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Iwo Jima and Medal of Honor Marine discusses need for Gold Star Memorials

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U.S. Marines friends and family mourn during the memorial service in remembrance of the Marines that gave the ultimate sacrifice for their country in Kathmandu, Nepal at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif., June 3, 2015. The memorial service is honoring six U.S. Marines that lost their lives in Nepal. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by LCpl. Jeremy L. Laboy)

For almost an hour Friday morning, Hershel “Woody” Williams spoke of sacrifice and remembering the families who have lost loved ones in the military service.

Only briefly did Williams speak of his own highly-decorated military career: He is one of only six remaining World War II veterans who received the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Williams was the featured speaker at D-Day Conneaut, a two-day re-enactment at Conneaut Township Park on the Lake Erie shore. He spoke before a capacity audience, many of them World War II veterans.

Williams, a Marine, did not dwell on his exploits, which occurred on Iwo Jima. Williams was a member of a flame-thrower unit assigned to clear away enemy bunkers and explosives. Accompanied by two Marines, he attacked several machine gun bunkers over the span of several hours, clearing a path for his fellow Marines to follow. His escort, as well as every other Marine in his unit, died on the island.

Today, the 92-year-old Williams speaks about the foundation he helped create, and which bears his name, to honor families who lost a relative in combat. During the war, families who suffered a loss were given a small flag emblazoned with a gold star to hang in their window.

Williams, of West Virginia, is working to place Gold Star Family memorials in every state. To date, 10 memorials can be found in eight states, and more than 30 are in the process of becoming a reality, he told an applauding crowd.

Monuments are long overdue to recognize the suffering of those left behind, Williams said.

“They sacrificed one of their own so we could be free,” he said.

Williams said he initially envisioned memorials to Gold Star mothers, believing “mothers grieve more.” That all changed several years ago after a speech in Parkersburg, West Virginia. After speaking about his plan for a mothers’ tribute, the audience filed out, save for one man.

The man approached, tears in his eyes, Williams recalled. “He told me, ‘Dads cry, too.'”

That encounter prompted Williams to shift focus to a memorial honoring families.

“We’ve got to do something to pay tribute,” he said. “(Causalities) become almost invisible except to the immediate family. Somebody needs to say thank you for your sacrifice.”

Williams mixed humor with sentiment during his talk. He was a farm boy in West Virginia when the war broke out. Williams opted for the because that branch had snappier-looking uniforms he felt would impress girls.

“I though the Army uniform was ugly,” he said to laughs.

Initially rejected by the Marines because he was too short, he eventually enlisted in 1942 at age 18 when the restriction was lowered. He also found religion that day.

Filling out a form, he said he was puzzled when it asked his religion.

“I didn’t have any religion,” Williams said. “I didn’t really go to church.”

He noticed a fellow next to him put the letter “C” in the box. Willilams did the same.

“And I became a Catholic right then,” he said.

Williams received the Medal of Honor from President Harry S. Truman. Afterwards, a commander told him to respect it.

“He said, ‘That medal doesn’t belong to you. It belongs to all those Marines who didn’t get to come home. Do nothing to tarnish that medal.’

“I’ve used a lot of Brasso on that medal, folks,” he said. “It’s never tarnished, and it never will.”

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(c)2016 the Star Beacon (Ashtabula, Ohio) at www.starbeacon.com

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