Iwo Jima hero: Remember fallen comrades’ families
When Hershel Woodrow “Woody” Williams began talking Saturday night, the room was so quiet a pin drop could have been heard.
The last surviving Medal of Honor recipient from the World War II campaign on Iwo Jima was a special guest at an appreciation meal hosted by the Core Church of the Nazarene honoring local law enforcement officers, firefighters and first responders.
“It’s always good to be around people who love America,” Williams said. “There’s still a lot of patriotism in America and particularly in this part of the world.”
The Medal of Honor is the country’s highest military honor. It is awarded acts of valor above and beyond the call of duty.
Williams had people’s attention the second he arrived at the Middle Road church.
Before taking the stage, he shook hands, gave out hugs and introduced himself personally to each of the approximately 30 people in attendance.
Adults posed for photos with the energetic 89-year-old, and children watched him in awe.
Don Ratcliff — a past commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2123 — anxiously awaited Williams’ arrival and said he was dumbfounded the first time he saw him in the 1960s when both were in the Marine Corps.
“I know he won’t remember me,” he said of the experience, “but I sure remember him.”
Williams, a native of Fairmont, W.Va., joined the Marine Corps Reserve in Charleston, W.Va., in May 1943.
He trained with a tank battalion before transferring to an infantry battalion for demolition and flamethrower instruction.
In January 1944, he joined the 3rd Marine Division at Guadalcanal and saw action against the Japanese at Guam.
Landing on Iwo Jima in February 1945, Williams distinguished himself by clearing the way for a tank advance by going forward alone with a 70-pound flamethrower against reinforced concrete pillboxes and buried mines in shifting volcanic sand.
He fought for four hours — making trips back to his own lines to prepare demolition charges — to take out the Japanese positions and bunkers. Once, he charged enemy riflemen armed with bayonets with his flamethrower.
He continued fighting through the five-week long battle to take the island but was wounded March 6.
Williams returned to the U.S. in September and was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Harry Truman in October.
Dressed Saturday in black pants and a red suit jacket, Williams wore the Medal of Honor around his neck as he addressed the crowd.
He spoke mostly about Gold Star families — families who had a relative killed while serving in the military.
“We have never given them the honor or recognition they deserve,” he said.
He talked about a statue he lobbied for honoring those family members, to be erected in a cemetery in West Virginia — the first of it’s kind to his knowledge.
“We need these things to honor Gold star families, to remind people in America of their sacrifice,” he said, encouraging people to get involved in some way.
Williams lost his own brother after a stint in the military and recalled what that was like for his family.
He encouraged people in the audience to — at every opportunity — say something, anything, to a Gold Star mother.
“Sometimes it’s hard, I know that,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be much.”
He closed his speech with an emotional story that brought tears to people’s eyes about a mother’s account of losing her 25-year-old son to the war in Iraq.
Williams also addressed law enforcement officers, firefighters and first responders, saying that not everyone could do that type of work.
“We don’t give those individuals, as far as I’m concerned, as much respect as they deserve,” he said.
The audience gave Williams a standing ovation when he finished his speech.
Among those in attendance was Stephanie Sanchez, 19, of Winchester — a James Wood High School graduate who recently enlisted in the Marine Corps and leaves June 8 for boot camp.
“You don’t get opportunities like these very often, so I had to get out here,” she said of attending the event.
Sanchez said meeting Williams was a great experience. She called him a “very brave man.”
“I think he’s very inspiring,” she said. “I definitely look up to him.”
— Contact Melissa Boughton at email@example.com