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Knocking out Japanese pillboxes with a flamethrower

Knocking out more Japanese pillboxes


Hershel Williams was born and raised in a country atmosphere in West Virginia. His father was in the dairy business. Williams was one of eleven children. During the 1918 flu epidemic Williams lost six of his brothers and sisters. The Williams family lost these family members before Hershel was born in 1923. There was no military influence in his hometown. Most people went into the army. Joining the army to Williams meant one of two things, either you were in trouble with the law or you were too lazy to work. That was his perception of the army growing up. Williams had a few guys in his community who did not like to farm, so they decided to join the Marine Corps. The only enlistment period for the Marine Corps at the time was a six year period. The Marine Corps issued one 30 day furlough per year. The two guys who joined the Marine Corps would come back every once in awhile for their 30 day furlough and Williams remembers being very impressed with the Marines even though he never dreamed of joining the service. A lot of young men in Williams' community joined the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Williams joined the CCC when he was 17 and was shipped to Montana. As far as Williams was concerned he was on the moon. He was in Montana on 7 December 1941. The CCC made a provision that you could leave if you wanted to serve in the military since it was apparent a war was imminent. Williams requested a discharge so he could go home and enlist in the Marine Corps. After his 18th birthday he went to enlist and was originally denied because he was too short. So he went back to the farm. They kept the paperwork and in early 1943 they did away with the height requirement. The recruiter looked him up and asked Williams if he wanted to join the Marine Corps and Williams said yes. Parris Island [Annotator's Note: Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, South Carolina] was packed and they had trouble training the soldiers. Soldiers had to sleep in tent cities. Two people would be taken from each county in his home state of West Virginia. They took Williams from his county and five others from surrounding counties.


Hershel Williams was sent to the capitol city of Charleston [Annotator's Note: Charleston, South Carolina] and from there they waited to go to boot camp. They boarded a train and Williams assumed that he would be going to Parris Island. The troop train he was on had been picking people up all throughout the south, and it ended up in West Virginia where it picked up Williams. The train eventually ended up in California. Williams became what he calls a Hollywood Marine. Following boot camp everyone got a ten day furlough. Williams spent the furlough in Los Angeles with a Marine friend. Williams had drill instructors who had been to Guadalcanal, but other than that he did not hear much about the war. The instructors did not impart much of their experience to the troops they were training. They were more concerned with making Marines. During training they learned how to follow tanks to reach objectives. Williams went to Guadalcanal as a replacement to fill in for the men who had been lost during the Bougainville campaign [Annotator's Note: November 1943]. The 3rd Marine Division needed replacements. The Marines from the 3rd Division on Bougainville returned to Guadalcanal and that is where Williams joined them. Williams was selected as a flame thrower operator and made corporal on Guadalcanal. He started demolition training. It was very dangerous training. After the demolition training, they began training the flamethrower units. Williams and six men were selected to train with flamethrowers. Williams learned and worked with different materials that were going to be used for the flamethrowers. He worked with a phosphorous gel which was the most efficient kind of material for a flamethrower. The flamethrower tank only lasted for about 70 seconds of continuous use. The sergeant who trained Williams eventually came up with the correct combination of diesel fuel and high octane gasoline that would be safe for the men to use. The combination they came up with was not sticky but it burned at 3,500 degrees and was sturdy enough to not blow back in the face of the user. The combination they settled on was extremely deadly. Not one of the guys who was teaching Williams had combat experience with the flamethrower because it was so new. Through trial and error they developed the right fuel to use and the techniques needed to ensure battlefield success.


From late November of 1943 until Guam in 1944 Hershel Williams was engaged in a rigorous training regimen. When Williams got to Guam he was a flamethrower operator and he had an assistant with him. The assistant was there to help the flamethrower man with equipment and fuel and things of that nature. His assistant was Vernon Waters. Vernon was six feet, four inches tall. He carried his pack, Williams's pack, ammunition, grenades, and other sorts of equipment. Williams and Vernon stayed together through Guam and on Iwo Jima. Williams lost Vernon on Iwo Jima. When they landed on Iwo Jima on 21 February 1945 Vernon was with another company. Vernon did not assist Williams on 23 February when Williams won his Medal. On 5 March Williams's company was down to 17 people, that was when Vernon was placed with Williams. The night of 5 March, Williams spent all night helping to train the replacements to use the flamethrower. After the training on 5 March it was Williams's outfit that had to go back on the front line. Williams was hit in the leg on 6 March, found a foxhole, and called for corpsman who wanted to put a tag on him so he could leave. Williams did not want to leave. After getting rid of the corpsman they received orders to move out. Vernon jumped up to move up to a position on the top of knoll. The Japanese had been using mortars on that area and as soon as Vernon started making his way up the hill Williams saw a mortar shell hit Vernon squarely on the top of the helmet. He never saw it coming. Williams ran to him but he was already gone. Williams and Vernon were close like brothers. Williams called a corpsmen but he had to move on.


