ASHLAND, Neb. – Hershel “Woody” Williams never heard of the Medal of Honor until shortly before the president hung it around his neck.
He earned the medal the same day his fellow Marines raised the American flag over Iwo Jima.
That day, Williams spent four hours killing Japanese machine gunners with a flame-thrower, somehow avoiding all the bullets fired at him.
A few months later, when Williams stood to accept the nation's highest military honor from President Harry Truman, he was “shaking so severely I couldn't control it.”
Later, he met with the Commandant of the Marine Corps, Alexander Vandegrift, whose words the 87-year-old Williams has never forgotten.
“He told me, 'That medal does not belong to you. It belongs to all the Marines who did not come home.' He went on to say, 'Don't ever do anything that would tarnish that medal.'”
Williams told the story Saturday at a rare public gathering of five Medal of Honor recipients at the Strategic Air and Space Museum, attended by an audience estimated at 800.
On stage were veterans from war in the Pacific Islands, Korea, Vietnam and Afghanistan. The headliner was the most recent medal recipient, Army Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta.
The men belong to perhaps the nation's most exclusive fraternity, one in which membership is only gained through extreme and selfless acts of valor on the battlefield. The nation has given the medal to just 3,454 service members since the Civil War. There are only 86 living recipients. Many Medal of Honor winners gave their lives in battle and were decorated posthumously.
“It's encouraging to see all the young people here,” said Bill Williams of Omaha, who helped the museum organize the event. “Because these are real role models, instead of what passes as celebrities today.”
All five men took the stage in the museum's main exhibition hangar, wearing the bronze, five-pointed star and light blue ribbon. Questions from the audience and journalists ranged widely over the next 90 minutes, including one about how each man got into the military.
Giunta was a high school graduate in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, with no direction in his life when he walked into an Army recruiting office “because they were offering a free T-shirt.”
After the laughter died down, he said the recruiter's message made sense. We're a nation at war, the recruiter said, a nation that needs young men and women to answer the call.
“It just seemed like the right thing to do.”
He has no immediate plans to write a book. He doesn't seek the celebrity that has come with the medal, he said. Two friends died in Afghanistan the day he was earned the medal, so rehashing those memories doesn't help him.
When his current enlistment expires next month, he intends to leave the military, he added.
The medal recipients also shared memories of how they learned they would receive the honor. Peter Lemon, 60, of Colorado Springs, Colo., said he was out of the Army, wearing flannel shirts and long hair so he could fit in with other young people in Vietnam War-era America.
After he and his family arrived in Washington, D.C., his mother asked him to cut his hair. He refused. Then a second lieutenant and a major asked. He refused them both, explaining he was a civilian now.
Finally, a one-star general walked into the room, got in his face and told him to cut his hair.
“I said, 'Yes sir!” Lemon told the laughing audience, adding a salute for emphasis.
Giunta, who was stationed in Italy, was told to answer the phone at a specific time on a specific day. So he asked his wife to be in his office, along with some of his co-workers, when the call came.
“I said, 'Roger, Mr. President' and everyone in the office just stopped and stared at me.”
Several of the medal recipients said receiving the honor was so humbling because they didn't feel their actions made them any more heroic than their fellow soldiers and airmen. Lemon said the only vivid memories he has from the day President Richard Nixon put the medal around his neck are of the other men in his unit.
Three of the 17 men in his platoon died in Vietnam the day Lemon earned the medal.
“I just happened to be wearing their honor on their behalf,” he said. “They're my guys and I loved them.”
Donald Ballard, 65, of Kansas City, Mo., was a Navy corpsman when he threw himself on a grenade a North Vietnamese soldier tossed at a cluster of Marines. The grenade failed to detonate, although Ballard was wounded eight times in Vietnam.
He recalled being speechless when President Nixon apologized for the way some Americans treated soldiers returning from the war.
“I want to thank all the Vietnam vets out there today,” he said. “Welcome home!”
Applause filled the museum, as it did often during the session.
Thomas Hudner Jr., 86, of Fall River, Mass, is a retired Naval airman who earned the medal by trying to save a fellow pilot, Jesse Brown, the first African-American pilot in the Navy.
Many in Hudner's family were staunch Republicans and did not like Truman. But the president was incredibly gracious and impressed even his harshest critics that day.
He shared another memory of the medal ceremony. Brown's wife was there, just four months after her husband was killed in Korea.
“It was a ceremony that was joyful and sad,” Hudner said.
Although the Medal of Honor recipients evoked plenty of laughter, perhaps the most poignant moment came during a story by Williams, the Iwo Jima veteran. It was after the war, but he waited for days at Guam to get a flight back to the United States to receive the medal. Finally, a seat opened on a plane.
When he boarded, he saw 49 Americans who had recently been freed from a Japanese prison camp. They were emaciated, yet ecstatic to be going home.
He sat next to one of the POWs, who told him, “You don't know what freedom is until you've lost it.”
Williams would learn something else from that POW.
The seat he occupied to return for the Medal of Honor ceremony had been assigned to a 50th former POW.
But he didn't survive to use it.