Hershel "Woody" Williams, who received a Medal of Honor from President Harry Truman for Williams' actions as a Marine during World War II, told an audience Saturday the award didn't have a particular impact on him, at first.
"I had never heard of it," Williams told a full audience at the Kentucky Department of American Gold Star Mothers luncheon Saturday afternoon at the International Bluegrass Music Museum.
"I was just doing the job for which the Marine Corps had trained me, and that was my duty," Williams said. Williams was awarded the citation for destroying several Japanese strongpoints as a member of the 21st Marines on Feb. 23, 1945, during the battle of Iwo Jima.
But the award took new significance later, Williams said, when he learned "two Marines sacrificed their lives protecting me" while Williams maneuvered to attack the strongpoints.
Today, "I wear it in their honor," Williams, 95, said. "They gave all they had protecting me."
Williams' speech to the Gold Star Mothers organization dovetails with his mission to increase the number of monuments to Gold Star families. A Gold Star family is one where a member was killed on active duty in the U.S. Armed Forces.
"For years and years, prior to 2013, we had nothing in this country that recognized Gold Star families," Williams said Saturday morning at Mid-America Jet, shortly after arriving in town by private plane. Prior to then, "we've never done anything to honor those families."
Williams, a West Virginia native, said the first Gold Star memorial was built in that state in 2015. When that project was complete, Williams said the memorial's organizers thought their work was complete.
But word of the memorial spread across the internet, and other communities began asking how they could craft a Gold Star monument of their own. Today, according to the Hershel Woody Williams Medal of Honor Foundation website, there are 47 completed monuments across the nation, with another 57 Gold Star monuments planned.
Owensboro, Williams said Saturday morning, would also be "an ideal place" for a Gold Star monument. The work of raising funds for a monument would have to be done locally, with support from Williams' foundation, Williams said. Those monument committees, made up with many Gold Star family members, have been good for the families, Williams said.
"Once we got that started, it continued to grow, because now (Gold Star families) are meeting each other, and are able to share for the first time," Williams said.
Williams was met at the airport by about 50 veterans, largely Marines, who escorted Williams through town to the Charles Shelton Memorial before taking him to the Bluegrass Museum. A crowd of people, waving small American flags, were there to greet Williams and take photos with him.
Cathy Mullins, spokesman for the Gold Star Mothers and whose son, Brandon Scott Mullins, was killed while deployed in Afghanistan, said 11 Gold Star families were present at Saturday's luncheon.
"Today is about honoring our Gold Star families," Mullins said. Later, Mullins told the audience more than 200 military members from Kentucky have died since the nation launched its "war on terror" after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. A large percentage of those deaths were from suicide, Mullins said.
"It's real," Mullins said. "We need to remember it."
Williams used part of his address to the crowd to make an appeal for national unity. Williams said, during World War II, service members would salute the good work of others by saying "gung-ho," which means "work together."
"There are very few things in this world we can do alone," Williams said. "We must depend on each other. We are the United States of America ... Somehow, we as a country and as a people must come back together, so we can use that word, 'gung-ho.' "
This article is written by James Mayse from Messenger-Inquirer, Owensboro, Ky. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.