TechnologyHow Woody Williams embodied bravery, on and off the...

How Woody Williams embodied bravery, on and off the battlefield

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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. 

It recounts how he volunteered to take out a network of reinforced concrete pillboxes on the Pacific island made famous as the spot where Marines hoisted the American flag after enduring devastating loss.

Mr. Williams was among those who fought “desperately” for hours and “grimly charged enemy riflemen who attempted to stop him with bayonets.”

It was the citation’s line that he “daringly went forward alone to attempt the reduction of devastating machine gun fire from the unyielding positions” in particular that made him wince.

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

He’d say, “Stop right there,” Senator Manchin said. “He’d just stop you in a heartbeat” and point out that the brave riflemen around him were killed, and that there was nothing “single-handed” about what he did.

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.

His grandchildren recalled that he made it his mission to shower with love, and bring attention to, Gold Star families – the military’s name for those who have lost their beloved sons, daughters, parents, and spouses in battle. 

“You understand what they go through?” Senator Manchin recalled Mr. Williams saying. “We honor sacrifice, but they’re left to carry on.”

Sholten Singer/The Herald-Dispatch/AP

Marine Corps League veterans wave as the funeral procession for Medal of Honor recipient Hershel “Woody” Williams moves along Interstate 64 on July 2, 2022, in Teays Valley, W.Va.

When courage is overlooked

Richard Kohn, who served as the chief historian for the Air Force, says one of his favorite books about courage is, “What it is Like to go to War,” written by a Marine named Karl Marlantes, who won the nation’s second-highest award for valor, the Distinguished Service Medal. 

“He says that so many people do such courageous things, and only a tiny few get recognized for it,” Dr. Kohn notes. “Marlantes has it exactly right: So much bravery goes on.”

When he worked on a research team in the mid-1990s to investigate the overlooked heroics of Black troops in World War II, Dr. Kohn was particularly struck by the courage demonstrated by those “who understood they were being discriminated against” but fought bravely for their country in spite of this heartbreaking fact.

The team was sent to interview Gen. Benjamin Davis, Jr., who had commanded the Tuskegee Airmen. “The Army wanted us to find out if anyone had been nominated for a Medal of Honor that had been denied up the chain of command for racial reasons.”

So they asked General Davis – “a true officer and a gentleman,” Dr. Kohn says, who had graduated from West Point and whose father was the U.S. Army’s first Black general – whether he’d ever nominated any of his troops for the nation’s top military honor.

“He said, ‘Are you kidding? No, I didn’t have time for that,’” making it clear he knew it would’ve been a futile exercise. The report produced by the team including Dr. Kohn ultimately resulted in Medals of Honor for seven Black soldiers. 

Overlooked courage was at the heart of a White House ceremony earlier this month, in which the battlefield awards of four Vietnam veterans were upgraded to Medals of Honor with the understanding that their heroics had once been downplayed because of their race. 

One of the recipients, Spec. 5 Dwight Birdwell, knew his tank was the only thing standing between his fellow troops and enemy forces at his base near Saigon during the Tet Offensive of 1968.

Specialist Birdwell climbed outside the tank, “fully exposed” under intense fire, to “create a place of relative safety for injured men behind the tank to take cover.”

Wounded in the face, chest, arms, and hands, he was ordered to load onto the medical evacuation helicopter – “only to crawl right back off the other side, and to keep on fighting,” President Joe Biden marveled.

Mr. Birdwell went on to “build a legacy of service in his community,” President Biden added, which included serving on the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court.

“The courage to do the hard right thing”

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. 

“But that doesn’t mean you don’t ever get a chance to exhibit courage because you weren’t in a major firefight.”

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.” 

This includes “standing up in way that might negatively impact your career; the courage to look your boss in the eye and say, ‘No, that’s wrong.’” He’s told military and civilian mentees alike, “You’ll be challenged morally on a regular basis – you’ll have plenty of chances to demonstrate courage in your career, and in your life.” 

Don Martinez, who served as a field artillery officer in Iraq, recalled thinking, once he was officially on a battlefield, ‘I’m eligible at this point for a Congressional Medal of Honor’” and doubting if he had what it took to earn that kind of recognition.

He took part in the 2nd Battle of Fallujah and the Iraqi elections of 2005. He helped build defenses for U.S. bases “in all the hot spots” and years later was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury after a rocket blast. He never got a Purple Heart, since he never went to sick call, he says. 

“A lot of that is someone else has to be there to capture your stories. I foresee one day 20 years from now, I’ll get it approved, and I’ll be in one of these ceremonies, an old man getting my Purple Heart,” he says fondly.

Today, Mr. Martinez takes part in a group called Veteran Storytellers, which he sees as a “civic duty, completing the next cycle of my journey.” 

He was struck by the courage Mr. Williams demonstrated in his repeated willingness to tell his story. “My grandfather never shared his stories from World War II, but for me personally, to speak up is critical. It’s the story of America, in a nutshell.” 

Mr. Williams said in a 2018 Boy Scouts ceremony that, for him, the Medal of Honor was a “lifesaver,” because “it forced me to talk about experiences that I had, which was a therapy that I didn’t even know I was doing.” 

“Could I do that? Would I do that?”

The stories of how soldiers earn their medals – and how they have not gotten medals – are rooted in the kinds of questions Mr. Martinez grappled with, says Dr. Kohn. “It represents the person you’d like to think you are, and the doubt most people have about, ‘Could I do that? Would I do that?’”

Most people doubt they’d have that kind of courage, he says, himself included. But, he points out, most people have never undergone the training that troops have, either.

In the case of Mr. Marlantes, conditioning was key to developing the mental muscles for courage, he writes. He recounts being made to stand in a swamp full of mosquitos for hours during boot camp as punishment for swatting at a bug while a drill instructor was talking – in retrospect, an important, if brutal, lesson in distraction and focus under all sorts of fire.

At the heart of what the drill instructors sought to impart was “the lesson that no matter how tough things got, there was more in you,” he writes. “You never quit.”

That was the spirit that Mr. Williams embodied, leaving his family with great “gratitude for a person who used every ounce of his being to serve others,” his grandson Chad Graham said – and with promises to carry on his good work.

“He made it a personal obligation to turn something so bitterly painful into something that could inspire. … That’s the magic of it. He took loss and somehow for the rest of his life created hope,” General Berger added. “He could make you care – and that was his gift.”

Editor’s note: The phrasing of one sentence has been adjusted to avoid any implication that Richard Kohn was the leader of the mid-1990s research team.

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