On a brisk January morning, R-MA Chairman of Leadership and Character Development Lt Col Mike Starling, USMC, Retired, R-MA Class of 1988, and three Falcon Scholars attended the unveiling of a Medal of Honor Memorial at the Martinsburg, WV, Veteran’s Administration medical center. They knew they would be attending a ceremony. They didn’t realize they would be meeting a hero.
At the age of 96, Chief Warrant Officer Herschel "Woody" Williams, USMC, Retired, still travels across the U.S. for the majority of the year as he heads the establishment of Gold Star Families Memorial Monuments, memorials that honor the families of those who have lost their lives in service to their country. Williams has headed this effort through his foundation, Hershel Woody Williams Medal of Honor Foundation, the seed of which was planted when he was a young boy at the start of WWI, delivering the Western Union telegrams to his neighbors–the ones that informed them their sons, brothers, and husbands were never coming home. He saw how quickly these families were forgotten, and determined to someday do more for them.
Even if that dedication to veterans’ families were not enough to make him a hero, Williams is also a war hero in the truest sense of the word: he is the sole surviving Marine from WWII to have received the Medal of Honor. The Medal of Honor citation on his website describes the incident:
"For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as demolition sergeant serving with the 21st Marines, 3d Marine Division, in action against enemy Japanese forces on Iwo Jima, Volcano Islands, 23 February 1945. Quick to volunteer his services when our tanks were maneuvering vainly to open a lane for the infantry through the network of reinforced concrete pillboxes, buried mines, and black volcanic sands, Cpl. Williams daringly went forward alone to attempt the reduction of devastating machine gun fire from the unyielding positions. Covered only by four riflemen, he fought desperately for four hours under terrific enemy small-arms fire and repeatedly returned to his own lines to prepare demolition charges and obtain serviced flamethrowers, struggling back, frequently to the rear of hostile emplacements, to wipe out one position after another. On one occasion, he daringly mounted a pillbox to insert the nozzle of his flamethrower through the air vent, killing the occupants and silencing the gun; on another he grimly charged enemy riflemen who attempted to stop him with bayonets and destroyed them with a burst of flame from his weapon. His unyielding determination and extraordinary heroism in the face of ruthless enemy resistance were directly instrumental in neutralizing one of the most fanatically defended Japanese strong points encountered by his regiment and aided vitally in enabling his company to reach its objective. Cpl. Williams' aggressive fighting spirit and valiant devotion to duty throughout this fiercely contested action sustain and enhance the highest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service."
The R-MA Falcon Scholars were humbled and inspired by meeting a true American hero, though CWO Williams asserted during the dedication speech that he was just a regular person.
“It was humbling to see him, because he is a fairly small man, in physical stature, but has such a large heart. It's truly astounding to think that he wielded a flamethrower and overcame his disadvantage of being small (compared to some of the tall large soldiers) and pushed on, showing courage that is rarely seen,” said Jake Hannas FS’19. “While I seek to begin my time in the military, I look to Woody as a role model as someone to emulate. I was moved while listening to him talk about the bonds formed with his fellow soldiers, and it is a bond I desire to have with my fellow Airmen as I move forward.”
“I was so thankful to have the opportunity (given to us by Col. Starling) to go out and watch the unveiling of the memorial wall,” commented James Frees FS'19. “We had no idea that there would be a Medal of Honor recipient as a guest speaker, much less have the opportunity to meet him and shake his hand. I couldn't help but smile as he was talking because he is such a wonderful man, a hero, and a great story teller. CWO Williams has such a great character and he is a true hero to our nation. I still cannot believe I had the honor of meeting him and getting a photo with him– that will always be a day to remember. My grandfather (Fred J. Fees Jr.) served in WWII and Korea but passed away when I was just over one year old. It was great to meet someone from that time who went through similar experiences as my grandfather did. Overall, it was a wonderful experience for me.”
“This was an honor because we will be the last generation to have living World War II veterans, so it is important to learn the stories from the great men that fought for our freedom in the great war, especially from a man like Mr. Williams,” said Seth Rivera FS'19. “He and many others laid down their lives, and we must give them the highest appreciation. We will always remember Mr. Williams and all Medal of Honor recipients as heroes, but Mr. Williams said in his speech that even though these men and himself did extraordinary actions beyond the call of duty, they're just regular men. Because of that, they have inspired me to join the service and carry on the tradition of having great men protecting this great nation. I will forever remember meeting Mr.Williams, and I hope our generation and future generations have people with the same fortitude as he does.”