Memories of a close friend; many remember Woody Williams
CHARLESTON, W. Va. – The line that zigzagged from the double doors of the West Wing of the State Capitol in Charleston on Saturday toward the State Cultural Center was made up of people from all walks of life, but they had come for one purpose: to honor the Hershel “Woody” Williams, Medal of Honor recipient, died Wednesday at the age of 98.
Many of them had personal memories of the one they affectionately called Woody.
Something in common
Barboursville resident Amy West Hogsett had a connection to Woody through her father Ernest West, who received a Medal of Honor for his heroism at the Battle of Heartbreak Ridge during the Korean War.
She said her dad and Woody had been good friends for years. Ernest lived near Ashland, Kentucky and Woody in Cabell County, about 40 minutes from their homes. Williams spoke at her father’s funeral in May 2021.
Hogsett said the two men were unique, very humble and always wanted to help people.
“They were great friends and did a lot together in West Virginia and Kentucky. They were just ordinary people,” she said.
As she looked behind her in the queue on Saturday, she said she was sure there were plenty of other people who either had a brief reunion or a long relationship with Woody, who just wanted come and see him one last time.
“There are a lot of stories, story after story after story,” she said. “Woody would sit down and have lunch with you or have a cup of coffee with you or have breakfast with you and talk to you and make you feel like a million bucks.”
A new friend later in life
Near Hogsett in line was Indiana’s Albert McClelland. He will turn 88 later this month. He wore his blue Coast Guard uniform where he served in intelligence for more than two decades. He was senior chief petty officer. He met Woody at a Marine Corps League breakfast last year. McClelland said he asked Williams to describe his life from the Battle of Iwo Jima in 1954 until now.
“He opened up to me and said, ‘Nobody’s ever asked me that before,'” McClelland said.
He said that after a long discussion, the two agreed to meet again but that never happened.
“I wasn’t looking forward to it, but we didn’t,” McClelland said. “Woody Williams was a true human being and I intend to honor him.”
Minutes later, McClelland was moved to the front of the line to walk past Woody’s flag-draped casket in the Capitol’s lower rotunda. He slowly raised his right hand in a salute.
“It was a religious experience,” he told MetroNews, choking back tears. “An expression of principle, morality and brotherly love and I was very happy to be able to share that with a man who breathed it all in.”
Woody’s friend in Kentucky
Louisville, Kentucky resident Alison Porter arrived at the Capitol early Saturday. She’s known Woody Williams for about a dozen years and still shakes her head thinking back to how the two met.
Porter said it was 2010 and preparations were underway in Louisville for the National Medal of Honor Convention. She went to a planning meeting and saw an older man standing off to the side. Porter, a retired Marine who had just joined the Marine Corps League, introduced herself to Woody and they talked for several minutes, but he never told her that he had received a Medal of Honor. She found out later that day and said Woody laughed a lot about it and they’ve been friends since they’ve met occasionally.
Woody called Porter his “friend from Kentucky.”
“He was one of the most down to earth people I think I’ve met in my entire life,” Porter said, noting how genuine Williams was. “He didn’t act, he reacted. Same thing during the Second World War, he did not act, he reacted.
Porter described Williams as being “a superstar without being a superstar”.
There’s a story that Porter said she’ll never forget happened at a Marine Corps convention in Greenup, Kentucky.
“We were there and someone said, ‘Woody, you don’t have your medal.’ So he puts his hand in his red coat pocket and the ribbon slips through his fingers and he looks at me and says, “I can’t think of anyone better.”
Porter said she was shocked that Woody Williams wanted her to help put his Medal of Honor around his neck. She completed the task and said on Saturday it was something she would never forget.
“I’m standing there, holding a Congressional Medal of Honor – his. I felt like I was going to drop him I was shaking so much. I was able to put it on him,” she said.
Porter and others marched past the casket on Saturday as two Marines stood to attention. The casket will be guarded by Marines during the two-day public viewing until 6 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday. The funeral service is set for Saturday at 4 p.m. at the State Cultural Center.
An emotional ride through Charleston
On the way to the capital on Saturday from Huntington, hundreds of residents stood on overpasses and along freeways to honor Williams.
Those gathered said they wanted to show their respect and honor a true hero.
The long procession included several hundred veterans on motorcycles.
Williams is only the third West Virginian to reside in the state capitol in state history. US Senator Robert Byrd (2010) and Congressman John Kenna (1893) are the only others to do so. Kenna’s body was in the old state capitol building which stood at the corner of Lee and Capitol streets in downtown Charleston.
The governor’s office announced updates regarding Sunday’s funeral.
10:00 a.m. – 2:00 p.m. Public visit to the Lower Rotunda
2:15 p.m. U.S. Marine Casket Walk
2:45 p.m. Marine flight (weather permitting)
3:00 p.m. Open house at the Cultural Center for the memorial service (limited places)
4:00 p.m. – 5:00 p.m. State Memorial Service
5:00 p.m. Wreath, Tap and Gun Salute Ceremony at the Gold Star Family Monument, State Capitol