Marine Cpl. Hershel “Woody” Williams, the last living World War II Medal of Honor of recipient, passed away June 29 at the Huntington, W.Va., VA Medical Center, which bears his name. He was 98.
Williams, an American Legion member for more than 70 years, received the medal for his actions during the Battle of Iwo Jima in February 1945. Williams was cited for his valor going alone and fighting for four hours to knock out Japanese forces, allowing for Allied tanks to proceed.
Later that year, at age 22, Williams received the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award for military valor, from President Harry Truman.
“For me, receiving the Medal of Honor was actually the lifesaver because it forced me to talk about the experiences that I had, which was a therapy that I didn’t even know I was doing,” Williams said during a 2018 Boy Scouts recognition ceremony in Fairmont, W.Va.
In a 2014 video interview with The American Legion, Williams shared his experiences in World War II, receiving the medal and more.
His legacy, however, will not be limited to his actions on the battlefield. He spent decades of his life honoring families of the fallen, inspiring youth and promoting patriotism. For example, Williams, a member of Post 177 in Barboursville, W.Va., regularly spoke at Boys State.
American Legion National Commander Paul E. Dillard praised Williams during a visit June 29 to Post 54 in Bedford, Va.
“He was a tremendous Legionnaire and he was passionate about honoring Gold Star Families,” Dillard said. “He was truly a patriot. People like Woody you cannot replace. We will miss him.”
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin shared similar sentiments on Twitter, saying, “Today, America lost not just a valiant Marine and a Medal of Honor recipient, but an important link to our nation’s fight against tyranny in WWII. Woody Williams gave to his nation on the battlefield and after, establishing a foundation to honor and recognize Gold Star families.”
The idea for his nationwide tribute to Gold Star families originated during an appearance at an American Legion post, Williams told The American Legion Magazine for a profile in 2015. At the event, he asked Gold Star Mothers to raise their hands. He then thanked them, paying tribute to the 10 women for their sacrifice.
Afterward, a teary-eyed man lingered behind and approached Williams. “I said, ‘Sir, is there something I can do? Is there some way I can help you?’” Williams recalls. “He said, ‘Dads cry too.’”
The man, a widower, had recently lost his only child in the war in Afghanistan.
Following that exchange, Williams set out on a new mission: honor families of the fallen by establishing a Gold Star Memorial in every state. To date, more than 100 monuments have been installed in dozens of states while other memorials are in the planning stages.
Learn more about the initiative online at www.hwwmohfoundation.org.
Dillard also called for a state funeral to honor Williams, as supported by a resolution passed in 2018.
“All Medal of Honor recipients are extraordinary and Woody Williams was particularly special to The American Legion,” Dillard said. “He was a proud Legionnaire who demonstrated legendary valor at Iwo Jima and then spent a lifetime serving veterans and Gold Star Families. He was a true American hero in every sense of the word. We extend our condolences to his family.”
Reporting from American Legion.