CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The line that zigzagged from the double doors of the west wing of the State Capitol in Charleston Saturday back toward the state Culture Center was made up of people from all walks of life but they had come there for a single purpose–to honor the life Medal of Honor recipient Hershel “Woody” Williams who died Wednesday at the age of 98.
Many of them had personal recollections of the one they affectionately called Woody.
Something in common
Barboursville resident Amy West Hogsett had a connection with Woody through her father Ernest West, who received a Medal of Honor for his heroics in Battle of Heartbreak Ridge in the Korean War.
She said her dad and Woody were good friends for years. Ernest lived near Ashland, Kentucky and Woody in Cabell County, about 40 minutes separated their homes. Williams spoke at her father’s funeral in May 2021.
Hogsett said both men were unique, very humble and always wanted to help people.
“They were great friends and did many things together in West Virginia and Kentucky. They were just ordinary people,” she said.
As she looked behind her in line Saturday she said she was sure there were many others who had either a brief meeting or long relationship with Woody that just wanted to come see him one last time.
“There are many stories, story after story after story,” she said. “Woody would sit down and have lunch with you or a cup of coffee with you or have breakfast with you and talk to you and make you feel like a million dollars.”
A new friend later in life
Near Hogsett in line was Albert McClelland of Indiana. He’ll turn 88 later this month. He was in his dress blue uniform of the Coast Guard where he served in intelligence for more than two decades, He was a Senior Chief Petty Officer. He met Woody at a Marine Corps League breakfast last year. McClelland said he asked Williams to describe his life from the 1945 Battle of Iwo Jima until now.
“He opened up to me and said, ‘no one has ever asked me that before,'” McClelland said.
He said after a long discussion the two agreed to meet again but it never happened.
“I was looking forward to it but we didn’t do it,” McClelland said. “Woody Williams was a genuine human being and I’m here to honor him.”
A few minutes later McClelland was moved to the front of the line to walk before Woody’s flag-draped casket in the Lower Rotunda of the capitol. He raised his right hand slowly in salute.
“It was a religious experience,” he told MetroNews choking back tears. “An expression of principle, morality and brotherly love and I was very happy to be able to share that with a man that exuded all of that.”
Woody’s Kentucky friend
Louisville, Kentucky resident Alison Porter got to the capitol early Saturday. She’s known Woody Williams for about a dozen years and still shakes her head when she thinks back to how the two met.
Porter said it was 2010 and preparations were underway in Louisville for the Medal of Honor National Convention. She went to a planning meeting and saw an older man standing to the side. Porter, a retired Marine who had just become part of the Marine Corps League, introduced herself to Woody and they talked for several minutes but he never told her he had received a Medal of Honor. She found out later that day and said Woody had a big laugh about it and they were friends ever since bumping into each other occasionally.
Woody called Porter his “Kentucky friend.”
“He was one of the most truest down to earth person I think I’ve ever met in my entire life,” Porter said, noting how genuine Williams was. “He didn’t act, he reacted. Same thing in World War II, he didn’t act, he reacted.”
Porter described Williams as being “a superstar without being a superstar.”
There’s one story Porter said she’ll never forget it happened at a Marine Corps Convention in Greenup, Kentucky.
“We were standing around and someone said, ‘Woody you don’t have your medal on.’ So he reaches into his red coat pocket and the ribbon is running through is fingers and he looks at me and says, ‘I can’t think of anybody better.'”
Porter said she was shocked that Woody Williams wanted her to help him put his Medal of Honor around his neck. She completed the task and said Saturday it’s something she’ll never forget.
“I’m standing there holding a Congressional Medal of Honor–his. I felt like I was going to drop it I was shaking so bad. I was able to put it on him,” she said.
Porter and others filed past the casket Saturday as two Marines stood at attention. The casket will be guarded by the Marines through both days of public visitation that will continue from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday. The funeral service is set for Sunday at 4 p.m. at the state Culture Center.
An emotional ride to Charleston
On the way to the capitol Saturday from Huntington, there were hundreds of residents standing on overpasses and along highways to honor Williams.
Those gathered said they wanted to show their respect and honor a real hero.
The long procession included several hundred veterans riding their motorcycles.
Williams is only the third West Virginia to lie in state at the state capitol in the history of the state. U.S. Senator Robert Byrd (2010) and Congressman John Kenna (1893) are the only other ones to do so. Kenna’s body was at the former state capitol building that was at the corner of Lee and Capitol streets in downtown Charleston.
The governor’s office has announced some updates to Sunday’s funeral service.
10 a.m. – 2 p.m. Public visitation in Lower Rotunda
2:15 p.m. U.S. Marines Casket March
2:45 p.m. Marine Flyover (weather permitting)
3:00 p.m. Doors open at Culture Center for memorial service (limited seating)
4:00 p.m. – 5 p.m. State Memorial Service
5:00 p.m. Wreath ceremony, taps and gun salute at Gold Star Family Monument, state capitol grounds