Sixty-five years and two days ago, a young man from West Virginia looked around himself and saw that a lot of his friends were going to die unless something drastic was done. He’d sat on a ship an extra day, because the Marines were so crowded on the beach, there was no place for his unit to land on February 20, 1945. They landed a day late, but they, too, were stuck on the beach.
This particular West Virginian tried to join the Marines in the fall of 1942, but was rejected because he was too short. Months later – the height standard relaxed – he was able to enlist. Three years later he had risen to corporal and now – a demolitions sergeant – he couldn’t stand the thought of so many of his fellow Marines being killed when he could do something about it.
Hershel “Woody” Williams saw that the Marines couldn’t advance until a network of Japanese pillboxes blocking the infantry and tanks were neutralized and volunteered to do something no one thought possible. And for the next four hours, Williams crawled back and forth through heavy machinegun fire doing what the tankers couldn’t, what the heavy naval gunfire and supporting aircraft couldn’t do.
Covered only by four riflemen, back and forth, trading empty flamethrowers for full ones, getting demolition packs he could place and detonate, by himself Woody Williams knocked out enough of the Japanese positions to create a lane through which the tanks and infantry could advance. Hundreds, if not thousands, of Marines who might have died that day lived to advance and later capture the island of Iwo Jima. Among them – somewhere – was a 27-year old Marine captain from the Bronx: Harold H. Babbin, my father.
For his valor that day Woody Williams received the Congressional Medal of Honor.
I’ve met Woody a number of times, and had the great privilege of talking to him. He’s a quiet man, given to smiling and always giving a kind word or two. For a while, he was the chaplain of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society. He taught Sunday school in the small West Virginia town he lived in.
In 2003, on the first day of the Iraq invasion, I was subbing for Ollie North on his radio show. I called Woody and asked if he would say an on-air prayer for our men going in harm’s way, and he readily agreed. It was the most moving prayer I’ve ever heard.
I haven’t spoken to Woody in a couple of years. He’s now 87 years old and I hope in the best of health. Here’s to you, Woody, and the debt our nation owes you we can never repay. God bless you, and thanks.
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