Medal of Honor recipient Woody Williams reflects on a lifetime of service

May 18, 2020

Last November, the Naval War College Foundation had the honor of giving the Sentinel of the Sea award to five Medal of Honor recipients – five men who bravely served in some of the most significant wars of the current and past centuries: World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. One of those recipients was World War II veteran Hershel “Woody” Williams, a Marine who fought in the Battle of Iwo Jima. For his bravery and actions during that battle, he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in October 1945. Williams described his reaction to learning about his selection to receive the medal:

“At the time, I was still in Guam. When I was notified that I was to go see the general – I was a lowly corporal and my first sergeant couldn’t tell me why – I was scared to death. Why would I be called to the general’s quarters? At that point in my life, I had never heard of the Medal of Honor; I didn’t understand the significance of it. And, it has changed my life. I’m no longer a farm boy; now I am a public figure. It changed my thinking and my actions.”

75 years later, Williams is the only surviving Marine from WWII to wear the Medal of Honor. He hopes the principles that guided him and his fellow servicemen on the battlefield can also guide future generations of Americans. “It has been said many times before, by many people: united we stand, divided we fall. During Iwo Jima, we knew that we could not do anything alone. Iwo Jima was won because of shared purpose; we were loyal to each other and the cause for which lives were sacrificed,” Williams said. “This generation [needs to] understand that we must be a united people and a United States in order to maintain the advantages that we have as free people.”

Williams’ service did not end when he returned home from the war. As a counselor in the Department of Veteran’s Affairs, he regularly met with and assisted the families that lost a loved one in the line of duty. Supporting those families and recognizing the sacrifices that their loved ones made for the country became his life’s work. “Each one of us was born free because someone else made a sacrifice. Yet, we, as a people and a nation, never honored or paid tribute to the loved ones who gave one of their own for all of us. These families were completely overlooked.”

Williams set about to correct this oversight, dedicating his life to honoring Gold Star families. He created the Hershel Woody Williams Medal of Honor Foundation, and, in 2013, the first Gold Star Families Memorial Monument was dedicated in his home state of West Virginia. To date, 45 states have followed suit, erecting monuments to honor those families. Williams is confident that the remaining four – North and South Dakota, Montana, and Oregon – will have one before long. “It’s just a matter of finding someone in a community who is willing to take on that responsibility and form a committee to get it accomplished.”

Approaching 97 years of age, Williams still sets ambitious goals for himself and his country. West Virginia has a veterans’ memorial on the capitol grounds with 11,000 names on it. Williams said, “I would like to see every capital in this great country do that very thing so that those loved ones would not be forgotten.”

Williams’ heroism on and off the battlefield continues to be recognized. In early March, Williams was onsite in Norfolk for the commissioning of the USS Hershel “Woody” Williams, an expeditionary sea base (ESB). “I’ve had many miracles in my life,” Williams reflected, “and most of them came about because of others. Having a ship in the U.S. Navy with my name on it is one of those miracles.” 

Williams credits his friend and fellow Marine Ron Wroblewski for gathering over 70,000 signatures to petition the Navy to name a ship in Woody’s honor. West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin supported the cause and, working with former Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus, set plans in motion to commission the ship. “It is almost indescribable for this little country boy from West Virginia to realize that his name is on a 90,000 ton ship,” stated Williams.

As a veteran and loyal patriot, Williams has a strong appreciation for institutions like the U.S. Naval War College.

“Certainly, we cannot exist as a united people or a United States without leaders, not only in the military, but in our everyday civilian lives. The Naval War College is one of those institutions that produces the leaders that are going to be essential to our future – the leaders of our next generation.”

Williams reflected on how divided the country is at the moment, adding, “The next generation will hold the answer as to what happens to our America. Our institutions of higher learning are the only avenue in which [we can] restore our belief that we are a government of the people, by the people, for the people and one Nation under God.”

Williams’ focus on the need for unity and the belief that we are stronger together serves him even now, while sheltering in place as a result of the coronavirus. Born in 1923, the legacy of the Spanish Flu hung over his childhood. “We lost family members as a result of that flu epidemic. So when my government says that we need to follow certain rules, there’s no question. This is a time when we need to come together as a united people so that we can beat this.”

Medal of Honor recipient Woody Williams exchanges coins with NWCF

Williams remains optimistic about the future as he reflects on a lifetime of service. “I believe in the United States of America. I never dreamed that we could maintain a [volunteer military] service but it illustrates that there is a foundation within America and a group of individuals who are willing to take an oath. And when they take that oath, they are, in effect, saying, ‘If it is necessary, I will give my life to protect my country and my values.’ That has a very deep meaning to me.”

To read more about the Hershel Woody Williams Medal of Honor Foundation, please visit http://hwwmohf.org/.

NWCF