HUNTINGTON — Seventy-five years ago Sunday, on Feb. 23, 1945, a photo captured six members of the U.S. Marine Corps raising the American flag atop a Pacific mountain, gaining the attention of the country and recording the Battle of Iwo Jima in time.
That was also the day on which the actions of West Virginia native Hershel “Woody” Williams earned him the military’s highest distinction for demonstrating exceptional bravery — the Congressional Medal of Honor.
The then-21-year-old from Quiet Dell, West Virginia, spent four hours on the Japanese island with a 70-pound flame-thrower, taking out seven enemy concrete “pillboxes” to protect his fellow countrymen.
Williams, a corporal with the 1st Battalion, 21st Marines, plowed through gunfire and bayonets to clear a path for American tanks, and on Oct. 5, 1945, was awarded the distinction from President Harry Truman.
Since then, Williams, now 96, has devoted his life to assisting service members, veterans and their families.
On Saturday, Williams was the keynote speaker at the commemorative “Heroes Among Us” 75th Anniversary of Iwo Jima at the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Triangle, Virginia.
And while his experience serving during World War II certainly inspired his commitment to helping others, Williams’ passion for the subject manifested prior to entering the Marine Corps.
When he was 19, Williams began working as a cab driver with an unthinkable task — delivering War Department telegrams for the Western Union to give families the news that their soldier would not be returning home to the States.
Gold star flags that hung from the windows of homes of grieving families, symbolizing a loved one lost to the war, also had a deep impact on Williams.
He was honorably discharged from the Marine Corps following his Medal of Honor distinction, and after, pursued a 33-year career for the Veterans Administration assisting veterans and families with his firsthand knowledge and experience.
While the gold star families who had experienced significant loss always remained on Williams’ mind after his service, it wasn’t until the 1970s that Gold Star Mothers became the first group making an organized effort to honor fallen soldiers nationwide.
This is when Williams realized his dream of establishing memorials to honor Gold Star Families.
For about 15 years, he carried an illustrated draft of a monument with him; after trying and failing to find the right person to run with the idea, persistence prevailed, and Williams’ fellow committee members planning the Donel C. Kinnard Memorial State Veterans Cemetery in Dunbar, West Virginia, agreed to the project.
In 2013, the first Gold Star Families Memorial was unveiled after over 40 years in the making.
Valley Forge’s Medal of Honor Grove in Pennsylvania was the next location for a Gold Star Families Memorial, followed by a boys school in Florida, where students raised the $60,000 for the project.
Now, with the help of the Hershel “Woody” Williams Medal of Honor Foundation, 60 monuments have been dedicated, representing 45 states and countries, with 68 more in progress.
Williams never misses a groundbreaking ceremony, and remains active in the community.
He also takes time to visit schools and helped usher in a new Medal of Honor Character Development Program at Huntington East Middle School in December.
Following his return from Virginia, Williams will speak at Marshall University’s second annual TEDx event March 14.
Williams resides in Ona and is the sole surviving Marine from World War II to receive the Medal of Honor, as well as the only living recipient of the award in the state.