Shortly before traveling with President Donald Trump on Air Force One to dedicate Wilmington, North Carolina, as the nation’s first World War II Heritage City in September, Marine Corps veteran Hershel Woodrow “Woody” Williams met with the president in the Oval Office.
Williams recounted that the president sat down at his desk, pulled out two handsome boxes made of walnut, and offered him a choice. “You can take either one,” he recalled Trump telling him. In one there was a skillfully crafted medallion embossed with the presidential seal. In the other was a key to the White House. “Which would you like?”
Williams told Trump, “Well, I’ll take the medallion because I have keys at home to several cities in West Virginia that have been presented to me over the years, and none of them will open anything. I don’t imagine the White House key will open the White House, either. So I’ll take the medallion.” The key, Williams points out, he convinced Trump to give to his oldest grandson who was with him.
Echoes Of The Past
Almost exactly 75 years earlier, Williams, who turned 97 on Oct. 2, was at the White House to receive something else from a different president. On Oct. 5, 1945, he was one of 13 soldiers who assembled on the White House lawn to receive the Medal of Honor from President Harry S. Truman.
Williams remains not only the last survivor of those 13, but also the last living Marine Corps recipient from World War II, as well as the last from the Pacific theater.
Williams had returned from the Pacific just a month before and has claimed he had no idea at the time why he had been summoned to Washington, D.C. According to his Medal of Honor citation, Williams distinguished himself “above and beyond the call of duty” for his actions during the Battle of Iwo Jima on Feb. 23, 1945.
Two days after landing on the volcanic island over which American and Japanese forces battled fiercely for weeks, the 21-year-old Williams was assigned the daunting task of using a flamethrower to neutralize the Japanese machine gun fire that spewed from the reinforced concrete pillboxes and kept American tanks from advancing.
“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 flame throwers, struggling back, frequently to the rear of hostile emplacements, to wipe out one position after another,” his citation reads.
Two of the riflemen who covered him were killed.
“Much of what went on that day, I have absolutely no memory,” Williams told Memoirs of World War II. The men who gave their lives to enable his mission, he still believes, are the true recipients of his Medal of Honor, and that he is merely its caretaker. “I wear it in their honor because they certainly gave more than I did. And I would have never perhaps received it had they not been in that position.”
“It Had To Be Divine Intervention”
During a recent interview with The Daily Wire about his life, his faith, and his thoughts on the country’s present troubles, Williams described how his act of gallantry and the Marines who made it possible changed him in ways he never could have foreseen.
“It had to be divine intervention, I think,” Williams said, regarding why he survived. A devout Christian now, he maintains that he “didn’t know God” during his time in the Marine Corps, but nevertheless found himself talking to him. “I just knew there was a power that I talked to and I didn’t know what that power was. I just wanted to live. I wanted to survive. Even though I didn’t know God, I’m still talking to some force that I think can keep me alive.”
After the war, Williams married his high school sweetheart, Ruby Meredith, and had two daughters, Travie Jane and Tracie Jean. His wife, he explained, had been raised a Christian and was raising Travie and Tracie as Christians, but Williams resisted coaxing from his girls that he attend church with them.
Despite recurring, horrific nightmares that had him fighting walls of fire in his sleep, he described his attitude as a “self-sufficient” one, which convinced him that “I didn’t need God in my life.”
Williams remembers in vivid detail the Easter of 1962, when he reluctantly agreed to go to church with his family. “It was just because they were putting pressure on me,” he said. He was irritated, first of all, that his wife bought new white outfits for the girls every Easter, as was customary at the time. “I can remember resenting that, to do it just for one day.”
His plan to hide somewhere in the back pew fizzled when the packed church forced them to sit “in the fourth pew on the right,” he still recalls. Then, during the sermon, Williams found himself transfixed by the message from the large, powerful preacher, who spoke “of the sacrifice of the Lord.”
“I thought he was looking straight at me all the time that he was talking,” Williams said. “I’m sure he wasn’t, but in my conscience, he was.” His thoughts returned to that day on Iwo Jima and the two young men who sacrificed their lives for him, which made his Medal of Honor possible.
“That all started running through my mind that day. And then he mentioned that the Lord had also sacrificed his life for me.”
By the end, Williams said, “I just got up out of my pew and walked up front. The Lord just grabbed me and took me up there.” Asking the pastor to pray with him, the 38-year-old Williams became a Christian. “That day, my life changed. I walked out of that church a different person than I walked in.” He gave up smoking, drinking, and swearing. His nightmares stopped.
“I Could Not Forgive Myself”
Williams became very active in his church in the decades afterward. Though he found his life transformed, his spiritual wounds did not heal overnight. He maintained that as he delved into a deeper understanding of his faith, he found it harder to forgive himself than those who were his enemies.
“I didn’t hold the enemy responsible,” he said. “They were doing what they were trained to do, and I was doing what I was trained to do. We were trained differently, but those were our beliefs. That’s what we had been taught.”
Williams believes he developed a guilt complex after what he had to do during the war, which he credits his faith for helping him overcome. “I could not forgive myself,” he explained. “I did after the Lord came into my life, but I felt that he would forgive me because I wasn’t doing this because I wanted to do it. I was doing it because I was trained to do it. And that’s what we were supposed to do in war. So I finally forgave myself.”
“And what a relief that was,” he added. “My guilt went away and it gave me a peace that I never had before.”
Williams has dedicated most of his life to helping other veterans, serving as a Veterans Affairs counselor for 33 years and the chaplain for the Congressional Medal of Honor Society for 35 years. To this day, he remains active in honoring Gold Star families through his nonprofit, the Hershel Woody Williams Medal of Honor Foundation, which seeks to erect monuments in every state honoring those who have lost a loved one fighting for the United States.
So far, 69 memorial monuments have been raised in 49 U.S. states or territories, and 73 remain in progress. “Everything else is taking the place of news and newspapers, but almost every day, we have somebody in the armed forces lose their life. We don’t talk about it. We don’t advertise it, we don’t let people know, but it’s happening.”
“We Can Return To The Foundations Of This Country”
As Williams surveys the state of the country he loves so much, he is grieved by the turmoil that has roiled it in recent months. He believes the riots that have left major cities torched and businesses destroyed are “absolutely atrocious,” and symptomatic of a generation that is bereft of values.
Williams goes beyond the hand-wringing that older generations have always done about young people, instead going so far as to lament a society whose foundations are seemingly being destroyed.
People know only what they have been taught, Williams said, for which reason blame falls in part on those individuals and institutions that have failed to pass on the country’s legacy to posterity.
“They do not have values of being an American,” he said of the rising generation. “The love of country that we were taught as we grew up in school; the respect that we would have for our country, for our flag, for our laws, for our being. We’re not teaching any of that today.”
“We’re not teaching civics in any form, so they don’t have any values that I had,” he continued. “I would never disrespect the flag ever, because I was taught not to.”
Nevertheless, Williams remains hopeful. The youth today, he said, lack “those very bedrock, basic values of country, appreciation of each other, of preservation of life. I think that’s slipped away and I don’t know how—I’m not smart enough to bring it back. But somebody will, somebody can.”
“It is my hope and my prayer that somehow we can return to the foundations of this country,” he concluded. “We’ve existed for over 200 years and we have existed because others made it possible for us to continue to exist.” As he has done throughout his long life, he keeps an eye to the many who have sacrificed their lives to that end. They died, he said, “just so we can be the country we are, the America that we love.”
“It’s my prayer, my hope, that we can come back to those foundations, reestablish those values to really realize that we do live in the greatest country on the globe,” he added. “And there’s no other country like us.”
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