With his Marine unit decimated and desperate to break out beyond the pill boxes lining the airstrip on the island of Iwo Jima, Woody Williams sat in a bomb crater listening to his commanding officer ask for ideas and volunteers.
The commander wanted someone to charge the pill boxes and take out the Japanese mowing them down from inside.
Marine Cpl. Williams, a special weapons operator, raised his voice.
“I’ll try,” Williams said that day, Jan. 23, 1945.
With four Marines providing cover — two of whom would be killed in the fight — Williams repeatedly charged the pill boxes.
“I was able, how I don’t know. I have no explanation except divine guidance that kept me going, but for four hours, using six different flame throwers, I knocked out seven of those pill boxes,” said Williams, now 90. “I burned them out. Got rid of the enemy and that gave us a hole we could go through and once we got through, we had the advantage instead of them.”
For his heroism during World War II, Williams received the Medal of Honor.
But that wasn’t the most famous event on that day on that island.
Five Marines and a Navy corpsman raised the American flag on Mt. Suribachi that day, one of the war’s most iconic images.
Williams recalled those events Tuesday afternoon at the Benjamin Franklin Boys Preparatory Academy, where he had come to help break ground on a memorial to families of the fallen.
Williams and two of his brothers returned from the war.
But there were 405,000 Americans who did not, Williams told the students gathering in the auditorium.
For those families, and those of every service member to die since, “the grief is still there,” he said in an interview. “The hole in the heart is never filled. That’s why it’s important to me to have these memorials to Gold Star families. I would like one in every community, but if I get one in every state, if we can meet that goal over the next five years, at least we have paid tribute to the families of that state who gave their loved ones for our freedom.”
More than 54,000 U.S. service members were killed in Korea. More than 58,000 in Vietnam. Since 9/11, more than 6,700 died supporting Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom.
Adam Wallace, 14, who helped lead the effort to build the memorial, said “it was a great honor to meet Mr. Williams and hear him speak. He said the students began working on the memorial project last October.
“It was important to us to remember the Gold Star families and sacrifices they made,” he said.
The school is trying to raise $40,000 to build the memorial, which the students hope to see built by the end of the year. It will be placed outside, so that the school and community can see it.
For more information, go to hwwmohfoundation.org.