'm going home, I'm going to Washington, and I'm going to get this whatever it is, I'm going to go get this thing. I'm due up there on October the third, and this is September 25th or 26th. And he asked me where my home was, and I told him all of that, and in a little while he said "I'll be back in a little while."

So he got up and left. In a little while he came back, and he had the conductor with him. Introduced the conductor to me, and he said, "this train does not stop in Uniontown, Pennsylvania. That's not a stop. The last stop was Chicago, and then the next stop is Washington, D.C. Doesn't stop anywhere in between, a direct, through train." But the conductor said "and you live in Fairmont, West Virginia?" I said "yeah, that's home." He said, "well, you know, Fairmont's only about 30 miles from Uniontown." I said "yeah, I know. But I've got to go to Washington, and I'm to report there on the third, but I'm going to be in Washington on the 29th. So I've got some days that I can go home." And he said, "well, if we slow this train down to three miles an hour in Uniontown, do you think you can get off of it?" I said "you bet your life."

So, that's what they did, They slowed that thing down, and I'm standing out on that little step with my little duffel bag. As soon as he got down [in speed], the conductor said "OK." I jumped off that sucker in Uniontown in the middle of the night. No lights are on, nobody's around, no cars. Of course, cars were very scarce then. You didn't have very many cars, 'cause they hadn't made any since 1942. Well, now where do I go? So I just start walking, no sense in standing in one place.

They had people that walked the streets at night called night watchmen. They didn't have any weapon, but they checked doors or whatever. But they did wear a uniform, kind of like a police officer, with a cap kind of like the billed cap of a police officer. So I'm walking down the street and he's on the other side. I ran across the street and said "is there someplace I can get a cup of coffee?" He said, "well, yeah, we've got a USO down here. Open 24 hours. Just go down there." He gave me the directions of how to get there.

I went in, only two people there were the people who run the thing, nobody else there. I went in, got a cup of coffee, sat down. A lady came up and started talking to me, one of the employees, and asked me where I was going, that sort of thing. So I told her. She said "well, I get of at 6. If you just stick around here, I'll drive you from here to Morgantown, which is only about 15 miles away, then you can catch a bus from there to Fairmont. OK. So I sat there and drank coffee and ate doughnuts until 6:00, then she put me in her car, drove me over to Morgantown, and I caught a bus.

The bus was ready to leave when I got there. I got on the bus, and my eventual wife, the girlfriend I'd been engaged to ever since I went into the Marine Corps, lived between Morgantown and Fairmont. And this bus went right by her house. Now, isn't that a miracle?

So we're driving down the road -- there weren't many people on the bus because it was early in the morning -- so I asked the bus driver, "can you stop this bus and let me off at Meadow Dale?" He said, "well, sure. Just tell me when." So we got down in front of her house, and I said to him "can you let me off right here?" and he let me off. Seven o'clock in the morning, I walked up and knocked on her door. Talk about a surprise, because they had no idea where I was, or nothing. They thought I was still overseas.

Well, that was my homecoming.

Receiving the Medal of Honor

I've said many times, I don't know if I was more scared then than I was in combat. I know my body shook more. I was so frightened that my body would not be still. I've had this experience a couple of my times in my life when I had a near-accident or something. After it's over, your body shakes. That's the way I was when I went up to the president. Shaking so that my body wouldn't stand still, and I'd roll up on my toes to try to keep it quiet, and back on my heels to try to keep it quiet, and they read the whole citation. It seems like it's forever and ever and ever that you're standing there.

When they finish with the citation, someone brings him over the medal, and he takes the medal, and ... he did it differently then than they do today. Today the president stands behind the person and puts it on. That didn't happen there. He pinned it from the front. Well, if you've ever seen the Medal of Honor hook, finding that little hole to put that little thing in is a very difficult thing in the beginning. When you're doing it behind someone's back it's even more difficult. So he had quite a difficult time trying to find that little hole in that ribbon. But eventually he did, and when he got it pinned, why of course he shook hands and he said to me, as he said to every one of us -- there were 13 of us there that day -- "I would rather have this medal than to be president." And he said this over and over to the people who received it. He said that to me. I made no response. I was so scared I couldn't even think, let alone respond.

One of the fellows receiving the medal the same day I did was a 17-year-old Marine, Jack Lucas, and Jack never had a bashful day in his life, I don't think. And the story is that when he said that to Jack -- and we went alphabetical, so I was next to last. A guy named Zimmer was last of the 13. So Jack was about half way through. When he said that to Jack, Jack's response was, "I'll trade you." (laughs) I could've never done that. That's not my nature.

Jack Lucas probably gave me more reasons to remember than any other [Medal of Honor recipient]. After Jack and I received the medal, I was 22 years old, Jack was 17. He sort of latched onto me as his mentor -- we didn't even know that word back in those days, but Jack would confide in me, he would ask me advice, that type thing. He became almost like a son. So if he got in trouble, who'd he call? Me. And I've got him out of more troubles than I could remember. But he had the greatest impact on my life as any other member of the [Medal of Honor] society.

After the war

After World War II, when we all came home, we had a similar condition. We didn't call it PTSD back then. That term hadn't come up. We called it "psychoneurosis." And we had a number of people who came home with that condition, which is exactly the same as PTSD. But there were no treatment facilities, psychiatry hadn't really gotten going yet. All we had were mental hospitals that hospitalized the people the court said could not maintain their affairs and that type of thing. And most World War II guys weren't, certainly, to that point. But most of us had what we now call PTSD. Couldn't do much about it. And for years, dreams and anxieties were part of life.

