“Unyielding determination and extraordinary heroism”

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.
August 4, 2022

Today marks 246 years of the American struggle for independence. Though most people refer to the national holiday as “the Fourth of July,” it is formally named Independence Day. Whatever you call it, the day celebrates the greatest single moment of political significance in the proud history of the United States of America: the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

This Independence Day, I am thinking of a man who died last Wednesday at age 98. Hershel Williams was the last surviving Medal of Honor recipient from World War II—the very last of 472 Americans from that war honored with their country’s highest military decoration. Williams was born into a West Virginia farm family in 1923. His father died when he was only 11, and after working with his siblings on the dairy farm, Williams quit school and joined the Civilian Conservation Corps. The teenager then tried to join the Marine Corps, mostly because he preferred its impressive blue uniforms. He was not impressed with the Army’s drab brown uniforms of that era.

The Marines turned the teenager down because he was not tall enough. When war broke out a few months later, the Marines decided that the young man’s height, which had not changed, was just fine.

As a Marine, Williams was trained to wield a flame thrower and was sent into the deadly island campaign in the Pacific. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, supreme commander of Allied forces in the Pacific theater, had orchestrated a plan to advance against Japan by taking control of strategic Pacific islands, one by one. MacArthur understood that no real advance in the liberation of the Pacific could come without seizing those key islands that were central to Japanese defenses and crucial to the Allies’ need for runways, especially for America’s big bombers.

One of those islands, now etched into America’s deepest memory, was Iwo Jima. The terrain favored the Japanese defenders, and by that time, the Japanese military theory had come down to kill or die. Iwo Jima became the Marine Corps’ bloodiest memory. For every three Marines who landed on the island, one would die there. The battle would become the largest single-event loss of life in the proud history of the Corps. But Allied forces did eventually prevail and Japan would surrender within a matter of months.

Cpl. Williams found himself in the middle of this deadly conflict. Seeing his fellow Marines falling to intense enemy fire, he grabbed his flame thrower and made repeated advances toward the entrenched Japanese forces. His valor helped change the course of the conflict and thus change history. The battle for Iwo Jima took 36 days and cost nearly 7,000 American lives with more than 24,000 wounded.

During the conflict, Williams had looked death in the face day after day, responding with heroism and bravery. On Feb. 23, 1945, he heard a strange noise and gunfire. “My head was buried in the sand,” Williams would later tell military historians. “Then I looked up and saw Old Glory on the top of Mount Suribachi.” He had witnessed one of the most memorable and moving moments of that unprecedented war. Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal captured the event in a photograph that for many Americans came to represent the meaning of the entire war effort.

It was President Harry S. Truman who pinned the Medal of Honor on Williams’ blue uniform. Williams, who would reach the rank of lance corporal, said he received the medal only to hold it in trust for his fellow Marines and Allied fighting forces. The official U.S. document authorizing his medal stated he had demonstrated “unyielding determination and extraordinary heroism.” The New York Times would later describe his heroism in terms of a “one-man flame-throwing foray.” Whatever you call it, any honorable nation will recognize such heroism or else retreat into the mists of human history.

After WWII, the war hero served his fellow veterans through an array of opportunities. Williams became a lay minister in his church and served as chaplain of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society for 35 years.

When it comes to World War II, Williams was the very last of the last. There are no more recipients of the Medal of Honor from World War II left alive. According to some reports, Williams kept a few vials of the sands of Iwo Jima in his kitchen. He knew how much had been paid in blood to gain that precious ground.

May you and your family celebrate a wonderful Independence Day. This sweet land of liberty and the freedoms we cherish today were bought with valor and courage. But as you celebrate, put down the Frisbee or the hot dog for a moment and tell your children about Hershel Williams.

This article originally appeared at WORLD Opinions on July 4, 2022.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

I am always glad to hear from readers. Write me using the contact form. Follow regular updates on Twitter at @albertmohler.

Subscribe via email for daily Briefings and more (unsubscribe at any time).