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Last surviving WWII Marine Medal of Honor recipient speaks at Gold Star Families Memorial Monument dedication

May 29 2021
John O'Connell | Idaho State Journal

POCATELLO — In the eyes of the last surviving Marine Medal of Honor recipient from World War II, Southeast Idaho celebrated a new beginning on Friday afternoon.

President Harry Truman awarded Hershel "Woody" Williams, now 97, the Medal of Honor for his heroics in the Battle of Iwo Jima. While in Pocatello on Friday, Williams served as a worthy keynote speaker at the dedication ceremony for the community's long-awaited Idaho Gold Star Families Memorial Monument and Plaza.

Before a crowd of nearly 400 people who gathered in person and many more watching a live broadcast remotely from a screen at the Portneuf Wellness Complex Amphitheatre, the war hero offered his heartfelt thoughts on the cost of freedom.

"There's going to be hundreds upon hundreds who are going to visit this memorial, particularly some of our youth and young people who perhaps for the very first time will come to the realization that the privileges of being an American living in a free country were earned by these families and by those who made the ultimate sacrifice," Williams said. "Our hearts tell us that this memorial will be a lasting tribute, an honor to our loved ones and the loved ones of others so that their sacrifice will not — cannot — ever be forgotten."

The new memorial and plaza are located on land donated by Portneuf Development LLC, which is involved in the Northgate District multi-use development under construction in north Pocatello. The monument is surrounded by 44 gold stars representing each Idaho county, as well as five eagle feathers signifying the state's Native American tribes. A gold star at the center symbolizes the profound loss when a service member makes the ultimate sacrifice.

Several gold star families attended the service, laying flowers at the base of the monument just after it was unveiled. The names of Idaho soldiers who gave their lives in service were read over a loudspeaker. An Idaho National Guard honor guard offered a 21-gun salute, and the Idaho Falls Brass Quintet performed patriotic music.

Williams is the co-founder of the Hershel "Woody" Williams Medal of Honor Foundation, which is a nonprofit organization devoted to "honoring the fallen and their families, primarily through the placement of a Gold Star Families Memorial Monument in every state."

"There is no substitute for freedom — a gift almost as precious as life itself — and this memorial speaks to those values for itself," Williams said. "We know the memorial will not ease the pain or the heartache or the grief, but perhaps it will give some peace and solace to those loved ones who sacrificed one of the most precious gifts — one of their own."

Williams was introduced by his grandson, Chad Graham, who serves as president and CEO of his foundation. Graham explained that his grandfather developed a connection with Gold Star families when he delivered Western Union telegrams informing families that their loved ones in the military would never be coming home.

"Your presence here and your support of this mission sends a very powerful message," Graham said. "It sends the message that this community is committed to remembering — this community is coming together so that we never forget."

During the ceremony, Williams presented a medal to local Gold Star mother Rebecca Webb, who spearheaded the effort to build the memorial and served as chair of the Idaho Gold Star Families Memorial Monument Committee.

"I had to make a choice, whether I remained in that pain and remained in that suffering or I had to make a choice to reach out and help others," Webb said.

Webb assured her fellow Gold Star family members that the community's strong support of the memorial indicates their loved ones' sacrifice hasn't been forgotten.

"I feel like my son has been by me every step along the way and saying, 'Hey Mom, you've got this. You can do this,'" Webb said.

The printed program for the service includes the names of dozens of local businesses and residents who made significant contributions to fund the memorial.