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Remembering West Virginia's hero: Small in stature but huge in heart, Woody Williams lived a life of heroism and service

Nov 11 2022
WV News

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (WV News) — This past summer, West Virginia and the nation lost one of the Greatest Generation’s last true heroes, Medal of Honor recipient Hershel “Woody” Williams, who died at the age of 98.

Williams, the short, always-smiling embodiment of valor and sacrifice who was known around the world for his legendary exploits in the Pacific Theater during World War II, was mourned by state leaders and the public, being honored one last time by lying in state at the West Virginia state Capitol and lying in honor at the U.S. Capitol.

U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin was one of Williams’ closest friends, as the two worked together on a number of projects to better health care and to pay tribute to veterans.

Williams was a “true American hero,” Manchin said.

“Americans like Woody answered the call to serve our great nation, and their sacrifices allow us to enjoy the freedoms we hold dear,” Manchin said. “Gayle and I are devastated by the loss of our dear friend who meant so much to so many across our great state and entire nation. We join all West Virginians in praying for Woody’s family, friends and loved ones during this difficult time.”

But what some may not know is how Williams rose to his status as a Medal of Honor recipient for his bravery during World War II.

According to the Woody Williams Foundation website:

During the Battle of Iwo Jima, Williams displayed “valiant devotion to duty” and service above self as he “enabled his company to reach its objective.” Williams’ actions, commitment to his fellow service members and heroism were recognized on Oct. 5, 1945, when he received the Medal of Honor from President Harry Truman at the White House. Williams was the sole surviving Marine from WWII to wear the Medal of Honor.

“For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as demolition sergeant serving with the 21st Marines, 3rd Marine Division, in action against enemy Japanese forces on Iwo Jima, Volcano Islands, 23 February 1945.

“Quick to volunteer his services when our tanks were maneuvering vainly to open a lane for the infantry through the network of reinforced concrete pillboxes, buried mines and black volcanic sands, Cpl. Williams daringly went forward alone to attempt the reduction of devastating machine gun fire from the unyielding positions.

“Covered only by 4 riflemen, he fought desperately for 4 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 1 position after another.

“On 1 occasion, he daringly mounted a pillbox to insert the nozzle of his flamethrower through the air vent, killing the occupants and silencing the gun; on another, he grimly charged enemy riflemen who attempted to stop him with bayonets and destroyed them with a burst of flame from his weapon. His unyielding determination and extraordinary heroism in the face of ruthless enemy resistance were directly instrumental in neutralizing one of the most fanatically defended Japanese strong points encountered by his regiment and aided vitally in enabling his company to reach its objective.

“Cpl. Williams’ aggressive fighting spirit and valiant devotion to duty throughout this fiercely contested action sustain and enhance the highest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service.”

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice also praised Williams’ service to country, and his devotion to improving conditions for veterans after they returned home.

“I’ve been incredibly fortunate in my life and during my time as governor to be able to spend a lot of time with Woody Williams over the years,” Justice said. “Woody was a living legend and was the embodiment to the world of what it means to be a West Virginian.”

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R.-W.Va., also knew Williams well and worked with him to improve veterans’ care.

“Woody embodied exactly what the Greatest Generation was all about: Service to country above self. Not only are his acts of valor on the battlefield well-documented, but the lives he touched in the years since serving had a lasting impact on every person he met. He inspired many to love their country, enter the service, and reminded everyone why our ‘nation under God’ is the greatest on earth. One of the best West Virginians we’ve ever known is now gone, but his lifetime of service and incredible legacy will be with us forever.”

Williams was “a gentleman who served his country with tremendous courage and valor,” said West Virginia University President Dr. E. Gordon Gee.

“I was privileged to know Woody and to spend time with a hero from our Greatest Generation whose purpose has served as an inspiration to so many others across our state and nation,” Gee said. “And while we grieve his loss, I believe his example will continue to inspire countless future generations. My heartfelt condolences go out to Woody’s family and all who knew and loved him.”

“Today, we have lost an American hero,” said U.S. Rep. Carol Miller, R-W.Va. “Woody Williams embodied the ‘Greatest Generation’ — the Americans who volunteered to fight for their country. As a Medal of Honor recipient, Woody never quit helping his country and those who served.”

“For the entirety of his life, Woody has demonstrated valor, humility, kindness and an unwavering dedication to veterans and Gold Star Families. Through his advocacy work with the Woody Williams Foundation, he has impacted thousands upon thousands of lives by advancing the cause for Gold Star Family recognition and numerous veteran’s issues,” said Maj. Gen. William Crane, the adjutant general of the West Virginia National Guard. “Our hope is that Woody’s life and service will continue to inspire future generations of West Virginians to serve and serve others for as he would say, ‘The cause is greater than I.’ Semper Fi, Woody.”

“He has been an inspiration to me, personally, and to many across our state and our nation,” said Charleston Mayor Amy Goodwin. “Woody Williams has been instrumental in supporting West Virginia’s military members and families – especially through his work for Gold Star Families. He leaves behind a legacy of service and will certainly be missed.”

“Woody Williams represented the best of West Virginia – a love for his family, a sense of service to his country, and a dedication to honoring our veterans ... Woody’s life inspired generations, and I pray for comfort and peace for his family and friends in the coming days as they lay this great man to rest,” W.Va. Senate President Craig Blair said.

The West Virginia Department of Veterans Assistance commended Williams for his work in service of veterans and their families.

“Woody was a good friend. He fought tirelessly for veterans here in West Virginia and throughout the nation,” WVDVA Cabinet Secretary Edward Diaz said. “He will be sorely missed.”