'Flamethrowers Got It Done' in Close-Quarters Iwo Jima Fight, Survivors of the Battle Say

Woody Williams and Raymond Hart
Hershel "Woody" Williams (left) during a hangar dedication ceremony at the Capital Jet Center in Charleston, West Virginia, July 26, 2019. Iwo Jima vet Raymond Hart (right) signs autographs at National Museum of Marine Corps, Feb 22, 2020. (Photos: U.S. Marine Corps/William Holdaway and Military.com/Richard Sisk)

This story was originally published on Feb. 29, 2020.

Two old warriors from the battle of Iwo Jima met up for the first time earlier this month to mark the 75th anniversary of the horrific fight for that volcanic piece of rock in the Pacific.

Marine Cpl. Raymond Hart, 98, a retired New York City cop, joined 96-year-old Cpl. Hershel "Woody" Williams, at the National Museum of the Marine Corps Feb. 22 to recall the history the two men shared. Williams, of Quiet Dell, West Virginia, is the last survivor of the 27 Iwo Jima Medal of Honor recipients.

Williams gave a stirring speech before an overflow audience on the battle and his commitment to continue serving Gold Star families. At the end, Hart was ushered down to meet Williams to an explosion of applause and cheers from the audience.

Hart stuck around for a bit to sign autographs. Earlier, he had startled museum officials with the bag of war souvenirs he had brought with him.

Related: On 75th Anniversary of Iwo Jima Flag-Raising, Some Struggle with History-Changing News

Hart began pulling items from the bag shortly after entering the museum. There was the case displaying his medals, including the Bronze Star, and then the helmet he wore through the island campaigns and the occupation of Japan.

The helmet had two holes above the front brim where a bullet fired by a Japanese sniper on Iwo Jima had entered and exited, creasing Hart's temple as it passed through.

Museum officials quickly began thinking of how to rearrange exhibits to show what Hart had brought them, after assuring him that he'd get his keepsakes back at the end of the day.

Hart, who retired from the NYPD as a deputy inspector, said he was bending over to help another Marine from the 28th Regiment on the second day of the Iwo Jima invasion, Feb. 20, 1945, when the bullet hit his helmet, stunning him and knocking him back.

"It was like a big explosion going off inside my helmet. My feet got me out of there," Hart said. But he remained with his unit through the grueling 36-day fight to take the island.

Hart said that, during the campaign, he came to know Pfc. Ira Hayes, the Pima Indian who was one of the six who raised the second, larger flag atop Mount Suribachi in the moment captured in the iconic photo by Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal.

"Ira would come sleep in our tents. Didn't say much, but Ira was a good guy," Hart said.

Hart said his unit had little trouble coming ashore on Feb. 19, 1945, but on the second day they were stopped by fierce Japanese resistance. The campaign would become a bloody slog at close quarters.

The Japanese had dug 11 miles of tunnels under the island to protect against air bombardment, artillery and naval gunfire. They had prepared reinforced pillboxes with interlocking fields of fire.

"It was the flamethrowers got it done" on Iwo Jima, Hart said.

'Inch by Inch' Fight

The Japanese defenders had to be dug out at great cost. The Marines took more than 20,000 casualties, including about 7,000 killed in action. Of the estimated 20,000 Japanese on the island, only about 1,000 survived.

It was in large part what the analysts sometimes call a "short-sword war fight." As described by Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley last week, the American advantages in air and artillery had been mostly negated by the intricate Japanese defenses, putting the individual Marine up against the individual Japanese defender.

Milley had heard that firsthand from his father, Alexander Milley, who served as a Navy corpsman on Iwo Jima.

At the World War II Memorial on Feb. 19, the 75th anniversary of the landings, Milley said that the battle was "the bloodiest campaign in American history by square miles" on an island two miles wide and four miles long.

More ordnance had been expended on such a small target area than in any other battle ahead of the landings, but once the Marines got about 800 yards in from the beach, they hit the "trigger line," and then "all hell broke loose," Milley said. "It was inch by inch, yard by yard."

That's where Woody Williams and his flamethrower came in.

'We Had to Win'

In the transport ships heading to Iwo Jima, "We in the lower ranks had no concept of what the purpose really was" for taking the island, Williams said. "We only knew we had to win."

Four days into the battle, on Feb. 23, 1945, the two flags were raised on Suribachi, setting off a brief celebration among the Marines. Around him, leathernecks were firing their weapons into the air.

Williams, serving with the 1st Battalion, 21st Marines, 3rd Marine Division, said he also fired his weapon but then it was back to the fight. The Marines had been trying to get across the airfield, but the Japanese pillboxes had stopped them and they were taking heavy casualties.

His commander called a meeting in a shell crater to keep them out of the line of fire, Williams said in his speech at the museum.

"They asked me, as being the only flamethrower and demolition expert left, would I do something about the pillboxes that had them stalled?" he said.

"I have no idea of my response," he added, but "one of the Marines, after the campaign when I was back in Guam, made the statement that my response was, 'I'll try.'"

Somehow, with the 70-pound flamethrower on his back, the 5-foot-6 Williams got to the roof of one of the pillboxes. There was a pipe sticking up from the roof, and smoke was coming out of it.

"I used that pipe to get my flame" into the pillbox, Williams said. "They didn't give us any trouble after that."

At another point, several Japanese troops with fixed bayonets came around the corner of a pillbox and charged at him, Williams said.

"I had to get within 15 yards" to use the flamethrower, he said. "Whether they ran out of ammunition, I have no idea, but they charged around the pillbox with bayonets fixed to get me, and I got them first."

Williams reckons that he used a total of six flamethrowers through the long and bloody afternoon, but much of what transpired "is just a blank. I have no memory," he said.

Williams' Medal of Honor citation states: "Covered only by four riflemen, he fought desperately for four 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 one position after another."

    Williams would later learn that two of the four Marines he had picked out to cover for him in the effort to get within range of the enemy had been killed in action.

    "Once I found out that this happened, this Medal of Honor took on a different significance," he said at the museum.

    "I said, from that point on, it does not belong to me. It belongs to them. I wear it in their honor. I keep it shined for them, because there is no greater sacrifice than when someone sacrifices their life for you and me."

    After the war, Williams worked for more than 30 years for what was then the Veterans Administration, and he continues serving to establish memorials for Gold Star families nationwide with help from his Hershel "Woody" Williams Medal of Honor Foundation.

    There are now Gold Star memorials in at least 45 states, Williams said, and he never misses a groundbreaking. His dream is to have a Gold Star memorial in Washington, D.C.

    They Wouldn't Take Back the Helmet

    Ray Hart said he had blood streaming from his brow from the sniper bullet that hit his helmet, but the Marine Corps decided he didn't rate a Purple Heart. The Marines also either didn't have another helmet on hand or wouldn't give him one, so he wore the helmet with the hole for the rest of his tour.

    After the war, "I decided I needed a more sedentary life, so I became a New York City cop," Hart said with a laugh.

    He was still wearing the dented helmet when he mustered out of the Marine Corps, he said. As all Marines know well, the Corps always wants its stuff back, no matter the condition, but they made an exception for Hart's helmet.

    As he was returning his other equipment, the gear guy took a look at his helmet and said, "We can't use that again -- take it with you."

    Hart did, and it's now at home with him in the Woodlawn section of the Bronx.

    -- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

    Read more: Battle of Iwo Jima's Last Living Medal of Honor Recipient Still Working for Military Families

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