Hershel “Woody” Williams is returning after 70 years to Iwo Jima, where a flamethrower saved him from Japanese bayonets and where he earned the Medal of Honor.
His grandchildren urged him for years to relive the war on-site at annual ceremonies to commemorate the Marine Corps’ bloodiest battle — the conquering of an 8-square-mile Pacific dot of black volcanic sand and dirt where B-29s could stage for flights to mainland Japan.
“I finally was convinced by my grandchildren,” said Mr. Williams, 91. “My feelings [for] not going back were because we gave the island back to the Japanese. I felt we should have kept it as a memorial and a showplace for the Pacific, something a little bit like Hawaii, more historical even than Hawaii, and that we should not have given it back to the Japanese. So I just had no desire to go back. But they convinced me I’m getting old and crotchety and I need to change my attitude on it, so I did.”
A return trip to the scene of one of World War II’s most famous and costly battles will not be easy for former Marines in their 80s and 90s.
But a group of about 45 American veterans of the battle of Iwo Jima, some needing financial help, plan to make the long journey March 21 for a 70th anniversary ceremony in the shadow of Mount Suribachi and the 1945 iconic flag-raising.
There will be no Japanese counterparts. The dwindling cadre of the initial 1,083 survivors, who first had fought in China and were older than the primarily teenage American force, have grown too frail to travel. But hundreds of bereaved Japanese family members will join Americans who also lost loved ones in the February-to-March 1945 struggle.
Retired Lt. Col. Michael Kessler, who runs the nonprofit Young Marines in Washington, said he learned that Mr. Williams required financial assistance and quickly began raising money.
He then discovered that about 15 of the 45 veterans also needed help. His goal is to present a check for $40,000 to the Iwo Jima Association of America, the trip’s sponsor. United Airlines pitched in by providing 10 complimentary round-trip tickets from the U.S. to Guam, where the veterans and their families will board charter hops to the island.
“I said this is just wrong that these guys because of funds are unable to go back to the scene of the battle,” Mr. Kessler said. “So we launched a fundraiser. One of the things across the country that we do take care of is our veterans, particularly the older veterans.”
Retired Marine Col. Warren Wiedhahn has watched the number of Iwo Jima-bound veterans decline over time.
“Each year, as they get older, more and more have dropped off,” said Mr. Wiedhahn, who has handled battlefield tours for more than 20 years. “One of the requirements we have is put forth by both Americans and Japanese government: They must have a doctor’s certificate that they are — quote, unquote — in relatively good health before they are allowed to go.”
Mr. Wiedhahn, executive vice president of the Iwo Jima Association, founded Military Historical Tours, which handles travel arrangements via a contract with the group.
“If it’s a veteran, we’ll find a way if I have to carry them on my back,” he said.
He estimates about 45 former combatants will make the trip, compared with 400, and 600 family members, for the 50th commemoration.
“There are thousands of Iwo Jima veterans still alive, but there are not that many which are physically or financially able to travel all that distance,” said Mr. Wiedhahn, a veteran of Korea and Vietnam.
Fighting in close quarters
Iwo Jima stood as one of the last of two obstacles to the Japanese mainland in early 1945. Okinawa would fall the following June. The Allies needed the territory to base B-29s for shorter bombing runs of 660 miles to Tokyo and for the big planned event: a huge amphibious landing on the mainland, Operation Downfall. The final decision to drop two atomic weapons, and ultimately cancel the invasion, was months away.
The Navy sent 880 ships off shore and bombarded Iwo Jima for weeks. Carriers launched airstrikes. On Feb. 19, the amphibious landing began. The operation was expected to take 10 days but stretched to 36 days.
The Japanese, under Lt. Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi, changed tactics. Instead of clashing at the beachhead, his men pulled back and packed themselves into a network of tunnels, pillbox guard posts and caves, from which they inflicted heavy casualties.
The vast majority chose to fight and die rather than surrender. It required the Marines to maneuver dangerously close to kill the enemy by flamethrower and grenade.
On Feb. 23, five Marines and a Navy hospital corpsman planted the American flag on Suribachi, captured by Joe Rosenthal in perhaps World War II’s most famous photograph.
Retired Marine Maj. Norman Hatch, now 93, was a prominent combat photographer during the war. On Iwo Jima, he had 20 photographers under his command as he used a 35 mm camera to film the action.
“I went in on the first wave,” he said. “There was an awful lot of film of that operation.”
On the fifth of his 18 days on the island, he saw the red, white and blue go up from a quarter-mile away.
“I was standing in my foxhole,” Mr. Hatch said. “I saw the flag go up, and then I went back to work, running photographers and giving cover to what they were doing. I thought it was great. A flag is always very important to a certain culture. When you have your flag up there, it’s the best in the world. To put it up there took a lot of courage.”
The Marines took the strategic airstrip the next day. But days of gritty crawling, running and shooting remained.
The costliest battle
“My searing memory is of being charged by a group of the enemy, the rifles and bayonets trying to get to me,” said Hershel “Woody” Williams. “If I hadn’t had any fuel left in my flamethrower, you and I wouldn’t have been talking. In my citation, it cites that they came charging in around one of the pillboxes to try to get me. I was able to get them with flames before they were able to get to me with bayonets.”
His Medal of Honor citation reads, in part:
“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, Cpl. Williams daringly went forward alone to attempt the reduction of devastating machine gunfire from the unyielding positions. Covered only by 4 riflemen, he fought desperately for 4 hours under terrific enemy small-arms fire and repeatedly returned to his own lines to prepare demolition charges and obtain serviced flamethrowers, struggling back, frequently to the rear of hostile emplacements, to wipe out 1 position after another.”
On March 26, the exhausted and battered Americans finally claimed the Island. Of an estimated 20,000 Japanese, 216 were left to surrender. Gen. Kuribayashi was not among them. Sporadic fighting persisted until June, during which another 867 Japanese came out of their holes and put down their weapons.
Six years after the war ended, the last two Japanese soldiers on Iwo Jima surrendered.
According to various military history websites, of 70,000 Marines, nearly 7,000 were killed and 19,000 wounded, making it the Corps’ most brutal battle.
The fight produced 27 Medal of Honor recipients, the most for any single American battle. Mr. Williams is the last surviving Iwo Jima Medal of Honor recipient.
‘Butterflies for two months’
After the war, Mr. Williams returned to West Virginia, became a counselor for the Veterans Administration and joined the Marine Reserve.
Taking the island, he said, made a big difference.
“If we hadn’t had that airport, someplace for B-29s to set down — we’d already lost a whole bunch of them because they had no place to land between [other islands and the mainland] — and we would have continued to lose very expensive airplanes but more so 11 or 12 highly skilled Americans with every plane that went down.”
He and other Iwo Jima veterans will be in Washington for a commemoration at the Marine Corps Barracks at Eighth and I streets Southeast on Thursday, the 70th anniversary of the Iwo Jima amphibious landing. The Iwo Jima Association holds a reunion and symposium culminating in a banquet Saturday night.
Mr. Williams is thinking ahead to arriving, again, on piece of real estate he has not seen all those 70 years.
“If you could have butterflies for two months, I’ve got them,” he said.
He does not know how Japanese officials and family will react when he presents them with two national flags from two dead Japanese officers — one of whom he killed, the other killed by a former Marine who died several years ago.
“I’m a little anxious about it,” he said.