The average life expectancy of a Marine with a flamethrower on any given battlefield is about five minutes, according to Medal of Honor recipient and U.S. Marine Corps veteran Herschel “Woody” Williams. Those tanks made tempting targets – and they weren’t bulletproof.
Woody Williams was one such flamethrower. He not only earned his Medal of Honor, he’s the last surviving Medal of Honor recipient from the Pacific War.
Williams was on the battlefields of Iwo Jima, an all-out slugfest that took place near the end of the war. But just because the end was nigh, that didn’t mean the Japanese were going to make it easy on the Americans. By the time Woody Williams began torching Japanese pillboxes on the island, the Marines had been fighting for days. Williams had the idea to form a five-man team with him bearing the flamethrower and four Marines providing cover for him as he moved.
The idea was a brilliant success, one he repeated many times over the course of four hours, much longer than the five minutes he would have normally given himself.
He had a lot going against him. The fuel inside a flamethrower weapon will give its user just a few blasts, lasting a couple of seconds at best, so he had to be judicious with his targets; Moreover, the fuel tank weighed roughly 70 pounds, so running with the clunky behemoth would be a challenge. On top of that, he would have to get in close, as the range of the weapon was severely limited. As if that weren’t bad enough, if he wasn’t killed outright and was instead captured by the Japanese, he would be executed as a criminal immediately.
It was not a rosy outlook but time and again Woody crept up on the enemy positions, cooked them very quickly, and returned to base to take up a new, fully loaded flamethrower. To the young Marine, he was just doing his job, even when a bullet ricocheted off his fuel tank. To the Marine Corps, he was a hero.
Woody Williams careful bravery on the battlefields of Iwo Jima allowed the Marines to advance inland after days of being stymied by enemy fortifications and bayonet charges that had begun to take its toll. Within a few weeks, Iwo Jima belonged to the Marines. Corporal Williams would soon receive the Medal of Honor from President Truman himself.
“You go in automatic drive when something like that happens, I think,” Williams told Stars and Stripes. “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.”