How Woody Williams embodied bravery, on and off the battlefield

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How Woody Williams embodied bravery, on and off the battlefield


Col. Hershel “Woody” Williams, the youngest of 11 in a family of West Virginia dairy farmers – and the last World War II Medal of Honor recipient – lay in state Thursday at the U.S. Capitol in Washington.

Mr. Wiliams, who fought at the Battle of Iwo Jima, was renowned for his graciousness. But the grandiosity of his Medal of Honor citation annoyed him.

Why We Wrote This

Courage is a quality that gets praised, but all too often overlooked, say veterans and military historians. Medal of Honor recipient Hershel “Woody” Wiliams will be remembered as “a person who used every ounce of his being to serve others,” his grandson said.

“It was ‘alone’ – he resented that word,” Gen. David Berger, commandant of the Marine Corps, recalled at a memorial service. He didn’t like “single-handedly” either.

Mr. Williams’ “incredible humility,” as General Berger said, came through in his often-expressed sense that courage is abundant and frequently overlooked – a sentiment shared by legions of his fellow honorees.

Medals of Honor illustrate “some amazing individuals who have given up their lives to protect other folks – and some who have been willing to do that and survived,” says retired Army Col. John Agoglia, who served as director of the Counterinsurgency Training Center in Kabul during the U.S. war in Afghanistan.

In his career, Mr. Agoglia has looked to Medal of Honor stories to inspire, but also to explore what it means to have “the courage to do the hard right thing, and not the easy wrong.”

Col. Hershel “Woody” Williams, the youngest of 11 in a family of West Virginia dairy farmers – and the last World War II Medal of Honor recipient – lay in state Thursday at the U.S. Capitol in Washington.

He was a “formidable warrior” who fought at the Battle of Iwo Jima and was impressively demanding of those in power, too, Sen. Joe Manchin, the West Virginia Democrat who was raised 10 miles from Mr. Williams, recalled at a memorial ceremony in their home state.

But Mr. Williams was also renowned for his graciousness, treating each person he encountered “with so much tenderness,” his pastor recalled – even at the end of a long day touring and telling his story, as many of the war’s 473 Medal of Honor recipients were called upon to do.  

Why We Wrote This

Courage is a quality that gets praised, but all too often overlooked, say veterans and military historians. Medal of Honor recipient Hershel “Woody” Wiliams will be remembered as “a person who used every ounce of his being to serve others,” his grandson said.

Courage is something Americans like to praise, but tend to overlook when it comes in forms they aren’t expecting. Mr. Williams, for one, believed it was everywhere and made it his work in later years to honor in others. He also would talk openly about what he endured in World War II, in what other soldiers call another kind of bravery. The kind of selflessness, humility, and generosity he showed in the years after Iwo Jima often go hand in hand with courage, other veterans and military historians say.

Still, the grandiosity of Mr. Williams’s Medal of Honor citation annoyed him. 

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