Some we meet inspire a powerful sentiment of pride, love and respect; a desire to express gratitude, to shake hands, some human way to express joy that another lives with a singular decency and courage. Below is a story of an encounter with such a heroic man—the last surviving Congressional Medal of Honor recipient from the World War II battle for Iwo Jima, Marine Corps Chief Warrant Officer-4 Hershel W. ‘Woody’ Williams. David K. Winnett, Jr., Captain, USMC (Ret.) writes this piece for us.
By David K. Winnett, Jr., Captain, USMC (Ret.)—Last Saturday afternoon my wife Tess and I had the honor of enjoying lunch with retired Marine Corps Chief Warrant Officer-4 Hershel W. ‘Woody’ Williams, the last surviving Congressional Medal of Honor recipient from the World War II battle for Iwo Jima. Woody was accompanied by his grandson Brent Casey, a friend and fellow Persian Gulf War Veteran with whom I serve on the Board of the National Gulf War Resource Center.
As a retired Marine myself, well-versed in the Marine Corps’ illustrious history, I am in awe of all who participated in the battle for Iwo Jima, where it was famously said that ‘Uncommon Valor was a Common Virtue’. Iwo Jima was one of the most hard-fought campaigns of WWII. The iconic Marine Corps War Memorial in Washington DC, inspired by photographer Joe Rosenthal’s famous photograph of the flag-raising on Iwo’s Mount Suribachi is hallowed ground to all Marines. To suddenly find myself in the presence of someone who fought on Iwo Jima, aside from the fact that he was awarded the nation’s highest award for valor during that battle was surreal, to put it mildly. Tess had to steady me as I felt a little light-headed when I shook Woody’s hand. To a Marine, meeting a Congressional Medal of Honor recipient is on par with meeting a head of state. As we had lunch and engaged in conversation with this exceptional American, we quickly understood how very special Woody Williams really is.
Woody has worn the Congressional Medal of Honor (CMH) since it was presented to him by President Harry Truman in October of 1945. The actions which led to Woody’s nomination for the CMH occurred 65 years ago last week, on February 23, 1945. Since receiving the CMH, Woody has actively carried on the responsibility of reminding his fellow citizens to never forget the thousands who gave their lives in the battle for Iwo Jima, and the more than sixteen million American and Allied forces who died in the many other pivotal battles of WWII. If anyone knows the true meaning of the phrase, ‘freedom is not free’, and that its price must never forgotten, it is Woody Williams.
To truly appreciate what this man did during the battle for Iwo Jima, Google: ‘Hershel W. Williams’ and read his CMH citation. His repeated feats of bravery on Iwo Jima were superhuman. Yet Woody insists that he is just an ordinary man who once found himself in the midst of extraordinary circumstances. Woody would tell you that he was only doing his job. He would also remind you of the heroics of the more than 6,800 Americans, mostly Marines, many of them close friends, who died during the 46-day battle to capture that small but strategically important island.
High-profile heroism must no doubt be a heavy burden to carry, yet Woody stands out as a shining example of amazing humility and selflessness. He represents the best of America. He represents those who didn’t come home, and he honors their memory and as he puts it “gives back” by continuing to travel frequently to various engagements around the country, offering words of wisdom and inspiration to our active duty forces, and to countless civic and charitable organizations. Woody was a hero then, and remains one to this day. Following his retirement from the Marine Corps he served with the Department of Veterans Affairs, helping his fellow Veterans for over 30 years. Woody epitomizes leadership by example.
As our WWII heroes leave us and time fades the memories of the extraordinary sacrifices made at places like Iwo Jima, one can only hope that our society will not give in to the temptations of apathy and complacency that are often the unintended consequences of freedom. Woody Williams, and the millions who gave their lives during WWII were fighting to ensure that our nation and the world remained free of tyranny and oppression. They succeeded in that mission, but at great cost. We owe Woody, and all of his generation a promise never to squander the freedoms that were bought and paid for with their enormous sacrifices, and to continue to honor the countless young Americans who still to this day pay the ultimate price so that we are able to continue living in a free society.
In many respects today’s generation faces challenges similar to those that Woody’s ‘greatest generation’ had to deal with, yet oddly many of our own citizens and some of our political leaders don’t seem to fully comprehend the threats at hand. We seem dangerously close to repeating past mistakes that are born of political naivety, indecisiveness, and moral weakness. The best outcome that we can hope for is that if any part of our nation’s history repeats itself, it’s the part that Woody’s generation called ‘Victory’.
Woody; may God bless you, and may God bless the greatest generation of Marines, Sailors, Soldiers and members of the Army Air Corps who fought so valiantly to preserve our liberties all those years ago. Tess and I were so honored to have met you and we promise that we will always be grateful for the blessings of freedom that you and your brothers and sisters-in-arms bestowed upon our family.
David K. Winnett, Jr.
Captain, USMC (Ret.)
Chairman, Funding Development, National Gulf War Resource Center