GALLIPOLIS, Ohio — Those who attended the Memorial Day ceremony at Gallipolis City Park on Monday were witnessing living history, as the last surviving Medal of Honor recipient to serve in World War II, Hershel “Woody” Williams, addressed the crowd.
Williams, a native of West Virginia, was introduced by director of the Hershel Woody Williams VA Medical Center in Huntington, Brian Nimmo.
“He was awarded our nation’s highest award for military valor, the Medal of Honor for heroic action in Iwo Jima and is our last living Medal of Honor recipient to serve in World War II,” Nimmo said. “He’s flipped the coin at the Super Bowl, fired the start at the Marine Corps Marathon, he’s sat with the president of the United States on Air Force One, he has a United States ship named in his honor and he is the namesake of our VA Medical Center, located in Huntington.”
Nimmo then spoke about some lesser known facts about Williams, noting he was from a small dairy farm in Quiet Dell, West Virginia. Once, on his way home from serving in the U.S. Marine Corps, a train ride which began in Chicago ended in Southern Pennsylvania when Williams was forced to jump from a moving train because that was as close as it was going to come to West Virginia — he eventually made it to his girlfriend’s house the next morning. Nimmo noted he also spent time in Vietnam, working for the VA, counseling soldiers about their service and benefits.
However, Nimmo said the most important thing those gathered in the park needed to know concerning Williams was: “He has spent his entire adult life serving his country, either in uniform or serving veterans and their families. There is no better person to speak to you on Memorial Day because for this man, everyday is Memorial Day. He spends his life working hard to recognize the sacrifices of our Gold Star families. His lifetime for me and many others, is a lesson in leadership…”
The crowd then gave 97-year old Williams a standing ovation as he arrived at the podium.
“Thank you for inviting me to be a part of this great day,” Williams said. “You are here, I believe, for two reasons. One — you’re here because you care. And, the second reason is, that you believe in the greatest country on Earth, the United States of America.”
After that statement was met with much applause, Williams then said Memorial Day was a time to remember those in the U.S. Armed Forces who have scarified their lives “for America, for freedom and for us,” adding, “I walked in the footsteps of giants.” He also reminded there were others across America who put their lives on the line too, “to protect us in our communities, to keep us safe and to protect the freedom that we all love so very much. Many of them also have sacrificed their lives for the same causes of those loved ones who gave their lives in the Armed Forces of the United States.”
Williams then spoke more about what Memorial Day means — both now and then.
“It seems like we are, or have maybe, lost some of the value of life in America,” he said. “And Memorial Day is a day we recognize the value of those lives. As important as the day is, maybe it has lost some of its meaning from the days of yesterday. Maybe there has been a change over the years… I can remember as just a very small, young boy, my mother taking me to a cemetery and I didn’t understand why I would have to go…but now I do.”
Williams then quoted Audie Murphy, “the most decorated veteran this country has ever known” and recited the entire poem “In Flanders Fields” by John McCrae.
“I can remember in my younger years of the words of ‘Flanders Fields,’ it was something said, I think, at every gathering on Memorial Day,” Williams said. “Most of our youth have no idea the meaning of, or have never heard those words, but they have great meaning…”
Williams supposed during a time of peace spreading around the globe, “…We have focused on the good times of the present and may be guilty of overlooking the lessons of the past. At the moment, in our country, we are at peace from war but do we see peace, everywhere?”
Williams also reminded those gathered to also remember service personnel who may not have perished on a battlefield, but still had their lives cut short while serving — mentioning tragic scenarios like an Air Force jet malfunction, munitions exploding on a ship, a training accident on a runway.
“In the air, on the sea, on land, whether at home or far away, the bill for protecting America and our way of life, has been served on our young men and woman in every generation,” he said. “Each year we pause to honor those heroes who died in our nation’s uniforms over the years…whether they lost their lives in a World War…or whether they died through accident while serving in some remote outpost, their contribution is the same, they gave their last full measure and their families still grieve. But this day, this Memorial Day, is a time to remember those who did not return from serving their country.
“Some families mark this day by pulling out old envelopes, filled with photographs and bundles of yellowed letters. With these reminders, they will look back through memory’s eye, momentous times in our nation’s past…the images they see will not be of people who are old or frail but of people who are forever young, forever full of life, forever frozen in time.”
Williams then described photos of service men and women from World War I to present, full of life before they met an untimely end, explaining these images, both past and present “remind us that our nation was founded on the belief that our democratic ideals are worth fighting for and if necessary, dying for. We have a sacred obligation to remember…as Lincoln said, ‘it is for us, the living, to be dedicated to the unfinished work which they have thus far so nobly advanced…’”
After reciting a poem written by his grandson about lost loved ones and being welcomed “home,” Williams ended his remarks with, “May God continue to bless this great country that we all call America but we more seriously call, our home.”
Williams once again received a standing ovation upon the completion of his keynote speech.
Also participating in the program:
Master of Ceremony was John Thomas who also led the Pledge of Allegiance;
Members of the Gallia Academy Madrigals provided patriotic musical performances and GAHS Band Members performed “Taps” during the ceremony;
Pastor John Jackson delivered both the invocation and benediction;
Thomas introduced the following Commanders — Bill Mangus from the VFW, Michael Giese from the American Legion, Gallipolis, Robert McCarley from the American Legion, Vinton, Keith Jeffers from the DAV/AMVETS, Larry Marr from VVA, Jim Doss from the Marine Corps League of Mason, Meigs and Gallia counties, Jim Oiler from the Sons of the Union Veterans;
The American Legion Ladies Auxiliary placed a memorial wreath at the Spirit of the American Doughboy statue;
Gary Fenderbosch read the names of this year’s fallen veterans;
VFW Honor Guard provided the gun salute.
© 2021 Ohio Valley Publishing, all rights reserved.
Beth Sergent is editor of Ohio Valley Publishing.