Having complete silence and undivided attention from an auditorium full of students may not be the easiest task.
But World War II veteran, Medal of Honor and Purple Heart recipient Hershel “Woody” Williams had North Lincoln High students captivated with his stories of his experiences in the Battle of Iwo Jima, the importance of a “thank you” and the answer to the question on every one’s mind — how did he receive his medal?
Williams kept the hour-long discussion interactive, asking questions and awarding gold dollar coins to students who answered “Who was the first person to land on the moon?” and other questions correctly.
“I’m not sure I can speak your language — I didn’t grow up using the Internet or Twitter — but I’ll try,” Williams said.
Growing up as the youngest of 11 children, on a dairy farm in West Virginia, Williams never dreamed he would join the military, he told the students last week, and had no interest in it until later in life when he started to notice something. Marines coming home in their dress blues and getting attention from all the local girls first sparked his interest —they became his role models.
When news of the U.S. entrance into World War II, he decided he wanted to enlist.
To his misfortune, however, he didn’t meet the height requirement and was turned away, at first. Shortly after the restrictions were changed and he later joined the Marine Corps.
He was a natural, climbing up the armed forces ladder during the 1940s. He was trained to use a flame thrower — a weapon that would later assist him in recognition from President Harry Truman.
He became a role model, like those he had always looked up to, on Oct. 5, 1945, he told his wide-eyed audience on Friday.
He wrapped up his discussion of general topics, from showing appreciation to veterans and active members of the military to how he got started, and was met with a thundering crowd. But a question lingered in the air, as students and teachers whispered to each other, “How did he get the medal?”
After a few hesitant minutes and no students raising their hands for questions, it seemed the question would go unanswered, until a student spoke for the rest.
Williams replied first by talking about the weapon he used — a flame thrower, that has since been deemed inhumane. He was considered a specialist, though it took more brute force than knowledge, he laughed, but nonetheless it was effective for his mission.
Four men guarding him, Williams successfully cleared out seven bunkers filled with Japanese combatants and fought for four hours with only four other men and his flame thrower. Half of the soldiers guarding him were killed, for whom he accepted the award in honor of the work they did as a team, he said. He explained that he doesn’t consider his actions to be the reason for his recognition, but rather the men who died for him; the medal is for them, he said.
Not sure whether to clap or say quiet, students hung on Williams’ every word of the scene that he said changed his life.
Williams was later-wounded in battle, and later would receive the Purple Heart and was discharged from the Marine Corps. Today, at age 89, Williams continues to travel, speaking about his experiences while trying to connect with his audience of all ages.
The veteran has also appeared on a reality television series on the Discovery Channel — Sons of Guns.
“It’s nice for the students to be able to tie this in to what they’re learning in class,” NLHS World Literature teacher Tammy Price told the Times-News last week. “They’ve been learning about WWII and this gives them that personal experience to go with it.”