When walking through Smothers Park on Veterans Boulevard, one can’t help but notice the stoic presence of a soldier’s outline thoughtfully carved out of granite against the backdrop of the pale blue Owensboro Bridge. WWII veteran Hershel “Woody” Williams created the Gold Star Families Memorial Monument and was present nearly 2 years ago when it was unveiled. Williams — the only surviving WWII Congressional Medal of Honor recipient — died Wednesday morning at the age of 98 at the VA Medical Center that bears his name.
Following a funeral procession on July 2, Williams will lie in state for two days at the Capitol Rotunda in Charleston, West Virginia.
Williams made two visits to Owensboro over the course of the last three years. One came in 2019 as the keynote speaker for the Gold Star Mothers annual luncheon. The other was in August of 2020 to unveil the Gold Star monument on the riverfront adjacent to the Charles E. Shelton Memorial. Owensboro is home to one of 103 Gold Star monuments installed throughout the United States thanks to a cooperative effort between Mayor Tom Watson, Gold Star parents Tommy and Cathy Mullins, and the Woody Williams Foundation.
“Now Owensboro has a monument that he (Williams) said was one of the top one or two in the country,” Watson said. “With his home state of West Virginia as No. 1.”
Watson said he has had the privilege of meeting other Medal of Honor recipients, but Williams was different.
“Everyone he interacted with walked away with the feeling of being in the presence of someone special,” Watson said. “He treated everybody with respect, always saying the medal around his neck was worn to honor those who died for our freedom, and even downplayed his heroic act as, ‘nothing anybody wouldn’t or couldn’t have done.’”
Williams joined the Marine Corps Reserve in 1943 and was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1945 for his “aggressive fighting spirit and valiant devotion” in WWII on Iwo Jima island, clearing a path for his fellow Marines by using a flamethrower to eliminate the concrete Japanese pillboxes that stood in their way. He went on to serve proudly in the Marine Corps Reserve for another 17 years, retiring as a Chief Warrant Officer 4.
Despite Williams’ harrowing acts of WWII, it was his experiences as a young taxi driver at the beginning of the war that would influence arguably his most important life’s work. Williams hand-delivered telegrams to farmhouses informing families that their son or daughter had been killed in action. Standing with families on their front porch with them on what was conceivably the worst day of their life had a tremendous impact on Williams and served as the inspiration for the first Gold Star Families Memorial Monument.
As both Blue Star and Gold Star parents, Tommy and Cathy Mullins know firsthand what it is like to receive the news that a son has been killed in combat. The Mullins created a special bond with Williams and the Foundation family shortly after the first monument was installed in 2011. Hoping to bring a monument to Owensboro, Cathy, former president of the Kentucky chapter of Gold Star Mothers and the only Gold Star member of the Woody Williams Foundation, invited Williams to be the guest speaker at the 2019 luncheon at the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame & Museum.
“I invited him as a special speaker and Mayor Watson heard his story,” Mullins said. “Mayor Watson rallied the troops in the community, including companies and individuals.”
Watson said he was able to raise over $60,000 in a matter of a month thanks to the generosity of the community.
“The whole town wrapped their arms around the idea of honoring our heroes and teaching this next generation,” Cathy said.
After learning of Williams’ death, Cathy shared through tears that she was truly heartbroken.
“We loved him,” Cathy said. “It’s just been a wonderful journey to be a part of the Foundation family. His legacy will just keep going.”
Watson echoed similar sentiments about the WWII hero.
“He was one of the most endearing, kindest, modest regular heroes I’ve ever been around,” Watson said. “I’m truly blessed to have known him.”
To learn more about Williams and his life’s work, visit the Hershel “Woody” Williams Medal of Honor Foundation.