I first met Hershel Woodrow Williams early in 2001.
For those of you who don’t know anything about the man, perhaps I should let his official military citation provide you with an explanation:
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 4 riflemen, he fought desperately for 4 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 1 position after another. On 1 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 time I spent with Hershel “Woody” Williams, West Virginia’s only living Medal of Honor recipient, was perhaps one of the greatest experiences of my life.
Not only did I spend a couple of hours in the home of a living legend, I also had the rare opportunity to hold the Medal of Honor in my own hand. And since most of those Medals of Honor have been awarded posthumously, I experienced something that most of its recipients never did.
As I drove away from Hershel Williams’ home near Huntington, West Virginia that sunny afternoon, I never expected that I would see this elderly hero, gentleman, and patriot again.
But upon learning Woody Williams would be speaking within an hour’s drive from my home, my son and I hopped in the car and headed for an Independence Day celebration in West Union, West Virginia.
This past Tuesday, I was once again granted the rare opportunity to stand beside greatness.