As blood-and-guts war stories go, few can compare to that of Medal of Honor recipient Woody Williams, who used a series of flamethrowers to help defeat a deeply embedded enemy during the last days of World War II.
Williams, 90, a West Virginia native, will discuss his actions and memories of combat Friday evening in Ashland during the kickoff for this weekend’s third annual Veterans Appreciation Weekend.
Williams was recognized for his personal acts of valor above and beyond the call of duty while serving during the invasion of Iwo Jima, and was presented the Medal of Honor by President Harry S. Truman at the White House on Oct. 5, 1945. According to official accounts, on Feb. 21, 1945, Williams, “by then a corporal, distinguished himself two days later when American tanks, trying to open a lane for infantry, encountered a network of reinforced concrete pillboxes, buried mines and black volcanic sands. Williams went forward alone with his 70-pound flamethrower to attempt the reduction of devastating machine gun fire from the unyielding positions.
“Covered by only four riflemen, he fought for four hours under terrific enemy small-arms fire and repeatedly returned to his own lines to prepare demolition charges and obtain serviced flamethrowers. He returned to the front, frequently to the rear of hostile emplacements, to wipe out one position after another. At one point, a wisp of smoke alerted him to the air vent of a Japanese bunker, and he approached close enough to put the nozzle of his flamethrower through the hole, killing the occupants. On another occasion, he charged enemy riflemen who attempted to stop him with bayonets and destroyed them with a burst of flame from his weapon.
“These actions occurred on the same day as the raising of the U.S. flag on the island’s Mount Suribachi, although Williams was not able to witness the event. He fought through the remainder of the five-week-long battle and was wounded on March 6, for which he was awarded the Purple Heart.”
Williams will speak at 6:30 p.m. Friday inside the Ashland Transportation Center the (old railroad depot at Ashland’s Riverfront Park) as the first event for the Veterans Appreciation Weekend, which is sponsored by Marine Corps League, Greenbo Detachment 1345 and the Eastern Kentucky Military Historical Society.
“He is the last living Medal of Honor recipient of Iwo Jima and we believe he is the oldest Marine Corps Medal of Honor recipient. He will tell that story and we will have a brief question-and-answer period,” said Matt Potter, president of the Eastern Kentucky Military Historical Society, adding the audience will be limited to the first 200 who arrive. “We do expect a large crowd so I want o encourage people to show up early.”
Veterans Appreciation Weekend continues Saturday with a 5K Freedom Run, with registration starting at 8 a.m. (signup information is at tristateracer.com). Potter said several active duty military members and veterans have already signed up to run, and noted those who want to support veterans’ efforts can also participate by walking the course for a reduced fee.
A military antiques show is set from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., with collectors and enthusiasts setting up display tables at the Port of Ashland.
“We had some really cool stuff last time,” Potter said, explaining the items are offered for display and conversation, and will likely range from modern and World War II era “bring back” items to artifacts from the days of the Roman empire. The show will also include a static vehicle display by the National Guard, he said, providing one of the weekend’s favorite attractions for children. A car cruise-in will also be at the riverfront from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Perhaps the most exciting events of the afternoon Saturday will be provided at 2, 2:30 and 3 p.m. by Marshall Steen and a cannon crew that will point the battle-tested form of artillery toward the river for blank firings, followed by a historic presentation about the cannon’s role in warfare.
The day comes to an end with catered meal and music from the 1940s under tents by the river’s edge. The meal, catered by Mary’s Kitchen, will be served to veterans and their families.
“It is free. It won’t cost them a dime,” Potter emphasized, adding the hosts welcome “as many as possible” to share the meal and music.
“We want to welcome as many as we can, although we are looking at seating for a maximum of 175 people,” Potter said.
Golf-cart shuttles will be provided to assist anyone between parking and activity areas, and Potter said volunteers will be available to assist those with mobility concerns. While the weekend forecast is excellent, Potter said arrangements have been made to keep the event as comfortable as possible for guests.
“The forecast looks great right now. It looks like we will catch the tail end of Indian Summer,” Potter said.
For more information, call (606) 547-2607.
TIM PRESTON can be reached at email@example.com.