One of the things that helped me most was receiving the Medal of Honor. That seems strange, maybe., but when I received the Medal of Honor, rather than going back to the farm as a timid, shy country boy with no help, I became a public figure. I didn't want to do that; that certainly wasn't in my goals, to become a public figure. But the mere fact that I did, and I represented something bigger than me, greater than me, and represented those guys that didn't get to come home ... that put me in a position where I had to express myself. People wouldn't let me alone. All kinds of questions; constantly in the public. 'What did you do? How did you [earn the medal]? These kinds of things. I had to talk about it, or go dig myself a hole and stay in it.

And we had veterans who did that. Went off by themselves, and wouldn't have any association with anybody. But the mere fact that I had to do that was my therapy. Really, it absolutely helped me. I still had the nightmares; a gun went off someplace, I'm getting ready to fight again, but the severity of it continued to go down.

I had a brother that was in the Battle of the Bulge, and he cracked up. What we called in World War II a crackup. They absolutely lose all control of their presence. They cry, they shake, they do all these things that we called crackup. He did that, and they sent him to a mental hospital in England during the Battle of the Bulge. Apparently he was in pretty bad shape; they kept him there until after the war. He didn't get home until March of 1946. They kept him in that mental hospital. No word ever came back to my mother. My father died when I was 9 years old, but my mother raised all of us kids. But no word ever came back to her as to his condition. Nothing. She just knew he was in a hospital. She didn't even know it was a mental hospital.

When he came home, he was in much worse shape than I was. His psychosis was much deeper, prevalent than mine. And he didn't live very long.

So as time went on, I knew from the beginning, I guess, I was one of the most fortunate people in the world, because I had an awful lot of guys around me that were killed and I wasn't. There had to be some kind of a reason for this ... why me? And I kept asking myself that question ... why me? Why am I doing this? Why am I receiving this when others did as much or gave more than I did? It was a very difficult thing to evaluate.

I wouldn't go to church. My wife was raised as a Christian girl from the time she was born, she raised our two daughters as Christian daughters, but I wouldn't go to church with her. I didn't need God. I'm a Marine! I'm self sufficient! Whew.

But they kept after me, and as the girls got older, back in those days at Easter time we would always buy new clothes for them and dress them up in the finery of Easter. You only did it for one day, and I used to resent that terribly. Why is she spending all this money for one day? It didn't make any sense to me. But they kept after me, and in 1962 they finally wore me down and I said "OK, I'll go."

But when we went into the church, I found a pew that didn't have anybody in it, and I put them in first, and I sat on the aisle. Because if that guy gets hackin' on me, I'm leaving, you know? I've got an escape route already planned out.

But God had a different plan. That day He spoke to me, and made me realize, "hey. you're here because I let you be here. You're here because I saved your life. And so, I went forward and dedicated my life to God, and I've been serving my lord ever since. That was 1962.

I don't put a whole lot of work into [preaching]. I meditate about it and just say "God, what do you want me to say? You're the boss."

The cost of battle

I don't know how you can prepare for something that is not real in your mind. As we grew up as children -- and I assume this still goes on; it does in my family -- you were taught "you do not kill." I was taught that, and taught that the only time you kill is when you have to have something to eat, or you've got an animal that's in misery and you want to get it out of its misery. But just to wantonly kill something -- you don't do that.

I did it a few times as a kid with a slingshot, and killed a bird, and I got caught a few times, and I got a whippin' for it. "What'd that bird do to you?" So we were brought up that way, and then all of a sudden we go into the military, and our complete thought process starts another way: If you're going to survive, you've got to kill. It's a very difficult transition.

And then, in my case and World War II cases mostly, when you came home they handed you a piece of paper and said "OK, we're done with you. We don't need you any more. So you go back to where you were prior to World War II." Overnight you're supposed to make that transition, and that's a tough thing to do. Almost impossible. And those things that happened to you during that period of war, they're there. They're not going to be erased just overnight.

So PTSD ... the word post-traumatic doesn't quite set it with me. I don't fully understand what we're saying when we say post-traumatic. Well, war is traumatic. No question about it. And if you come out of the war, then you're in the beginning and the past is done. I wish they had come up with a different term than "post-traumatic." "Battle fatigue" that came out of Korea, to me, fits the situation so much better than PTSD. Battle fatigue. you really reach that point in time in battle. Some can't take it, some live with it forever. I like that ... I don't like that term, but I would prefer their using that term, "battle fatigue."

["Disorder"] never quite fit. I can see a reason ... I'm not smart, but I can see a reason why the so-called PTSD or the battle fatigue is greater from Iraq and Afghanistan than it was in World War II or Korea, Vietnam ... because when you put limitations on a person whose life is in danger and say "you can't shoot until you're shot at," the stress is ... I would think that I'd be in trouble. I don't believe I could control that. I believe that if somebody was threatening my life, I'm going to shoot first. I'm not going to pay any attention to that "rules of engagement" stuff. I'm going to protect my life. That's human nature. That's the way we are.

Often I speak to state police graduating classes, and I tell those guys, "you know, you face more stress every day than I did when I was in combat." When my commanding officer told me, "OK, we're going to be on the attack today, we're going to be the pushers," I knew I was going to be shot at. I knew somebody's going to try to kill me. But I was prepared for that. And I had the wherewithal to attempt to protect myself.

A state trooper, when he walks out of his house in the morning, he has no idea whether he's going to get home that night. And that has got to be a very stressful situation. But do we hear of PTSD in state troopers? No. I've never seen one that they diagnosed with that, you know? But you know it's got to be there.

And firemen are in the same classification ... when you run out of that fire department and head for that house, you don't know whether you're going to fall through the floor, or whatever. And they face that with less protection than what we did when we were in combat. I just don't think I'd ever want to be a policeman or a fireman (laughs).

Interview by Joe Gromelski, Stars and Stripes
 

WWII Medal of Honor recipient Hershel W. 'Woody' Williams
STARS AND STRIPES

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