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Woody Williams honored in ceremony at U.S. Capitol: Last Medal of Honor recipient from World War II

Medal of Honor recipient Hershel "Woody" Williams, Marine survivor from the battle of Iwo Jima, lies in honor at the U.S. Capitol, July 14, 2022. (U.S. House of Representatives/Released)

If this had been a war movie, John Wayne would have materialized just in time and the music would have swelled.

Except, it wasn’t a movie.

It was a little Marine from Marion County, playing a big role in the battle for Iwo Jima in World War II.

For about four hours on Feb. 23, 1945, Williams, shouldering a flamethrower, systematically neutralized a row of pillboxes and their machine gunners who were pinning down the Marines in the volcanic sand of the island some 600 miles south of Tokyo.

Two of this platoon mates trying to flank him were shot dead almost immediately as he began his charge.

Others stepped up, including his buddy Doral Lee, a big kid from Minnesota who said, “Stay with me, Woody.”

Williams was strong and wiry, but he was also on the smallish side.

He was just 5-foot-6 and weighed maybe 135 pounds.

The flamethrower weighed 70 pounds.

With two tanks of jellied gasoline sitting on his shoulders, his war was fought standing up.

Bullets pinged off those tanks and Doral kept yelling encouragements and warnings at the same time.

After he found out he was being recognized with the Medal of Honor for his battlefield bravery, and after he read the citation that accompanied it, he focused on the sections about his fellow Marines who zigged and zagged up the mountain with him that day.

“This medal doesn’t belong to me, ” he said.

“It belongs to all of them. I’m just the caretaker.”

Last detail Thursday morning in Washington, D.C., Williams was again flanked.

A detail representing all branches of military service shouldered his casket, draped with the American flag, and ushered the old Marine into the U.S. Capitol Rotunda, to lie in honor.

Williams, who died last month at age 98 in a VA hospital in Huntington bearing his name, was the last surviving Medal of Honor recipient from the war that put Americans in uniform from Europe to the South Pacific.

It was high honor for a kid from the hills of north-central West Virginia. Just six before him have rested in honor in the Rotunda.

Civil rights icon Rosa Parks did.

So did the four fallen Capitol police officers who died in the line of duty and completed their End of Watch there.

So did the Rev. Billy Graham, who was the spiritual advisor to many U.S. presidents.

When the politicians began intoning during and after proceedings, they weren’t talking about war movies.

They were talking about responding to the moment.

Men, some no more than boys, really, enlisted in droves after Pearl Harbor.

Women — some no more than girls — marched off to factories to rivet wings on bomber planes and assemble treads on tanks.

Enlist was what Williams tried to do, but he was initially told he was too short.

It was a dash to the induction center when that requirement was dropped.

‘He never talked about it’

There were other wars after Woody’s.

When he came home from his, he married, raised a family and made a career counseling other returning vets who weren’t counting on new battles in their civilian life.

He was lauded for his work with Gold Star families of the fallen who came home in flag-draped coffins.

Williams was back in Marion County on a sunny afternoon in 2012 to help dedicate a new National Guard Armory with his name on the front.

He joked and bantered with the new generation of those wearing the uniform.

“Don’t you dare write that down, ” he said, teasingly, to a reporter with a notebook after one comment that caused those gathered around him to burst into guffaws.

Tracie Williams, who accompanied her dad for the day from Cabell County, where he had lived since his homecoming, smiled at the interaction.

That was the thing, she said. He didn’t always give reporters things to write down.

She explained why.

As a kid, she always wondered why her father was popular at parades. Everybody wanted to shake his hand, it seemed.

“We always thought he was a big deal just for being our dad, ” she remembered.

“We never knew he was a war hero. He never talked about it.”


(c) 2022 The Dominion Post

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