Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

November 18, 2012

Hero gives stirring message at Memorial Room dedication

BILL ARCHER
Bluefield Daily Telegraph

PRINCETON — The fortunate few who attended the dedication ceremony Saturday afternoon for the Those Who Served Memorial Room in the Mercer County War Memorial Building won’t soon forget the message delivered by Hershel “Woody” Williams, the last surviving Medal of Honor recipient from the Battle of Iwo Jima.

“How many of you believe in miracles?” Williams asked as he surveyed the faces of audience gathered for the ceremony. “If we look around, there are miracles all around us.”

Williams talked about his humble early life. He was the 11th born of 11 children, and only weighed 3 pounds at birth. “In 1923, 3-pound babies seldom survive,” he said. “We had no oxygen. We had no incubators for babies. We had incubators for chickens and our chickens did pretty good. But we didn’t have incubators for babies. We had no doctors.”

Still, he survived because of the miracle of being born in the U.S.A. He said every American has three miracles. “First was the miracle of life,” he said. “Second was the miracle of being born in a free country where somebody else had already paid the price so we could be free,” he said. “And finally, the miracle of love.”

The crowd was totally silent when Williams asked: “Why me? Why did I survive when the Marine standing right next to me didn’t?” He paused, then continued, “I don’t have an answer for that.”

Williams landed on Iwo Jima on Feb. 21, 1945, and two days later, found himself in an extremely dangerous combat situation. American tanks were stalled out because of a network of concrete pillboxes, mines and black volcanic sands. Williams — then a corporal — went forward with his 70-pound flame thrower strapped on his back. With four Marine riflemen providing covering fire, he fought for four hours to eliminate several enemy positions. The action took place on the same day that Marines raised the flag on Mount Suribachi — An iconic image from World War II that Williams never saw.

Williams didn’t mention his story during the ceremony. Instead, he talked about a fellow Marine, PFC Jacklyn H. “Jack” Lucas, who changed his birth certificate and joined the Marines when he was just 14 years old. Lucas was only 17 years old when he landed on Iwo Jima.

“Eight days after he arrived, he was with some Marines in a shell crater,”   Williams said of Lucas. “When a grenade came in, he threw himself on it and it went off. Why did he do that?” Williams asked rhetorically. “A second grenade came in. He grabbed it and stuck it in the sand. It didn’t go off.

“A miracle,” Williams said. “An absolute and positive miracle.” Lucas survived the grenade, underwent 21 surgeries, but there were still 200 pieces of metal in his body — some as large as .22 bullets.

“The day I received my Medal of Honor from President Harry Truman was four days after Jack Lucas received his Medal of Honor from President Truman,” Williams said. He went on to say that Lucas died in 2008.

“We never know what fate and faith will place in our path,” Williams said. “God has blessed my life, and I am convinced that God still blesses this great country that we call our home.”

Bill Blankenship, secretary/treasurer of the For Those Who Served Museum served as master of ceremonies for the event. Scott Hamilton offered the invocation, and Jeremiah Murphy served as the flag bearer as Todd Gray sang, “God Bless the U.S.A.”

The Lifeline Singers of the Princeton Church of God sang the National Anthem, and Princeton Vice Mayor Marshall Lytton led the “Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag.” Michael Kessinger of the For Those Who Served board of directors, acknowledged the many people who helped make the memorial room a reality, and Tony Whitlow, the president of the museum board spoke of how the elements of the memorial room fit together.

“As you look over the names of the men who gave all to preserve our freedom, let’s thank God for the wonderful gift of memories,” he said.

Following Williams’ remarks, Deacon Murphy gave the benediction and Randy Gibson played “TAPS.”

The crowd of about 100 people attending the ceremony lingered in the memorial room, recalling those who gave all and visiting with each other.

— Contact Bill Archer at barcher@bdtonline.com