by Colin E. Kimball
The call came early and unexpectedly on a Monday Morning. The multi-year-long effort to create a national funeral for the man who had been the last living Medal of Honor recipient of World War II, Gunner Hershel “Woody” Williams, had finally come to fruition. I got the call from Brent, Woody’s grandson, who wanted to know if I could join the family with a small contingent of veterans from the Dallas-Fort Worth area to honor Woody. How could I not! I was going to be a wingman to honor Woody, the last surviving Medal of Honor recipient from World War II, who had recently flown west.
This was not simply about honoring Woody. Our mission was to call attention to and honor the 16 million veterans who defended our liberty in World War II, veterans whose ranks are depleting at the most rapid of paces. A couple of weeks after Woody’s passing, the approval was finally granted by an act of both houses of Congress. The event would take place on 15 July, three days after I received my call.
It was a quick flight to Reagan Washington National Airport, where another water cannon salute greeted us upon arrival at the gate.
Thursday morning came. I wanted to wear something symbolic and pay homage to our purpose of remembering the 16 million veterans of the Second World War. I selected my grandfather’s regimental tie. He served in the 3rd Kings Own Hussars of the British Army. I wore it as a reminder of his presence in my life.
Our orders for the day were to assemble at the Hart Senate Office Building by 1130 to be escorted into a reception area set up by Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia. We also learned that Woody was scheduled to be carried up the capitol steps by an honor guard at 1000. Not wanting to miss that, a group consisting of three Marines, a retired Army brigadier general, and myself hailed an Uber to get down to the Capitol by 0930 to witness Woody’s honorable arrival. To our dismay, the Capitol was barricaded, and the closest vantage point we could find was at least a quarter of a mile away. However, the general’s name was on a special list supplied by the family, and he was allowed passage. He tried to convince the Capitol Police we were with him and authorized us to accompany him.
The Police held their ground, only allowing him to pass. We were all dressed up with no place to go or hide from the blazing sun. Rex, one of the veterans in our party, lost part of his lung at the battle of Hue City during Tet of 1968. He started to have a hard time and asked to sit down. The Capitol Police let Rex pass through the barricade to a bench within their controlled territory. Before we knew it, a fire truck and ambulance arrived and carted him away. We were worried about him. I prayed.
The view from our vantage point was horrible, but at least we could see the hearse arrive and witness Woody being carried up the capitol steps by an Honor Guard of Soldiers, Marines, Sailors, Airmen, and Guardians. Woody was now the 38th person ever to be laid in the Capitol Rotunda in our nation’s history. It took an act of the House of Representatives and Senate to approve this honor reserved for only the most esteemed people of our nation. Woody would lie in Honor and be guarded by the Capitol Police as per the protocol of that designation.
After Woody entered the Capitol, we all were parched from wearing dark blazers and suits in the cloudless sky with the July sun shining on us. We made our way to the Hart Senate Office building and were greeted by our intern escort, who was only in her fourth day on the job. She escorted us through security and a maze of corridors of senators’ offices like a pro. I have seen these corridors on the national news broadcasts. It was a rarified atmosphere. Finally, we made it to the reception room, a familiar-looking conference room lined with beautiful wood panels and adorned with the United States seal above the expansive curving dais.
As I sat in the stately atmosphere, my mind was filled with thoughts of my grandfather and his liberation due to the duty of men like Woody. Held by the Japanese at Motoyama Prison Camp in Japan, he was in bondage for three years as a slave laborer mining coal for a well-known Japanese corporation that too was hostage to the former Empire of Japan. It was the Americans; Woody included, that liberated him.
When the speeches were over and the dignitaries returned to their regular duty, we were split up into groups of 15 and led by our intrepid intern through a private subway tram from the Hart Senate Office Building to the Capitol. We walked up some steps, and before we knew it, we arrived to see Woody’s flag-draped coffin lying in honor on the Catafalque that was constructed to hold the body of President Lincoln. It was such a majestic scene. It took my breath away.
Before I knew it, our time was up. Before we exited, I stepped forward at the head of his coffin and rendered a salute with all the military bearing I could muster. We returned to our reception room in the Senate Office building. I thought of the heroes from Collin County, Texas, where I live. During WWII we lost 190 of our boys for the cause of liberty—young men who gave up every one of their tomorrows for us.
