Veterans appreciation event in Kentucky shows respect for the fallen
The (Ashland, Ky.) Daily Independent
ASHLAND, Ky. — Woody Williams said he wears his Medal of Honor as a tribute of respect to honor two Marines who gave their lives to protect his while he was fighting at Iwo Jima during the bloodiest battle of World War II.
“They are why I wear this medal. Not for what I did. I wear it in their honor because it really belongs to them,” said Williams, 90, who received the medal of honor for his actions on that day in 1945. Williams said he considers himself to be merely “the caretaker” of the nation’s highest commendation for valor in combat.
Williams, a member of the Huntington detachment of the Marine Corps League, was joined by dozens who sat silent and still as he discussed his life, service as a U.S. Marine, and his devotion to helping others once he was relieved of that duty, during the opening night of this weekend’s Veteran’s Appreciation Weekend. Instead of recounting his actions at Iwo Jima, he recalled the difficulty of getting to the thousands of other Marines on the island battlefront as well as the conditions they faced after hitting the beach. He and others were fed a steak dinner before boarding boats for Iwo Jima, which he said was viewed as a bad omen because it reminded them of the last meal for a condemned man about to be executed..
Williams said he landed on Iwo Jima with men who were trained in the use of flamethrowers and explosives.
“They could blow it up or burn it up,” he said, noting each of those men had been killed within two days of their arrival.
“We ran into these pillboxes, which we call bunkers today. They had the entire field of fire before them and we had only a slit to shoot at,” he said, soon adding that he agreed to “try” to do something about the fortified positions held by the Japanese. Instead of telling of his heroism, Williams focused on those who made sacrifices far greater than himself.
Williams spent several minutes proclaiming his personal respect for law enforcement officers, including members of the Ashland Police Department who had served as the color guard for the evening. “Their job is more stressful than combat,” he said, explaining men at war know they will be shot at and can shoot back, but police officers never know when they will face life or death situations. He also reminded the audience, made up of mostly older people, that their generation will soon be a thing of the past.
“World War II is fast becoming a dying breed, literally and figuratively. In just a few short years, we will pass into oblivion — just as World War I did. Just as the Civil War did,” he said, adding Korea, Vietnam “and perhaps Iraq and Afghanistan” to the list as he commented on recent news of a drone strike killing a Taliban leader.
“We’re going to fight wars in a whole different way. But the world will always have tyrants,” he said, adding the methods of war will change, but those who fight will remain essentially the same.
“These are individuals willing to sacrifice their life, not just for America but for people they don’t even know,” he said.
Citing his own upbringing on a farm in an area isolated from the rest of the world, Williams said it was a teacher in a one-room school who taught him the pledge of allegiance and love of country. By comparison, he noted today’s Air Force Academy cadets have the option of not including “one nation under God” when they recite the pledge of allegiance.
“We have lost that in our world today. Teachers aren’t allowed to do that,” he said. “Folks, where are we heading?”
As a young man, Williams said he was taught not to kill except for food or to relieve suffering, and got whipped for killing a songbird with his slingshot.
“Then I went to war and overnight I’m told if you are going to survive, you are going to have to kill other people,” and then trained each day to get an advantage on the enemy and “get the other guy first,” he said. “Then, two and a half to three years later you get a paper saying ‘We don’t need you anymore. You did what you were trained to do, now go home and be like you were three years before.’ For many, that switch took a long time.”
Williams said his personal ambitions include the development of monuments and memorials in honor of “Gold Star families” who lost sons during the war. The Woody Williams Medal of Honor Foundation supports the effort as well, he said, noting the first Gold Star memorial has recently been established at a cemetery in Dunbar, West Virginia.
Speaking to individuals before his address, Williams said he is unlike many World War II veterans who continue to hold a grudge against the enemy.
“They were doing the same thing I was doing. They were following orders too. I had never even heard of a Japanese until I got into the Pacific. They had never done anything wrong to me,” he said, clarifying that he did not have an appreciation of the Japanese culture or their treatment of enemy prisoners. “I have no hate.”
Veteran’s Appreciation Weekend continues today with a 5K “Freedom Run” at Central Park starting at 9 a.m., followed by activities at the Port of Ashland riverfront including a military antiques show, a classic car cruise-in, and a canteen dance and dinner under tents by the river.