flamethrower: iwo jima medal of honor recipient and u.s. marine woody williams and his controversial award, Japan's holocaust and the pacific war

Flamethrower by Bryan Mark Rigg

March 14, 2023
2 mins read

This book tries to be two things. A historical book about the Pacific war during world war two, while also trying to be an autobiography of Woody and an investigation into how he got his medal of honor. It succeeds admirably in the first but falters in the second. 

I was excited to receive an advanced reader’s copy of the book, which was relatively heavy and difficult to read without my elbow support. But I did slough through the entirety of the book, eventually.

The story of the war in the Pacific has always fascinated me, not the least because my country, Malaysia, was invaded and occupied by Imperial Japan and was part of the Japanese campaign of the Greater East Asia Co-Properity concept. 

It begins with the autobiography of Woody. The book’s main character who will serve as the eyes and ears of the experience in the Pacific war.

Woody only joined the war quite late and only saw combat in 1944, so if you’re looking for a chronological narrative, you won’t find it here in its entirety.

However, Bryan still retells the beginning of the war with the attack on Pearl Harbor; the book is accompanied by many photos from military archives and the author’s photographs from when he participated in various war anniversaries. 

The book is interspersed with multiple accounts from other soldiers and generals; these are often gruesome scenes of gore and dismemberment witnessed by soldiers and are recounted in vivid detail.

The second character is general Tadamichi Kuribayashi, the commander of Iwo Jima and responsible for the Nanjing massacre and other atrocities committed in China. The author certainly did not spare any detail in retelling the exploits and heinous crimes of the general.

However, he was also fair in pointing out his pragmatism and thoroughness in preparing Iwo Jima for the inevitable American onslaught, not wasting precious lives on meaningless suicide charges but instead relying on excellent fortifications and unwavering patience.  

The book could have used decent editing regarding the investigative parts on Woody’s medal of honor. All too often, redundant and repetitive questions appear in various parts of the book culminating in a whole chapter dedicated to that.

In short, Woody was initially awarded the medal of honor for taking out 21 Japanese and seven bill boxes, one of which was taken out by woody sticking the nozzle of his flamethrower into the air vent of one of the pillboxes while standing and exposing himself to fire, and eliminating everyone the pillboxes.

The problem was there was enough eyewitness for these actions, and those who had witnessed were found to be unreliable at best or outright lying. The book explains it better, but the gist was that Woody’s action could not be fully backed by others conclusively; therefore, his medal of honor came into question. 

Eventually, due to the lack of evidence, his medal of honor report was revised to state that he was awarded due to his extraordinary heroism in the face of the enemy, which was more suitable given the lack of evidence, according to the author’s research.

I felt that regardless of what happened that day, Woody deserved the Medal of Honour, and even though his accounts and interviews throughout his life were not aligned, one has to give him some leeway considering he was in the middle of life and death combat and our human memories are fallible. His heroism alone should have been enough to win him the medal.

In conclusion, I wished the author had spent more time on the war of the Pacific instead of questioning the legitimacy of Woody’s medal of honor and unnecessary hardship.  

Sadly, Hershel Woodrow “Woody” Williams passed away on June 29th, 2022, and was the last living recipient of the medal of honor for world war two. 

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Max Chee

Max Chee considers himself an avid wargamer, which inspired him to create this site. He has a burning passion for history and advocates computer wargaming for the masses. He believes one can derive knowledge from learning and playing out history,

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