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Nonagenarian veteran urges young people to commit to national service

Nov 11 2018

Mike Tharp | Dallas News

At age 95, the last living Medal of Honor-decorated Marine from World War II has a few things on his mind ahead of the the Collin County Marine Corps League Birthday Ball on Saturday.

Cpl. Hershel "Woody" Williams, one of only four surviving Medal of Honor recipients from World War II, strongly advocates "some sort of compulsory national service — not necessarily military service, but all of us should give something back to our country." He said the service should be for one or two years. 

In a telephone conversation from his home state of West Virginia, Williams explained why he supports national service. "It has a tremendous impact on you," he said. "It changes your personality." 

During the Great Depression, he worked with the Civilian Conservation Corps in Montana. "It developed character and responsibility," he said. "It taught you something you could use. It would be tremendous for our youth out on the street to contribute something."

Williams was first rejected by the Marine Corps when he tried to enlist in 1942. He was 5-foot-6 and the Corps requirement was 5-foot-8. Two of his brothers had been drafted that year and sent to Europe. But in early 1943, as U.S. campaigns in Europe and the South Pacific intensified, the Corps lowered the height requirement to 5-foot-2.

He served with the 21st Marines, 3rd Marine Division, on Guam and Iwo Jima. On the day of the famous flag-raising on Mount Suribachi, Williams unleashed a flamethrower to attack Japanese machine-gun pillboxes. It allowed his comrades to advance. That action on Feb. 23, 1945, led to President Harry Truman bestowing the Medal of Honor on Williams. He also received a Purple Heart for being wounded.

As for the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he compares them to Vietnam. "I don't think we should get involved unless we have the objective of winning ... The average American doesn't know there's a war going on."

Ahead of the midterms, he lamented that "so very few veterans run for office and they are the most qualified to serve in politics. I don't understand why more veterans don't get interested in setting the pace for America." 

He's also dismayed at low voter turnout. "In America if we get 30 to 35 percent of our people voting, we feel pretty good. But in some countries it's 70 to 80 percent. Get out and vote and give back to your country." 

Williams softened his voice as he talked about the psychological wounds of war. "PTSD? Every war has had something like it. In World War I it was shell shock, in World War II they called it psychoneurosis, in Korea it was called battle fatigue. 

"The average human being is taught all his life not to be violent. Once you're in a war, it's a very difficult adjustment to make." Williams is convinced that the Veterans Administration today "is better prepared to handle this than it ever has been in the history of our country."

Williams served in the Marine Corps and the Marine Corps Reserves for 20 years. He worked 33 years with the VA as a veterans service representative. 

Six years ago he and others set up the Hershel Woody Williams Medal of Honor Foundation. Its aim is to establish Gold Star Family Memorial Monuments in all 50 states. A Gold Star family is one that has lost a loved one in military service. The foundation also offers scholarships to the sons and daughters of service members killed in action and develops programs to help educate Americans about Gold Star families. 

He spends more than 250 days a year on the road to promote the foundation, which has 46 monuments in 39 states. (hwwmohf.org) 

Williams was raised on a dairy farm in Quiet Dell, W.Va. After World War II started, the teenager delivered Western Union telegrams to residents who would become Gold Star families. That gave him a "greater appreciation for life and those lost serving in the military for their country."

After a lifetime of service, the nonagenarian reflects the virtues and valor of the Greatest Generation. "I'm just doing a job the Marine Corps trained me to do," he said, "just for a long time."

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