Remembering Woody Williams


By Jeffrey Kanode

         At his death, most tributes about Herschel “Woody” Williams include the details of Woody’s great bravery and selflessness at the Battle of Iwo Jima in February 1945, heroism which lead President Truman to make Woody a recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor.  Woody’s altruism in war and subsequent decoration as a hero of war are central to his story, and that narrative rightfully becomes the dominant narrative of Woody Williams, American hero and son of West Virginia. 

         For me, though, the Woody Williams I choose to remember, the Woody Williams I love, was Woody Williams, a man of peace.  Woody returned to West Virginia, “almost heaven,” after surviving the hell and inhumanity of battle, and he courageously lived a peaceful, “everyday people” life. He married Ruby. They made a family—daughters Woody dearly loved, and in time, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.  He raised horses. He worked for the Veteran’s Administration, particularly the V.A. hospital in Huntington which now bears his name. In the last chapter of his life, Woody started a foundation to build Gold Star Families memorials all over the United States.

         I met Woody in the eighty-ninth year of his life, when the bishop assigned me the pastorate of the Bethesda United Methodist Church, in Ona.  I became Woody’s pastor, and I never felt so honored as in the following years, Woody would introduce me to others as “my pastor.” I would often get a little tear in my eye when Woody called me “pastor” during our talks and visits.

Woody Williams, Ona, WV. (Charleston, Gazette photo)

         In his advocacy for veterans, Woody traveled a great deal, but he organized his journeys in such a way that he could still maintain a presence at home. That presence was vibrant, wherever he went.  Thursdays at noontime found Woody at Shonet’s Country Café for the Milton Rotary Club.  Sunday morning always found Woody at church, for Sunday school—he taught the senior citizens’ class-and for worship.  

         When I first met Woody Williams, he had scissors in one hand, and a piece of construction paper in the other. It was a Saturday morning, and Woody had come out to Bethesda to help the church prepare for Vacation Bible School. It wasn’t the context within which I had expected to meet the Congressional Medal of Honor recipient I had heard about my whole life, whom I anxiously anticipated meeting.  It was the perfect way for me to meet Woody, though.  It was pure Woody. The church was pulling together to give the community something for the children.  Woody would be there, as part of his church, as part of his community.   No one from the outside looking in would realize a Congressional Medal of Honor recipient sat at a table in that fellowship hall, surrounded by a mess of art supplies and scurrying volunteers.  He was just an elderly gentleman, there to help by cutting out a few paper animals for the kids.

         The church had survived a period of conflict the year or two before I came. Some folks had left.  Woody wanted desperately to help hold the church together, and perhaps build a bridge those who left could cross to find their way back home, again, and an entry point new folks could traverse to find their place, too.  Woody began a weekly men’s breakfast at a local restaurant. I christened it “the Woody breakfast,” but I never called it that to Woody’s face, or in any church bulletin, newsletter, or Facebook post.  For Woody, it was a gathering of friends old and new, a way to keep connections and friendship alive, and make new ones.  Woody would have chafed at the idea that we were all coming to have breakfast just with him… but we were.  

         I remember Woody.

         I remember that there was an elderly woman in our church, a precious soul who had never married, who didn’t have children or grandchildren to visit or check on her.  Woody called her every day just to say hello, just so she knew he cared. 

         I remember Woody.

         I remember one Saturday someone rang the doorbell of the parsonage. When I opened the door, there stood Woody, with a new microwave oven in his hands, still in the box.  “Here, Pastor, I got this for you,” he said with a smile. “I am a bachelor, and I can’t cook, and I need one of these things. I know that you are a bachelor, and I figure you probably can’t cook either, so you need one of these things, too.”  I laughed and I confessed to Woody that it was so.  I took that microwave from his hands, and I still have it. Even when it stops working, someday, I won’t ever throw it away.

         I remember Woody.

         I remember that Woody would always, always arrive at church early, at least by 9:20 (we had pre-Sunday School devotions at 9:45) so I always made it a point to arrive at church at least by 9:15. I never wanted Woody to walk up to a locked church door. One such morning, I was standing before a mirror in the church parlor, desperately trying to tie my tie. I just couldn’t do it. My dad had attempted to teach me how to tie a tie many times over many years. I could do it unaided, once or twice, but I never failed to lose the knack of it.   Woody Williams stuck his head in the door, called out a good-morning greeting, and asked, gently, “Pastor, do you need a hand with that?”  And Woody Williams tied my tie and the entire time he told me what a challenge the Windsor knot could indeed be. 

         I remember Woody.

         I remember that Woody was among the youngest of the Greatest Generation. Woody belonged to that generation, just like my grandmother, and my grandmother was gone and I missed her. My grandfathers, both also World War II veterans, died before I was born, and being with Woody felt as close as I ever could to being with them.

         I remember Woody.

         I remember Woody, a dear, sweet elderly gentleman who in his youth helped save a vital American battle line on an island far away from his home. I remember Woody, a dear, sweet elderly gentleman who cared about his community, who loved people, who cut out paper animals for children, who bought his pastor a microwave oven so his pastor wouldn’t starve, who helped that same pastor tie a tie.

         I remember Woody called me “pastor,” and I am grateful that I can always call him my friend.

         I remember Woody, a hero of war.

I remember Woody, a man who just as bravely came home to spend a lifetime in peace.