Vernon wore a ring. Hershel Williams also wore a ring that was to remind him of his engagement to his fiancee Ruby. Vernon and Williams had an agreement that if anything were to happen to either of them, the other would make every effort to get that piece of jewelry to their respected loved one. Williams and Vernon both knew that taking anything off of a dead Marine was an offense worthy of a court martial. When Vernon got hit with the mortar he was stretched out. Williams saw the ring and pulled it off of him. Williams remembers the pale piece of skin that was left by the ring. Williams covered the pale spot with dirt so that people would not know he took the ring. He stuck the ring in his pocket and carried it with him the rest of the war. When he got back to the United States he wrote to Vernon's parents in Floyd, Montana. Williams sent a note saying he would go and return the ring personally. In January 1946 Williams and his wife drove to Montana and delivered the ring. Williams never had to use his flamethrower on Guam. It was mostly jungle and Williams realized that it was not very practical in that kind of environment. When Williams got to Iwo Jima, he did not have his flamethrower for the initial landing. Before they landed they went over a map so they could learn the landscape of Iwo Jima. They were a reserve division and at first they figured they would not be needed because the assault divisions comprised of 20,000 men. After learning how big Iwo Jima was, they figured 20,000 men would be enough and they would serve in a support role. They thought they would never get off the ship. The initial landing was 19 February [Annotator's Note: 19 February 1945]. They were already in need of more men by the following day because they were losing men at a rapid rate. On the morning of 20 February Williams was on a ship that was a part of the armada offshore. At about two thirty in the morning they were fed. After they ate, they put their packs on and headed over the side of the ship into a Higgins boat [Annotator's Note: Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnel or LCVP]. All of this took place in the dark. There was a storm that caused high seas when they were trying to load the boats. Williams' most fearful moment was when he went over the side of the ship and had to climb down the rope ladder. He knew that if he fell he would sink right to the bottom. At just about daylight, Williams' boat rendezvoused with the other boats so that they could get organized for the trek to shore. Williams got seasick that day. There were 36 men packed into the boat and by Williams' account everyone was seasick.


While the ships were circling, Hershel Williams had to use the bathroom, which was essentially a pump that circulated water out of the boat. All 36 men had to rotate around the pump during the entire day. After circling most of the day they determined that there was not enough room on the beach for them to land so they headed back to the ship. The water was so rough that it was tough to get back to the ship. After getting back to the ship, Williams collapsed on the deck and slept there until the next morning when they had to load the boat again. Williams had no idea what was occuring on the beach at Iwo Jima. The second time they loaded the boat they circled till about noon then landed. Williams' unit was to take control of the airfield. After landing Williams made his way off the beach, noting that the sand was so thick it was like walking through BBs. Upon arriving at the first airfield, the only cover was a shell hole caused by the naval bombardment. Everyone ran for a hole and jumped in, and continued this process to make headway. A lot of people were lost on the airfield because of the position the Japanese held in their pillboxes. After making their way across the airfield they engaged the enemy pillbox to pillbox and lost a lot of Marines. The pillboxes were made of reinforced concrete and covered with three or four feet of sand. Shelling was useless. A bazooka or tank was ideal for the job but they could only get so far because of the sand. The tanks were useless initially because of the thick sand. They were sitting targets for Japanese who knocked them out by running at them and dropping grenades down the tank turret. Williams does not remember much from the initial landing because of fear. Williams dealt with the fear by understanding he had a job to do for the men around him. Williams used six flamethrowers because after one was used, it was done and he had to go back to get another one.


When the flag went up on Mt. Suribachi [Annotator's Note: Iwo Jima, February 1945], Hershel Williams was too busy in his own realm to notice what was going on. All of a sudden everyone jumped up, started shooting their weapons and cheering as they watched the flag being raised over Mt. Suribachi. Williams jumped up and began to cheer like everyone else. When the flag went up, every one's attitude changed. Suddenly people could see the end of the tunnel. Williams noted that it helped with morale immensely. Williams's captain called for a meeting of all NCO's [Annotator's Note: noncommissioned officer ] and officers. The meeting took place in a big shell crater. Williams was elected as an NCO to represent his men in the meeting. The captain expressed frustration in regards to how to proceed with the fewest amount of casualties. The captain looked at Williams and asked him if he could knock out some of the pillboxes with his flamethrower. Williams said he would try. Williams had four marines with him to protect him. He started crawling towards the pillboxes. He had the idea to grab an extra man and have him bring a pole charge so that after he knocked out the pillbox he could then blow it up. The Japanese had dug trenches between the pillboxes so that they could move quickly from one to the other. There were holes in the ground filled with empty oil drums with wooden covers. The Japanese would hide themselves in the oil drums, pull the lid over and the Marines would have no idea where they were. A flamethrower rolling over the drums would suck the oxygen out of the drums and it would kill the occupant quickly. As Williams got to the pillbox his friend decided he would stand up and run at the pillbox. He was immediately shot in the head but the bullet just glanced off the helmet and he was alright. As they got to the pillbox, Williams took out a Japanese soldier who was hiding in one of the oil drums. The first pillbox was occupied and had a gun crew operating a nambu machinegun. Williams had to work his way around to the side of the pillbox so he could get close enough to get the flame inside. He knocked out that pillbox. His other vivid memory of the experience was attempting to get close to another pillbox but having trouble doing so because the gunner inside was very close to shooting Williams. The Japanese did not have smokeless powder and because of this Williams could see the smoke coming out of the top of the pillbox through a little chimney chute. Williams crawled around, went up the side of the pillbox and shot flame down the pipe, knocking out the pillbox. Someone said there were 17 Japanese in that pillbox.


