FORT MILL — Freedom is nothing if it isn’t worth fighting for, and sacrifice isn’t anything if it’s not worth dying for.
That message resonated with Nation Ford High School students Wednesday after hearing from Medal of Honor recipient Herschel “Woody” Williams. .
“It was an honor and a blessing,” said senior Tiaira Potts.
Potts and junior Sean Davis are members of the school’s Marine JROTC program. Both had Williams sign items and thanked him for his service during World War II. Both said the former soldier is a role model they’d like to emulate.
“We hope he’s inspired you,” JROTC program instructor Col. Sean T. Mulcahy, USMC (Ret.), told the student body Wednesday, “to be better citizens, leaders and patriots of our country.”
Williams, 88, is a West Virginia native who fought in the Battle of Iwo Jima. The Marine corporal earned his medal for “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty” while taking out Japanese pillbox enforcements with a flamethrower. Yet nearly 70 years later, Williams still won’t call the medal his own.
“It’s not for what I did, but for all those Marines who never got to come home, to raise a family, to mow a lawn,” he said.
Williams described his own life as one not meant for survival. He was born weighing 3 pounds, lost his father at age 9, fought cancer three times and made it through a car wreck in addition to years fighting in the Pacific.
“God has saved my life too many times to count,” he said. “I’ve had too many miracles to count.”
He also spoke of the 25 years it took him to find peace with his actions during war, which he found in . Members of the Olde English Leathernecks, a local group of former Marines, say Williams has worked tirelessly for veterans since earning the medal.
Williams worked in veterans affairs for 33 years and spent another two decades in a West Virginia home for veterans. He’s lobbied to get a national monument to the parents of soldiers killed in action.
Williams said he never much wanted to be in the military growing up and talks about not knowing “where the Pacific was” when the military sent him there. But the bond of self-sacrifice is what keeps him speaking about his experience.
“Did I hate the Japanese?” he asked. “I didn’t know one. I’d never seen one, never heard of one. I just knew I didn’t want to lose my freedom.”
Williams, at times, entertained the students who “talk in a different language” than he does.
He talked of regretting that war exists, but not his actions within it. He spoke of there being nothing good about war with “one exception” – that people bond with others to the point that either would die for the other.
People go to war to preserve freedom, he said. He hoped the students and staff at Nation Ford could appreciate it.
“We have more cause to do it,” he said.
Did you know?
The Medal of Honor is this country’s highest military award. It was first given on March 25, 1863, and most recently on May 16. There are 3,459 recipients, more than half earning the distinction posthumously. There are 81 living recipients.
South Carolina has several special ties to the medal. There are 31 recipients born in the Palmetto state including Thomas Lee Hall from Fort Mill (WW I) and James Elliot Williams of Rock Hill (Vietnam). There are 29 recipients who enlisted in the state.
The first African-American to receive the award was William Carney for his actions on July 18, 1863, at Fort Wagner, near Charleston. The Congressional Medal of Honor Society, established by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1958, is in Mount Pleasant.