Yeager Airport officials on Friday unveiled a new operations center for armed forces units staging training missions in Southern West Virginia from the Charleston airport.
As U.S. Marines from two North Carolina-based helicopter squadrons now training in the area looked on, the 2,000-square-foot facility was named in honor of Hershel "Woody" Williams, of Barboursville, the sole surviving Marine Corps Medal of Honor recipient from World War II.
Williams, who attended Friday's dedication ceremony but did not know that the operations center would bear his name, was visibly moved by the gesture.
"My gratitude is extremely deep for the recognition shown me here today," he said, after dabbing tears from his eyes with a handkerchief.
Williams, who grew up in Quiet Dell, Harrison County, was awarded the Medal of Honor for heroic actions taken during the U.S. assault on the heavily fortified island of Iwo Jima in February 1945. Armed with a flame thrower and exposed to near-constant enemy fire, Williams neutralized a series of concrete-reinforced Japanese machine gun positions that had stalled his company's ability to move off the beach and advance on the enemy.
Williams credited cover fire from four Marine riflemen who accompanied him as he went about his grisly business with keeping him alive during the four-hour ordeal.
"Two of those Marines sacrificed their lives that day to protect mine," he said.
After the ceremony, Williams mingled with the active-duty Marines and posed for photos with them in front of three of their helicopters, parked on the apron fronting the operations center.
Maj. Matthew Dineen, of Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 366, based at Marine Corps Air Station New River, near Jacksonville, North Carolina, presented Williams with a squadron patch and a T-shirt bearing the unit's "Hammerhead" nickname.
Dineen's squadron and Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 167 have been in West Virginia since Wednesday, certifying training areas located on a series of inactive surface mines within a 50-mile flight from Yeager.
"We've mainly been certifying training areas on the inactive mines," Dineen said. "Our intention is to come back and focus on landings on mountainous and cold-weather decks," along with reduced-visibility landing training at the West Virginia National Guard's Camp Branch training area in Logan County.
Yeager Airport assistant directors James Mason and Nick Keller have worked out lease agreements with a half-dozen coal operators to make thousands of acres of mine land in Kanawha, Boone and Logan counties available for military training purposes. Depending on location, the sites can be used for remote helicopter landing and troop insertion training, firing ranges for small arms, explosives, lasers and aerial gunnery, and off-road vehicle and tracked vehicle maneuvers.
The West Virginia National Guard's Camp Branch training area, which includes a dirt landing strip, and its 12,000-acre training site at the former Hobet surface mine in Boone County are also available to military units staging training operations from Yeager.
Since October, when Yeager began an effort to market the Charleston airport to the military, 67 armed forces units have based training operations or made fueling stops there, Keller said.
The Woody Williams Military Flight Operations Center is located on the ground floor of the former Eagle Aviation building at Yeager's general aviation area. After Eagle Aviation vacated the site, it was operated by the state of West Virginia's flight center, and then reclaimed by Yeager-owned Capital Jet Center.
The 2,000 square feet that make up the military flight ops center have been remodeled to include briefing rooms, communications and office space, a flight planning center, a kitchen and equipment lockers. The center is offered free of charge to military groups using it, and can accommodate multiple units operating from it at the same time.
"The facility is just amazing," Dineen said, "and the mountainous terrain around it is one of the perks that come with it."