American Legion officials are petitioning government leaders to allow the last Medal of Honor recipient from World War II to lie in honor in the U.S. Capitol as a way to commemorate the service of all the veterans who fought in that war.
On Wednesday, Marine Corps veteran Hershel “Woody” Williams died from natural causes at the age of 98. Officials said he passed away while receiving care at the Huntington, W.Va., Veterans Affairs hospital named after him.
Williams was awarded the Medal of Honor from President Harry S. Truman for heroism on Iwo Jima in 1945. There, he destroyed multiple enemy bunkers with a flamethrower despite intense enemy fire. He was the last surviving Medal of Honor recipient from WWII.
He was celebrated by veterans groups for both his battlefield heroism and advocacy for veterans in the years following his military service. Veterans of Foreign Wars National Commander Matthew “Fritz” Mihelcic noted that he started a non-profit foundation which established Gold Star Families memorials and outreach programs across the country.
“Woody was a symbol of the bravery and selfless sacrifice of those who served in World War II,” he said. “He carried the mantle of courage of WWII Marines, especially those who fought and died in the Battle of Iwo Jima.”
Because of that, American Legion National Commander Paul Dillard called for the White House and Congress to authorize a state funeral for Williams, to recognize his heroism and that of the 16 million U.S. citizens who served in World War II.
“Even before Woody’s passing, our Washington staff has been working with Congress to permit the last World War II Medal of Honor recipient to lie in honor in the Capitol rotunda,” he said in a statement. “All Medal of Honor recipients are extraordinary and Woody Williams was particularly special … He was a true American hero in every sense of the word.”
The Legion adopted a resolution in 2018 calling for the then-unknown last living WWII Medal of Honor recipient to receive a state funeral. The Legion described it as a potentially “unifying event honoring the legacy of all World War II veterans.”
White House and Congressional officials did not immediately respond to the request.
There are no specific rules regarding who may lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda, although the honor is usually reserved for U.S. presidents and prominent public servants. In January, former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was granted the honor following his death.
But Congress has on three occasions recognized the “unknown soldiers” of past wars with similar ceremonies in the rotunda. The last was in 1984, when two unidentified casualties from the Vietnam War were honored for three days at the site.
Congressional historians said more than 28,000 individuals visited the Capitol over that period to pay respects to the fallen service members.
Similar events were held in 1958 (to honor unknown service members who died in World War II and the Korean War) and in 1921 (to honor unknown service members who died in World War I).
West Virginia officials announced Wednesday that they will lower all state flags to half-staff to coincide with Williams’ funeral arrangements, which have not yet been announced.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.