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Last WWII Medal of Honor recipient's foundation carries on legacy helping Gold Star families: 'Here to serve'

'What a wonderful example to us,' Woody Williams' grandson told Fox News Digital of his grandfather's life

Oct 02 2022
Jon Brown | Fox News

A foundation founded by World War II veteran Hershel Woodrow "Woody" Williams aims to continue his legacy of honoring Gold Star families and instilling the patriotism of the late Medal of Honor recipient.

"He left us very clear orders," said Chad Graham, 42, who serves as president and CEO of the Louisville, Kentucky-based Woody Williams Foundation. "It is all of our responsibility — every community, every American — to live a life worthy of the sacrifices that have been made for our freedom."

Williams, who would have turned 99 on Sunday, was the last surviving Medal of Honor recipient from World War II when he died on June 29. Born Oct. 2, 1923, in Quiet Dell, West Virginia, Williams joined the Marine Corps in 1943 and fought in the Battle of Iwo Jima, during which his valiant actions with a flamethrower earned him the nation's highest military decoration from President Harry S. Truman in 1945.

The nonprofit foundation Williams founded honors families who have lost loved ones in U.S. conflicts by erecting monuments to their memory across the country. So far, 112 memorial monuments have been raised in 183 communities in all 50 states, and 67 remain in progress.

Graham, who is also Williams' grandson, explained to Fox News Digital how the memorial monuments also perpetually serve as "a forward operating base for all of the mission-focused activities" the foundation does to help Gold Star families in their respective communities, which includes offering scholarships to their children. He said Williams remained engaged to the very end with that mission, constantly scribbling ideas on anything he could find and pressing others to better serve those families.

"One of his wishes was to have some sort of tribute in every community in this country, and that there would be a monument on every State Capitol grounds for Gold Star families," Graham said. "It is something that even in his very last days, he spoke very poignantly and very clearly about."

"Woody was very much a man of faith and comfortable knowing where he was going, and I think that gave him a clarity to share with folks and challenge them to step out of their comfort zone to fulfill not only their responsibilities, but their ability," he continued.

During an interview with Memoirs of World War II, Williams maintained that he had "absolutely no memory" of the events that took place Feb. 23, 1945, on Iwo Jima and earned him his Medal of Honor.

According to his citation, Williams distinguished himself "above and beyond the call of duty" when he was ordered to use his flamethrower to neutralize the Japanese machine gun fire spewing out of reinforced concrete pillboxes and halting the advance of American tanks.

"Covered only by four riflemen, he fought desperately for four hours under terrific enemy small-arms fire and repeatedly returned to his own lines to prepare demolition charges and obtain serviced flamethrowers, struggling back, frequently to the rear of hostile emplacements, to wipe out one position after another," the citation reads.

Williams was adamant throughout his life that the two fellow Marines who gave their lives covering him were the true recipients of his medal, and that he was merely its caretaker. "I wear it in their honor because they certainly gave more than I did," he said. "And I would have never perhaps received it had they not been in that position."

Graham emphasized that his grandfather's Christian faith was central to his life and work. "He was our spiritual leader in our family, and he shared that leadership with my grandmother, who was a huge part of that," he said. "I would say those were shared and dual roles, in terms of our family."

"When those two Marines gave their lives so that he could live, I think he started to see, even prior to him finding his faith, the parallels of sacrifice and what that would mean in his faith," Graham said.

During a 2020 interview with The Daily Wire, Williams explained how even though he "didn't know God" during the war, he still found himself speaking to a higher power throughout his ordeal. "I just knew there was a power that I talked to, and I didn’t know what that power was," he told the outlet. "I just wanted to live. I wanted to survive. Even though I didn’t know God, I’m still talking to some force that I think can keep me alive."

After the war, walls of fire afflicted Williams in his recurring nightmares. After his wife and two young daughters coaxed him to church on Easter in 1962, Williams became a Christian after hearing a sermon from a large, boisterous West Virginia preacher, who spoke about "the sacrifice of the Lord." The pastor's words returned his mind to those Marines who also sacrificed themselves for him. He changed his life and his nightmares stopped.

"Something that he said to me many times was that his faith made him realize that he was not here on this planet for himself," Graham said. "He was here to serve others, and I think that is something so profound. That was something that was his life, and it was his existence. And I think parts of that happened before he maybe realized his faith, but once he did find his faith, they led into what was a life that was wholly devoted to others."

For Williams, who also served as a Veterans Affairs counselor for 33 years and the chaplain for the Congressional Medal of Honor Society for 35 years, Graham said the future of his country was "a constant concern." Even in the days leading up to his death, he said Williams remain focused on serving others and ensuring that his work for Gold Star families continued after he was gone.

"I think it spoke volumes about his character, about his hope for who we are as a country, who we are as Americans. And that's something that was unwavering: his confidence in people, and specifically us as Americans, to have the ability to persevere, focus on doing the right thing. That was unwavering until the very end."

"The blessing of having that caliber of a human being as a guiding force in your life is beyond what you can put into words, in terms of being grateful for that," Graham said of the personal impact his grandfather had on him. "And that's outside of accolades that he received, outside of him being a Medal of Honor recipient. It was such a gift to me [and our family] to have him in our lives. What a wonderful example for us, in terms of day-to-day life, in terms of our spiritual journey, in terms of how we should treat other folks."

Recalling one of the "direct, eyeball-to-eyeball" conversations he had with his grandfather before he died, Graham said, "He and I are talking, and he said to me, 'Son, there's a whole lot to do, and we are just getting started. So the very thing that we need to focus on is forging ahead.'"