Our group was then asked to form up to travel to the Sam Rayburn room to gather before traveling to the WWII Memorial. As we took the same private subway tram to the Capitol, we got to go through the Rotunda a second time. We paused for a few minutes to take in the majesty of seeing our surrogate grandfather, Hershel Woody Williams, lying in Honor. I took a second step forward and saluted him.
As we got on the buses near the north stairway of the Capitol, we were within 100 yards from the capitol steps to see Woody being carried away from lying in Honor. And then, the moment I sought earlier in the day came the opportunity to capture the elegance and love of the Military Honor Guard as they carried Woody down the steps. After we witnessed Woody carried feet first down the steps and transferred to the hearse, we quickly boarded the bus and joined in as Tail-end Charlie in a motorcade that spanned close to a half mile long as we traveled to the WWII Memorial.
The ceremony was led by a Marine major general, who reminded us that this was not about Woody. It was about the over 400,000 men and women who died and 16 million veterans who served. Marine Corporal Kyle Carpenter, in uniform to honor his friend, took the podium and told us of the grandfatherly nature of his friend Woody whom we all miss so greatly. Kyle and Woody often appeared together as the oldest and youngest Marine Medal of Honor recipients. When Kyle was new to the rarified atmosphere of being a Medal of Honor recipient, Woody reminded Kyle that as recipients, “we are all the same,” as Marines, “we are all the same,” and as veterans, “we are all the same.” Powerful words were spoken by a humble hero who recognized everyone’s contributions.
That evening, a reception was held for our gathering of wingmen. As I entered the reception room, there was Rex. Praise the Lord! I was as grateful to see him as I was to be on this mission to honor our friend Woody. Not saying the prayer that Twyla and I offered was responsible, but then again, I am not saying it wasn’t. We all shared stories of Woody. His Humor, grace, wisdom, and compassion for his cause of recognizing the families of the fallen. His cause, “the cause is greater than I (me),” brought us together.
On Friday, the order for the day was to gather in the hotel lobby at 0745 and depart for Reagan Washington National for a quick flight to Norfolk Naval Base to meet the USS Hershel Woody Williams Gold Crew. The ship is forward deployed and has two crews, Gold and Blue, that operate her. The Gold Crew was stateside preparing for their next deployment, and they wanted to honor Woody. Departing DC to a water Cannon Salute, we made a quick hop down to Norfolk, Virginia, where we parked next to the C-130 that carried Woody in an Angel Flight from Joint Base Andrews. Taken by shuttle to a hangar, we were greeted by a host of chief petty officers, officers, and two admirals, all dressed in white dress uniforms, the most elegant the Navy has to offer.
The ship’s captain told us that he strives to incorporate the lessons of Woody’s valor, service, and compassion into each sailor assigned to the ship so that they as one, can carry Woody’s warrior spirit forward.
We departed Norfolk for Charleston to take Woody’s family home. Again, we received a water cannon salute, our fourth one of this mission to honor Woody. Flying on this leg, my mind wandered to the Gold Star Families that Woody helped me touch through his foundation -The Hershel “Woody” Williams Medal of Honor Foundation. Woody helped me raise community awareness of our heroes’ families that are left to fill a terrible void as Gold Star families.
To me, that was Woody’s laudable achievement, his efforts to keep the plight of the families of our fallen top of mind from the more than 100 Gold Star Monuments that dot our great land. The one I helped construct was the first in the DFW area and one of 14 within the great state of Texas.
Woody’s achievements in honoring our fallen heroes and calling attention to their loving families made him the most fitting recipient to be honored in our nation’s Capital. His cause is my cause, as I strive to portray the nobility of our fallen to remind future generations that freedom must be preserved, and the cost can be high.
The honor of being one of his wingmen as our country honored and celebrated his life of service and compassion was one of the two highest honors I have ever been afforded.
I will greatly miss Woody, the surrogate grandfather to all of us. I am not ashamed to say I loved him: Fair winds and following seas, Gunner. You trained us well. It’s our turn to follow your example as we dedicate ourselves to see that your mission continues.