Light on Our Path: America's Last Living WWII Medal of Honor Recipient Leaves a Shining Example

This week, an American hero left us. But as is the case with heroes, he left an indelible legacy.

Hershel Williams came into the world on October 2nd, 1923. He was his parents’ 11th child.


Nearly two decades later, the Quiet Dell, West Virginia youth dreamed of fighting for his country. With a world at war, Hershel — known as “Woody” — attempted to join America’s military effort. But at only five-feet-six, he was turned away.

By 1943, the war’s demands had grown; an Armed Forces in need had relaxed its rules. Woody made it into the Marines, where he honed an unusual skill: As he once explained to WSAZ, he was “the guy who was trained to do the flamethrower.”

That training would come in handy, on February 23rd, 1945.

But training, of course, is one thing; a man’s mettle is quite another.

As it turned out, Woody was made of steel.

During the Battle of Iwo Jima, he and the 21st Marines, 3d Marine Division were under heavy machine gunfire. As depicted by the New York Post, armed with explosives and his flamethrower, Woody cleared “seven concrete bunkers known as pillboxes.”

As all of the men in Williams’ company perished, he kept pushing forward — at one point shoving a flamethrower nozzle into one of the small concrete boxes and killing the enemies inside.

He then refueled his weapon and boldly returned five more times to destroy the remaining pillboxes.

Due to his boundless bravery, Woody was awarded the Medal of Honor.

But his service to country and fellow fighters was far from done. For 33 years, Woody was a Veterans Service Representative for the Department of Veterans Affairs.


Additionally, for a near-decade in Barboursville, West Virginia, he served as Commandant for the Veterans Nursing Home.

He also sat on the Governor’s Military Advisory Board of his home state.

The Hill outlines a host of other accomplishments and honors:

Williams was named a Distinguished West Virginian in 1980 and 2013, and is a member of the West Virginia Hall of Fame. The Huntington VA Medical Center was also renamed the Hershel “Woody” Williams VA Medical Center in his honor in 2018.

Williams founded the Woody Williams Foundation, which is a non-profit organization…for Gold Star Families.

In March 2020, the U.S. Navy commissioned a warship, the USS Hershel “Woody” Williams, in his honor in Norfolk, Virginia.

Despite his immense courage under fire, the man downplayed his extraordinary feat. When once asked about that fateful day, he said he remembered very little.

“It was just another day of battle, as far as I was concerned.”

There is a deficit of Woodys in the world.

We are losing a generation of treasures, at a time when we need them most — and while they’re increasingly looked upon as unnecessary. Contemporarily, each American is his own treasure; one’s pride emanates from one’s identity, as we enshrine ourselves online. But in a time long past, what was revered was virtue; what was cherished was sacrifice; what was consecrated was character. And the greatest love wasn’t that of self, but of others.


Only that love can birth true bravery.

It’s a love to which we must return — a love for our fellow Americans.

It’s there, for all to see, across the history of World War II. Through an era of the Greatest Generation.

Earlier this month, a sunken destroyer escort — the USS Samuel B. Roberts I — was discovered in the Philippine Sea. It, too, resides in legend.

From NBC News:

Despite being outgunned, the Sammy B attacked a fleet of imperial Japanese navy ships led by the Yamato, the largest battleship ever constructed, before sinking under fire in the Philippine Sea, earning it a description as “the destroyer escort that fought like a battleship.” Among its 224 crew members, 89 were killed.

Such was a generation that knew real danger yet took real risk, for things once clung to but progressively discarded. Our elders faced the terrors of their time in ways and for reasons that provide a path — back to a nation again worth fighting for.

Our present leaders are fools leading us into a foolish future. May we turn to the past for wiser counsel.

On Wednesday, The Woody Williams Foundation released a statement:

Today at 3:15 a.m., Hershel Woodrow Williams, affectionately known by many as Woody went home to be with the Lord. Woody peacefully joined his beloved wife Ruby while surrounded by his family at the VA Medical Center which bears his name.

“Woody’s family would like to express their sincere gratitude for all of the love and support,” it said. “They would also like to share that Woody’s wish is that people continue to carry on his mission.”


That mission is described by the Foundation thusly:

We are…focused on the mission of honoring, recognizing, and serving Gold Star Families and the legacy of their Loved Ones who have paid the ultimate sacrifice. “The Cause is Greater than I…” -Woody Williams

“Great Than I” — words seldom any longer heard.

At 98, Hershel “Woody” Williams was the last living WWII Medal of Honor recipient.



See more content from me:

Heroes of Our Past: Expedition Locates Long-Lost WWII Ship Sunk by the Imperial Japanese Navy

Dolly Parton Turns Down Another Honor, and It’s a Monument to What the World Desperately Needs

September 11th: Remembering Not Only Tragedy, but Something Greater

Find all my RedState work here.

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