Valley Pike: ‘Miracle’ man

Posted: May 22, 2013

‘Miracle’ man

“Uncommon valor was a common virtue.”

— Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, in tribute  to the fighting men on Iwo Jima

“Woody Williams would not be here if not for God. I don’t accept applause for myself, but on behalf of all those who could not make it home.”

— Medal of Honor recipient  Hershel “Woody” Williams

By any straight-line account, Woody Williams is an extraordinary man. After all, what Medal of Honor recipient isn’t?

Who knows what possesses a young man of 21 — not much more than a boy, really — to readily volunteer for a mission that offered, at best, a 50-50 chance at survival?

Yes, West Virginia-born Woody was, and is, a Marine — and “the few, the proud” are routinely expected to stare down death when duty calls. But, as his Medal of Honor citation for “conspicuous gallantry . . . above and beyond the call” one February day on a Godforsaken chunk of volcanic rock called Iwo Jima indicates, Woody “quickly” volunteered his services to clear a path for infantry units in the face of implacable Japanese opposition.

What kind of man steps forward in such a fashion? Perhaps one whose life has been nothing short of a “miracle.”

Woody, who graced the sanctuary of The Core Nazarene Church in Winchester this past Sunday, will readily tell you his life has been a succession of miracles, from the day he entered the world weighing a scant three pounds. That was nearly 90 years ago, and not only is he still going strong but also seems immune to the normal aging process. He truly is 89 years young.

Woody, to be sure, has been blessed — and so much so he wonders why. Why, he rhetorically asked Sunday, “was I selected?” Why is he acknowledged as a “national treasure” by other Marines “when so many others did so much more?” Why is he so “privileged”?

The Fairmont native confesses he’s “never found an answer.” So maybe it’s best left to others to ruminate on his heroism, and repeatedly recall how he, on that February day in the Pacific, “wipe(d) out one position after another” and, on one occasion, flamethrower in hand, “grimly charged” Japanese defenders who came at him with bayonets brandished.

Then again, maybe Woody does have an answer for his wonderful and purpose-driven life, and it all starts with that M-word. “I do consider myself a miracle” — and cites as proof certain facts. He should have died on Guam, he says, but two other Marines perished, he said, so that he might live.

And, on the run-in to Iwo, he nearly fell off the rope ladder into the roiling Pacific only to have “someone” pull him safely into the Higgins boat that ferried him ashore, and into Medal of Honor history.

Finally, some years ago, Woody won a bout with cancer, an ordeal that left him “down in the dumps” and doubtful — until one day he was possessed by a notion to write poetry. Now, he had never put words to paper in such a way, but once he started, the words just flowed. His poem began, “Thank thee, Lord, for what I’ve done . . .”

And therein, perhaps, one finds the wellspring of a miraculous life. For years after Iwo, Woody not only suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, but also battled what he calls a “silly thought.”

“I was a Marine.” he says. “I didn’t need God.”

But on Easter Sunday 1962 he went to church for the first time in decades and, as he says, “God spoke to me ... I left church not the same guy who walked in.”

Soon thereafter, he started teaching Sunday school and then, for 35 years, served as chaplain of the Medal of Honor Society.

So for Woody Williams, an extraordinary life has hardly been a straight-line progression, but one full of twists and turns. And the occasional miracle.