Hershel Williams does not remember knocking out some of the pillboxes. One of them, however, Williams remembers, ran out of ammunition. Williams went around the backside and the Japanese were already charging at him with fixed bayonets. He knocked them out with one burst from his flamethrower. These were some of the vivid memories. Williams knocked out seven pillboxes in about four hours. He has no idea how he did it without getting shot. Williams would shoot then quickly move so as not to get zeroed in on by Japanese artillery. Out of the four guys who went to help Williams initially, two were killed. Williams believed that the Medal [Annotator's Note: the Medal of Honor Williams was awarded] was for the men who died to help him live, and not for his own personal glory. Williams left Iwo Jima on 1 April 1945 and headed to Guam. The people who stayed in camp on Guam, the engineers, built two false front buildings, to make it look like a house. After a couple weeks of rest they began training again. Usually it was jungle training but this time the training was geared for street fighting. Everyone in the outfit thought they were going to Tokyo. It was eventually decided that all six Marine divisions would be heading to Kyushu, where there would be intense street fighting. According to the history, the campaign was going to be called Olympia [Annotator's Note: Operation Olympic, the invasion of the southern Japanese island, Kyushu]. Intelligence had informed them that 250,000 civilians were trained and armed, ready to conduct urban warfare. This included children. It was estimated that there would have been a million casualties if they invaded Japan. Williams realized that if they went in, they would have to shoot everyone out of necessity since everyone was armed and had orders to shoot Americans. Williams believes that the atomic bomb saved his life. On 12 September Williams found out he was receiving the Medal of Honor. Williams met with General Erskine [Annotator's Note: General Graves Blanchard Erskine, commander of the 3rd Marine Division]. General Erskine informed him that he was being sent back to the United States to receive an award. Williams knew he was going to receive the purple heart but had no idea about the Medal of Honor. The general's aide gave Williams an envelope sealed with wax.


The military aide told Hershel Williams to take the envelope and do not open it as it was a court martial offense if it was opened. The next day they had a plane for Williams back to the United States. Williams sat at the airport all day waiting for someone to call his name, but no one did. The next day Williams got on an airplane. From Guam, he went to Johnson Island then continued on to Hawaii. When he got to Hawaii he turned the envelope in at Marine Corps headquarters. Williams was sent to a navy base and was lost for seven days. He did not hear a thing for a week, but it was a welcome change since all he did was sleep and eat. Eventually his orders were straightened out and he was put on a plane for San Francisco, California. The plane had come from Japan and was loaded with former prisoners of war. Williams thought the prisoners did not look like human beings at all. Some of the guys weighed 70 or 80 pounds. The only reason Williams got a seat on the plane was because one of the POWs died and they did not have time to send a replacement. The guys on the plane sang the entire way to San Francisco. To Williams, the Medal of Honor represents the tremendous sacrifice that it takes to keep what we have. It is something that most Americans take for granted until it is threatened to be taken away. America has never been a good aggressor. We are not an aggressive sort of people. We want to restore things, not tear them up. For us to go to war, to be an aggressor, makes things difficult. Iwo Jima was tougher than the other islands because it was the first time we tried to take an island that was truly Japanese territory. Williams believes that if you try to take something from someone that is inherently theirs, the people defending it will fight harder than the people who are trying to take it. The Japanese knew they were going to die. Williams believes that not all of them wanted to die and that some of them would have liked to go home to their families. Williams believes that if you fight to live rather than to do, you are harnessing the most basic human desire which is to live and therefore you will fight more effectively. The Medal is for the people who sacrificed their lives. Williams met with General Vandegrift [Annotator's note: General Alexander Archer Vandegrift] who was also a Medal of Honor recipient. Vandegrift told Williams that Medal did not belong to him. This shocked Williams. Then the General said that it belonged to the Marines who did not come home. He also told Williams to never do anything that will tarnish the Medal.

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