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Gold Star war memorial planned near Liberty Bowl for families who lost military members

June 26 2021
Ted Evanoff | Memphis Commercial Appeal

A decorated U.S. Marine who survived brutal fighting in the Pacific in 1945 came to Memphis Saturday to help launch a tribute for families whose service members have perished.

West Virginia native Hershel “Woody” Williams, 97, led a press conference to announce the proposed Gold Star Families Memorial Monument.

The granite memorial, expected to cost up to $100,000 funded by community donations, is slated to go up within two years near Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium in an area the City of Memphis is renovating for the forthcoming Liberty Park.

Williams, awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for combat at Iwo Jima, formed the nonprofit Woody Williams Foundation in 2010 to oversee installation of Gold Star monuments in communities throughout the United States. The term gold star mother came into common use about 1918 to describe families who put a gold star on a banner posted in the home to indicate the death of a family member serving in the U.S. military in World War I.

“We all grieve for their losses,” Williams said, referring to parents and loved ones left behind. He said relatively little has been done to mark the sacrifice felt by family members whose loved ones died in wartime.

Williams’ foundation has spurred the construction of Gold Star monuments in 86 communities. Another 74 memorials including Memphis’ are planned.

The press conference took place in the University of Memphis’ University Center and was attended by about 30 people including service members, U of M President M. David Rudd and Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland.

Rudd said the memorial will be built using donations. He said he is participating in the fund-raising effort.

“We can’t ever forget the sacrifices of these families,’’ Strickland said. The city would maintain the monument as it takes care of the new park.

Williams has been invited to serve as grand marshal for the AutoZone Liberty Bowl football classic scheduled Dec. 28, said Steve Ehrhart, executive director of the event.

Saturday's session at U of M coincided with the 84th national convention of the American Gold Star Mothers Inc. They met at the Holiday Inn-Downtown. Hundreds of seats in the U of M University of Center were set aside for a Williams tribute expected to draw convention goers Saturday.

Willliams said he launched the first Gold Star monument in West Virginia and the idea of the memorials took off in other communities. The idea came as he worked for three decades after World War II as a veterans’ counselor in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Williams, raised in Fairmont, West Virginia, was working as taxi driver when he enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps during World War II. On Feb. 21, 1945, he went ashore to fight in one of the bloodiest engagements in the war. It was the battle for Iwo Jima, a rugged volcanic island in the Pacific Ocean located about 500 miles southeast of Japan.

The island, defended by 18,000 Japanese soldiers, was taken by the United States in March 1945 as part of a strategy to control islands Japanese forces could use to disrupt American long-range bombers flying to bomb Japan. The Marine Corps, founded in 1775 as seagoing light infantry, considers the 36-day battle for Iwo Jima the costliest in its history. Among the 70,000 marines who landed, 6,800 died and 20,000 were wounded. Fighting with tenacity and refusing to surrender, every Japanese defender died or was wounded except for about 200 taken prisoner.