CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Friends and family of Hershel “Woody” Williams came together on Sunday to honor the last remaining Medal of Honor recipient from World War II, noting his friendship and dedication to helping others.
Multiple people spoke during a service for Williams, who died last Wednesday at 98. Williams received the Medal of Honor for his efforts during the Battle of Iwo Jima, and he spent his later years advocating for families whose loved ones died in military combat.
“He lived a life of truth, service, love and compassion,” Williams’ daughter Tracie Ross told others at the state Culture Center. “He spent much of his life finding ways to help others. I pray that each of us follows in his example and continue to make the world a better place because that’s what he did.”
Ross was among the speakers who described their personal connection to Williams; Gov. Jim Justice called him a friend, and U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., spoke about how Williams often reached out to the senator with a list of recommendations and assignments.
“I’m going to miss Woody as much as this family misses him, as much as all of you miss him,” Manchin said.
“I’ll miss the phone calls, I’ll miss the directions I was given, how I was supposed to vote,” the senator added with a chuckle. “And when I didn’t, how I made a mistake.”
Williams served on the Pacific front of World War II. As a corporal in the U.S. Marines, Williams destroyed several Japanese machine gun stations during the Battle of Iwo Jima. He received the Medal of Honor — the nation’s highest military award recognizing those individuals who commit acts of valor — in October 1945.
“If you read the citation for his Medal of Honor, there’s one word that Woody, if he could re-write that citation, he would re-write it. Because it said ‘alone,'” Gen. David Berger, commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, said. “He resented that word because he believed in his Corps.”
Berger noted Williams always referred to himself as “just a farm boy from West Virginia.”
“Woody may be the most genuine person I’ve ever met. He had a way of combining his incredible humility with just a powerful sense of humor,” he said. “The two of them together allowed him to connect with anyone.”
Williams retired from the Marines after 20 years. He worked for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for 33 years as a veterans service representative.
The U.S. Navy honored Williams in October 2017 with the christening and naming of a ship in his honor, now bearing the name the USS Hershel “Woody” Williams. The U.S. Navy commissioned the ship in March 2020. The Department of Veterans Affairs ramed the Huntington VA medical facility to honor Williams in 2018.
Williams’ efforts during his later years focused on raising awareness about gold star families — the relatives of family members who died in combat. According to the Woody Williams Foundation, there are more than 100 Gold Star Families Memorial Monuments located in all 50 states in part because of the organization’s efforts.
“I don’t think he served others the rest of life because he received the Medal of Honor,” Berger said. “He did it — all those things — because that’s who Woody was.”
Manchin recalled the multiple motorcycle rides raising funds for the gold star monuments.
“Mind you, we ride a little bit hard at times. But if you think I ride hard, you ought to ride with Woody in that Slingshot,” he said. “I mean, he was hell on wheels.”
Williams’ body lay in state at West Virginia’s Capitol building Saturday and part of Sunday. Hundreds of people visited the state Capitol to say their final good-byes.
One of Williams’ requests to Manchin during their years of friendship was ensuring the last Medal of Honor recipient would lie in state at the U.S. Capitol.
Manchin and West Virginia’s congressional delegation have spent the last week urging congressional leaders to grant the honor to Williams. The senator received a call Sunday morning confirming Williams will lie in state at the U.S. Capitol, although a specific date was not announced.
“That was one of his last wishes,” Manchin said.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., announced the plans following the memorial service.
“When Woody lies in honor under the Capitol Dome, it will be with immense gratitude for his service that the Congress will pay tribute to this legendary hero — and all of the patriots who fought for our nation in World War II,” Pelosi said.
Following the memorial service, guests placed a wreath at the Gold Star Families Memorial Monument near the state Capitol. A group of Marines additionally fired a 21-gun salute to honor Williams.