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Medal of Honor recipient Williams reflects on life during ship commissioning

Mar 08 2020
Rick Steelhammer | Herald Dispatch

NORFOLK, Va. — As a cold, blustery wind blew across the Elizabeth River and through the open-sided operations deck of the ship named in his honor, Hershel “Woody” Williams reflected on the miracles he has experienced in his 96 years of living.

“Many of the miracles in my life have occurred because of the actions of others,” Williams told a crowd of about 1,000 who took part in Saturday’s commissioning ceremony here for the USS Hershel “Woody” Williams (ESB-4).

One such miracle took place 75 years ago on the Japanese-held island of Iwo Jima, when Williams, under heavy enemy fire, lugged explosive charges and wielded a flame thrower to destroy seven fortified machine gun emplacements in a frenzied four-hour period, clearing a path allowing his pinned-down company to advance.

He credited the actions of four fellow Marines who provided cover fire during the effort — two of them losing their lives in the process — with making possible the miracle of surviving the episode, for which he was awarded the Medal of Honor.

“Receiving the Medal of Honor is the top man-made miracle in my life,” Williams said. “But this ship that bears my name and will sail the seven seas to protect America for many years to come is close to the top.”

The Medal of Honor presented to Williams by President Harry S. Truman two months after the end of World War II is now enshrined in the galley of the ship named in his honor. Williams personally presented the medal to the ship’s crew, a gesture that both surprised and moved them, according to Command Senior Chief Petty Officer Tiffanie Simpson.

“No one knew it was going to happen,” said Simpson. “We were shocked. Just for him to be present with us was an honor, but nothing can top him giving us his medal. There were a lot of teary eyes. It’s a monument to how humble he is and was a moment I’ll never forget.”

Williams thanked veteran Ron Wroblewski, of Huntington, for his 20-year effort to have a ship named in his honor, and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., for his work in taking Wroblewski’s idea to the finish line.

“You are who you are by where and how you were raised,” said Manchin, the ceremony’s main speaker, who, like Williams, was born and raised in Marion County. “Woody is West Virginia strong, through and through. He was instilled early in his life with a never-quit attitude.”

The day after Williams neutralized the Japanese pillboxes, “he kept up the attack with his Marines,” said Gen. David H. Berger, commandant of the Marine Corps. After being wounded by shrapnel in the days that followed, “he should have been evacuated, but he refused,” Berger said.

“Instead, he told newly landed Marines what to expect when in combat. He would not leave his Marines … It is fitting to pass on his legacy with this ship.”

“I feel humbled to be in the presence of this ship’s namesake,” said Capt. David L. Gray Jr., the ship’s commanding officer, who described himself as “the luckiest captain in the Navy” for being placed in command of the ship. Gray said he was confident the ship, when directed to a combat situation, “will respond in a manner in which Medal of Honor recipients will be proud.”

Gray said the ship will be assigned to the Navy’s 6th Fleet, which operates in the Mediterranean Sea. The deployment is expected to take place sometime this summer. The ship will operate with two separate crews, each serving five-month tours of duty.

Among other dignitaries taking part in the commissioning ceremony were: Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; James Geurts, assistant secretary of the Navy; U.S. Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Va., and a retired Navy commander; five Medal of Honor recipients; and the ship’s ceremonial sponsors, Williams’ daughters Tracie Ross and Travie Ross.

The gangway to the ship bore a banner carrying the ship’s motto, “Peace we seek, peace we keep,” created by Williams.

“It is my hope that all wars will recede and there will come a time when sacrifices of life made by our armed forces will no longer be necessary,” he told the commissioning ceremony crowd, before urging the ship’s crew to “be safe and be proud.”

The Williams, built at a cost of about $500 million, is the second of three Expeditionary Sea Base ships built for the Navy by General Dynamics’ National Steel and Shipbuilding Co. (NASSCO) in San Diego. Last year, the company was awarded a contract to build two additional ESBs.

The hull design for the ESBs is based on Alaska class crude oil carriers, also built by NASSCO, which reduced the vessels’ development costs and assured design stability. The Williams and its sister ships are 785 feet long with 164-foot beams, powered by diesel electric engines capable of attaining speeds of more than 17 mph. They can travel nearly 11,000 miles between refuelings.

The ESBs are equipped with a flight deck from which four CH-53 Sea Stallion heavy lift transport helicopters or four MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft can operate simultaneously.

