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Saying farewell to the Greatest Generation

The movement to hold the first state funeral for someone who was not a president or a general is gaining traction, with the entire Massachusetts congressional delegation signing on.

In March 2020, Medal of Honor recipient Hershel "Woody" Williams attended the commissioning of the USS Hershel "Woody" Williams in Norfolk, Va.
In March 2020, Medal of Honor recipient Hershel "Woody" Williams attended the commissioning of the USS Hershel "Woody" Williams in Norfolk, Va.KENNY KEMP/Associated Press

Last week, on the day that East Bridgewater honored Marine veteran Jim Ingargiola, who beat back COVID-19 with the same tenacity he used to beat back the Imperial Japanese Army some 75 years ago, people in Chattanooga, Tenn., found out that Army veteran Charles Coolidge, a Medal of Honor recipient, had died.

At 99, Coolidge was the oldest Medal of Honor recipient, and one of only two from World War II still alive. The last survivor is Hershel “Woody” Williams, who, like Jim Ingargiola, fought his way through the jungles of Guam before moving on to the black sand moonscape that was Iwo Jima. Ingargiola, 95 and still all Marine, recently survived a near-fatal bout with COVID-19, spending more than a month in the hospital.

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The recurring theme here is that what’s left of the Greatest Generation, the men and women who saved the world from fascism, are old, vulnerable, and dying off by the day. Of the more than 16 million Americans who served during World War II, fewer than 300,000 are alive.

Which is why the entire Massachusetts congressional delegation just signed a letter calling on President Biden to grant a state funeral for Woody Williams, though it should be stressed that, at 97, Woody is still going strong and is in no rush to collect that honor.

“This great honor would not only distinguish the outstanding heroism of this individual, but also honors fellow Medal of Honor recipients, and the more than 16 million Americans who served in uniform during the Second World War,” says the letter, which was organized by Congressman Seth Moulton, who, like Congressman Jake Auchincloss, is a Marine veteran.

A Duxbury resident, Ron Ramseyer, is one of two men who in 2017 launched a national organization, State Funeral for World War II Veterans, dedicated to securing a state funeral for the last Medal of Honor recipient from World War II to die.

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“There have been state funerals for presidents and generals,” Ramseyer said. “There’s never been one for the enlisted people, the people who won the war.”

Nearly 3,000 Massachusetts residents died in the war, and of the 473 Medals of Honor awarded during World War II, 18 went to Massachusetts residents.

Woody Williams was a dairy farmer in Quiet‘s Dell, W. Va., when he joined the Marines in 1943. After helping to retake Guam, he played a hero’s role in the bloodbath that was the battle for Iwo Jima.

Woody Williams took out seven Japanese pillboxes, fortified bunkers that had rained death down on so many Marines, helping to turn the tide of that epic battle.

Like a lot of Medal of Honor recipients, Williams downplays his heroism and mourns his brothers in arms who didn’t come home. Nearly 7,000 Marines were killed in five weeks of fighting on Iwo Jima.

“This medal doesn’t belong to me,” he said years ago. “It belongs to them, because they gave their lives for me.”

Only the president can commission a state funeral.

Last year, Williams hand delivered to White House staff material asking President Trump to declare a state funeral, and Ramseyer said Williams even made a personal plea to the president. But Trump left office without taking action.

Veterans advocates believe Biden will be more receptive to the idea, given his longtime support of the military and veterans. Biden’s late son Beau was an Army officer and served in Iraq.

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“We have tremendous bipartisan support for this, with leaders on the ground in 41 states,” Ramseyer said. “There’s a lot of division in the country right now. This is something that can bring us all together, to honor the Greatest Generation and help other generations understand and appreciate their service and sacrifice.”

If President Biden is so inclined to grant the request, he might want to make the announcement in Boston in September, when the city will host, for an unprecedented fourth time, the Medal of Honor Society’s national convention.

Either way, let’s hope Woody Williams is on that stage at the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center.


Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at kevin.cullen@globe.com.