News, WW2

Medal of Honor Hero Laid to Rest

The number of veterans of World War II still living is becoming fewer in America with each passing year. Recently another of its most cherished heroes passed away aged 98 at the Veterans Hospital in West Virginia.

Hershel W. “Woody” Williams received the rare tribute of being laid “in honour” at the Rotunda in the U.S. Capitol in early July. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced the tribute together.

Williams in uniform, 1945

Hershel was a member of the United States Marine Corps (USMC) who signed up aged 21. He went on to fight at the Battle of Iwo Jima, for which he received the Medal of Honour from President Harry Truman. The medal is the highest award given for heroism in any branch of the U.S. military.

Many are familiar with the phrase, “lying in state,” which is reserved for government officials, such as senators, and military officers. Williams was laid “in honour,” the title given when it is a civilian laid to rest. Few individuals have received this tribute. A hero of the civil rights movement, Rosa Parks, was another heralded in this way.

After Williams passed away, United States Senator Joe Manchin, of West Virginia, said he would miss the regular phone calls he received from the much-loved veteran.  The senator noted that Williams “never quit giving back,” and worked tirelessly to raise money for Gold Star Families. (These are families who have lost members while serving.) Another tribute to Williams was made by General David H. Berger, commander of the USMC. He said, “Woody may be the most genuine person I ever met.”

Hershel and President Truman.

When he first tried to enlist in the Armed Forces, he was rejected because of his height. But then the Marines accepted him, and he became a demolition Sargeant. He and his squad landed on Iwo Jima, the island that was crucial to the Allies, in February of 1945. Just two days after their arrival, Williams plunged headlong into machine gun fire with nothing but a flamethrower and four comrades covering him with rifles. Miraculously, he not only survived, but he demolished enemy gun emplacements, the action for which he received the Medal of Honour at the White House.

A legend among legends.

In his remarks when accepting the medal, he said, “If fear takes over, you become useless… they were trying to do something to my country, and I wasn’t going to let them do that.”

After a 20-year career with the Marines, Williams went to work for Veterans Affairs. He often had the grim task of notifying families that a son or daughter had been killed in action. It was this duty that gave him an overwhelming appreciation of the sacrifices enlisted personnel make while serving America.

Photo by Lance Cpl. Alexa Hernandez

He established a foundation, and with it placed more than 100 memorials to Gold Star Families all across the United States. Although Williams is now gone, more than 70 additional monuments to fallen soldiers are in the planning stages, according to his website.

According the the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, of the more than 16 million who served in the Second World War only approximately 240,000 service personnel survive. Williams was, according to a military press release, the last surviving recipient of the Medal of Honour for that conflict. Now, he’s gone as well.

However, the legacy of Williams and others like him lives on. He was, by all accounts, a modest and cheerful man who never tired of serving his country in whatever capacity he could.

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Details about an upcoming memorial at the Capitol will be made public at a later date, the joint statement from Pelosi and Schumer said.