Below the flight deck, an open-sided operations deck accommodates the launching and berthing of small boats. The ships have space for 250 non-crew personnel who can be transported by air or boat to military or disaster relief missions.

The first ESB, the USS Lewis B. Puller (ESB-3), has been deployed since 2017 to the Navy’s 5th Fleet, which operates in the Persian Gulf, Arabian Sea, Red Sea and parts of the Indian Ocean.

The ESBs initially operated as part of the Military Sealift Command with mostly civilian crews, and carried the USNS (United States Naval Ship) designation while carrying cargo and personnel. Under the laws of armed combat, MSC vessels can only take defensive measures when hostile forces are encountered.

En route to the Middle East, the Puller was commissioned as a U.S. Navy warship and given the USS designation, allowing its aircraft to strike enemy targets, its boats to carry Marines or special operations teams ashore to conduct missions, and its crew to detonate waterborne mines.

During Saturday’s commissioning ceremony, the Williams joined the Puller as a USS warship. The third ESB delivered to the Navy, the USNS Miguel Keith (ESB-6), will be commissioned as a USS warship later this year, according to the Navy.

Ships in the ESB class are named in honor of notable U.S. Marines. The USS Lewis B. Puller is named in honor of the most decorated individual in Marine Corps history, who commanded combat units in World War II and the Korean War and retired as a lieutenant general. The soon-to-be USS Miguel Keith is named in honor of a Marine lance corporal who was awarded the Medal of of Honor posthumously for heroic actions during the Vietnam War.

The Hershel “Woody” Williams began its naval career with a USNS designation when delivered to the Navy’s Military Sealift Command in 2018. The ship’s maiden voyage was a two-month, 15,000-nautical-mile cruise from San Diego to Norfolk that included transiting the Straits of Magellan at the tip of South America during a stormy winter.

Although most Navy ships travel between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans by passing through the Panama Canal, the Williams was too large to take advantage of the nautical shortcut.

The newly minted USS warship will be commanded by Gray, with four other Navy officers and 96 enlisted personnel on board to support warfighting operations. A contingent of 44 civilian mariners with the Military Sealift Command will also be on board to operate and maintain ship systems.

Williams grew up on a dairy farm near Quiet Dale, in Harrison County. Following the lead of an older brother, he joined the Civilian Conservation Corps at the age of 17, and was working at a CCC camp in Montana when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, triggering the United States’ engagement in World War II.

Williams returned to West Virginia and attempted to enlist in the Marine Corps, but was initially rejected for failing to meet a minimum height requirement. In May 1943, the Marines reduced the height standard, and 5-foot-6 Williams traveled to Charleston to enlist.

After basic training in San Diego, Williams was assigned to the 3rd Marine Division and sent initially to Guadalcanal, which had been wrested from Japanese control following six months of intense combat the year before he arrived. At Guadalcanal, Williams received demolition training, and learned to operate a flamethrower by studying the operator’s manual that accompanied it.

In the summer of 1944, he took part in the American recapture of the island of Guam, a U.S. territory seized by the Japanese in the first month of the war.

On Feb. 23, 1945, a few days after landing on the hotly contested island of Iwo Jima, Williams’ company was unable to advance, pinned down by heavy fire from fortified Japanese machine gun emplacements.

Accompanied by four riflemen who provided cover fire, Williams used demolition charges and flamethrowers to methodically silence one pillbox after another, destroying seven within a four-hour period, and stopping an enemy bayonet charge with his flamethrower in the process.

Two Marines in his cover fire team were killed that day, and Williams has said that when he wears the Medal of Honor, it is in the memory of the Marines who died in the Iwo Jima campaign, particularly the two who lost their lives supporting his effort to open a path allowing Marines to advance.

After the war, Williams served in the Marine Corps Reserve until 1969, and worked as a counselor for the Veterans Administration from 1946 to 1979. He also operated a boarding and training stable for horses in Cabell County, and served as commandant of the West Virginia Veterans Home in Barboursville for 10 years.

In 2012, he founded the Hershel Woody Williams Foundation, dedicated to erecting memorials to Gold Star Families — families of service members killed in the line of duty. To date, 60 memorials have been dedicated in 45 states and counties, and 68 additional memorials will take shape in coming months. A scholarship fund for Gold Star Family members is also offered by the foundation.