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Hershel 'Woody' Williams, WWII Medal of Honor recipient, lies in honor at US Capitol

Lawmakers honored the "greatest generation" hero with a tribute ceremony.

July 14 2022
Libby Cathey | ABC News

U.S. Marine Corps veteran Hershel Woodrow "Woody" Williams, who died last month at 98 as the last living WWII Medal of Honor recipient, lies in honor Thursday at the U.S. Capitol, where lawmakers saluted him with a tribute ceremony to honor the "greatest generation" American hero.

Williams was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Harry Truman in 1945 for his "extraordinary heroism" during the Battle of Iwo Jima -- when at age 21, he singlehandedly operated six flamethrowers against Japanese forces for several hours and ultimately cleared a path for American troops. It was Feb. 23, 1945, the same day Marines raised the American flag atop Mount Suribachi.

Marines carried Williams' casket up the East Capitol steps on a sunny Thursday morning and into the Rotunda shortly after 10:30 a.m. Senate Chaplain Barry Black, a retired Navy Rear Admiral, said an opening prayer, and the Marine Corps Band played a somber song while lawmakers walked around the casket in a circle, to pay their respects.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi thanked Williams' family, military leaders and Medal of Honor recipients present for allowing them to honor "this patriotic American, here, in this temple of American democracy."

"At just five-foot-six, he was never the tallest Marine. At 135 pounds, never the biggest. Yet he was a force of nature on the battlefield. At Iwo Jima, Woody marched through a hailstorm of gunfire, single-handedly destroying seven enemy positions," Pelosi recalled. "He devoted the rest of his life to helping veterans and Gold Star families and all families, always driven by his motto, 'the cause is greater than I am,'" she said.

Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell also recalled meeting "Woody" once in Kentucky, saying, "By that point, he'd been giving back to his beloved country and those who defended it for 77 years."

"So needless to say, what he service leaves us a rich legacy," McConnell said. "Our nation was richly blessed by the life of Woody Williams."

Members of the public were invited to view the casket at the Capitol from noon to 3 p.m. and to an outdoor wreath-laying ceremony at the World War II Memorial on the Washington Mall at 4 p.m.

There, family members are expected to place wreaths at the base of the monument's West Virginia panel and at the wall of the 4,048 gold stars, each one marking 100 American military lives lost during WWII, according to a release from the Marine Corps.

"Williams exemplified the warfighting spirit of all Marines -- a combat-proven leader whose lifelong dedication to all service members and Gold Star families began with his heroic actions at the Battle of Iwo Jima," the Marines said in a statement. "His legacy as a warrior and an advocate for veterans will live on among all Marines, and he will be deeply missed."

The Woody Williams Foundation, a nonprofit he founded to serve Gold Star families, announced his death on June 29. He was surrounded by family at the VA medical center in West Virginia that bears his name.

Williams was preceded in death by his wife, Ruby and is survived by his twin daughters, Travie and Tracie Ross, and five grandsons. His family said that it was his wish that people continue to carry on his mission of connecting with future generations of service members.

Following his WWII service, Williams worked as a Veterans Service Representative for the Department of Veterans Affairs, helping veterans and their families for 33 years.

"From his actions on Iwo Jima to his lifelong service to our Gold Star Families, Woody has left an indelible mark on the legacy of our Corps," Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger said in a statement at his passing. "As the last of America's 'Greatest Generation' to receive the Medal of Honor, we will forever carry with us the memory of his selfless dedication to those who made the ultimate sacrifice to our great Nation."

The USS Hershel "Woody" Williams, commissioned in Norfolk in 2020, remains in service.

ABC News' Luis Martinez contributed to this report.