CHARLESTON, W. Va. (Tribune News Service) — When World War II veteran Hershel “Woody” Williams first heard of the effort to get a U.S. Navy ship named in his honor, he didn’t think it was possible.
That was nearly 20 years ago, after Ron Wroblewski, president of the West Virginia Marine Corps Coordinating Council, visited a ship at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard, in Virginia, and realized the ships were named for Medal of Honor recipients, like Williams, originally of Quiet Dell. So he decided to try to get Williams, a Marine Corps veteran, such an honor.
“I thought he was wasting his time,” Williams said.
But on Thursday afternoon, 70,000 signatures and 19 years after Wroblewski started the effort, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus joined Williams and several local and federal dignitaries to officially name the Navy’s newest Expeditionary Sea Base ship the USNS Hershel Woody Williams.
“It would have never been, except for Ron and his faith,” Williams said.
Williams, 92, of Ona, is the last surviving veteran of the Battle of Iwo Jima to have been awarded a Medal of Honor. Williams said Thursday’s honor was not just about him, but about two of his fellow Marines who lost their lives protecting him during that battle.
“It comes about more so for what they did,” Williams told a crowd of mostly veterans who filled the Culture Center Theater for the ceremony.
Williams was born in 1923 and enlisted in the Marines at age 20. A shrapnel wound he sustained also earned him a Purple Heart, awarded by President Harry Truman. Following his discharge in November 1945, Williams served in the Marine Corps Reserve until 1969 and also was a counselor to other West Virginia veterans for the Department of Veterans Affairs for 33 years.
“My life has been blessed with so many miracles, and this is one of them,” he said.
In addition to Mabus, Charleston Mayor Danny Jones, Sen. Joe Manchin, Rep. Evan Jenkins, and Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin also spoke at the ceremony.
Mabus called naming ships a great privilege and said meeting Williams was one of the great joys of his life.
“I am in awe,” Mabus said, “in absolute awe of anybody who landed on those beaches, who fought across that black sand, with ... [gun]fire raining down on them, who fought for 35 days, who fought at the cost of more than 20,000 Marines killed or wounded — a Marine killed or wounded for every two yards of ground that they gained. And Woody Williams stood out among that crowd, among those Marines.”
While Williams might have doubted Thursday’s honor would ever come, Wroblewski said he knew it would.
“My parents taught me something when I was a kid: Never start something you can’t finish,” Wroblewski said. “Never give up.”
Wroblewski said his goal was to get the ship named in Williams’ honor sooner rather than later: He wanted Williams to live to see the day.
Williams thanked Mabus for his decision to name ships after living people “so that they and their families could share in that glory.”
Wroblewski said the 20-year effort involved getting organizations to pass resolutions, organizing events, sending letters and encouraging others to do the same.
“It’s been a long haul, a lot of work,” he said, adding that it felt good to see it through.
“Woody,” Wroblewski said, “it’s all for you.”
©2016 The Charleston Gazette (Charleston, W.Va.)
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