Woody Williams honored at US Capitol
Medal of Honor recipient Hershel Woodrow “Woody” Williams was a man who had many wishes and was determined to get things done.
The last Medal of Honor recipient from World War II to die, Williams met another one of his goals Thursday as he lay in honor at the U.S. Capitol Rotunda in Washington, D.C.
Williams died June 29 at the age of 98 at the VA Medical Center in Huntington.
On Thursday, he became the 36th person and first West Virginian to lie in state or honor in the U.S. Capitol. He was the seventh to lie in honor, which is granted to citizens who went above and beyond for their country. He follows civil rights icon Rosa Parks, the Rev. Billy Graham and four Capitol police officers in the honor.
Williams was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Harry S. Truman for his bravery in Iwo Jima after he spent four hours at age 21 with a 70-pound flame-thrower as a corporal in the Marines clearing a path for American tanks, making his way through concrete pillboxes as enemy soldiers were firing at him.
While his military career was impressive, many agree that his legacy will live on through the contributions he made as a private citizen.
Following the war, he created the Woody Williams Foundation to help communities erect Gold Star Families monuments honoring those who did not return home from war. The foundation has established 103 Gold Star Families Memorial Monuments, with more than 62 additional monuments underway.
His name will live on through the footprint he left on West Virginia and his motto — “The cause is greater than I.”
Williams was honored with a ceremonial arrival Thursday morning with a congressional tribute, including remarks from West Virginian and national leaders.
A resolution passed through Congress on Wednesday that said Williams’ ceremony will “honor the Greatest Generation and the more than 16,000,000 men and women who served in the Armed Forces of the United States from 1941 to 1945.”
House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy said Williams wanted Thursday’s ceremony to be a way to recognize every Medal of Honor recipient from World War II.
“With Woody’s passing, we have lost a deeply selfless American and a vital link to our nation’s ‘Greatest Generation,’” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said.
Pelosi said Williams was far from the biggest Marine, standing only 5-foot-6 and weighing in at 130 pounds, “yet he was a force of nature on the battlefield.” She said he single-handedly destroyed seven enemy positions, and that Truman said he acted with “unyielding determination and extraordinary heroism.”
Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., recalled meeting Williams at the unveiling of a Gold Star Families monument in Owensboro, Kentucky.
“By that point, he’d been giving back to his beloved country for 77 years,” McConnell said. “So, needless to say, Woody’s service leaves us a rich legacy.”
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., called Williams the “greatest of the ‘Greatest Generation.’”
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., recalled his humility, saying that when Truman presented him with the Medal of Honor, Williams remembered asking himself why he was selected for the nation’s highest military honor when Marines beside him did not make it home.
“That shows you the kind of man that Woody Williams was, always putting his country and his comrades first and never concerned with who got the credit,” Capito said.
In Huntington, the Cabell County Commission honored Williams on Thursday by rereading a Feb. 23, 2021, proclamation declaring that date Woody Williams Day in the county.
In the nation’s capital, after respects were given, a ceremonial departure Thursday afternoon was followed by a wreath-laying ceremony at the World War II Memorial.
At the wreath-laying ceremony, Manchin said Thursday’s events were a fitting tribute for someone who had once been just a boy from Quiet Dell.
“I had the honor of calling Woody a dear friend, and I am determined to carry on his great legacy in West Virginia and across the nation,” he said. “Woody represents the spirit of the ‘Greatest Generation’ and those 16 million Americans who answered the call to service in World War II, and the entire nation will always be grateful for their service and sacrifice.”
Capito said Williams always had pride in the country, put service over self and showed bravery in the face of adversity.
“We’ll miss Woody’s unmatched energy, sense of humor and passion for imparting wisdom to younger Americans,” Capito said. “It’s rare for anyone to lie in honor in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol, but through his heroic acts on the battlefield and dedication to his fellow veterans after the war, Woody proved he was a rare hero indeed, and today was a fitting tribute to a great man.”
Burial arrangements for Williams have not been made public.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
Courtney Hessler is a reporter for The Herald-Dispatch, primarily covering Marshall University. Follow her on Facebook.com/CHesslerHD and via Twitter @HesslerHD.