By DELANIA TRIGG, Assistant Editor
Gainesville Daily Register
When Hershel “Woody" Williams found out he’d been awarded the Medal of Honor, he said he didn’t even know what it was.
“That morning I was notified to report to the office of the commanding general, I thought I was in trouble,” he said. “The Medal of Honor? I’d never heard tell of it....I arrived in Washington Oct. 3, 1945 and still had no idea why I was there.”
Williams was one of a group of Medal of Honor recipients who answered questions from high school students during an event Wednesday in the Gainesville High School gymnasium.
GHS Principal Jim Watson spoke before the recipient’s question and answer session.
A former Lee Intermediate School principal, Watson said the recipients’ annual stop was always a highlight of the school year at Lee.
“Four years ago, I was hired at Lee Intermediate,” Watson told the students. “When I was placed at the high school, I thought one of the things I was going to miss was the Medal of Honor.”
Watson said some GISD board members suggested the high school hold an event to honor the recipients and to allow the men to share their stories with Gainesville high school and middle school students. He embraced the idea and encouraged his students to decorate the school with posters designed to inspire patriotism and to welcome the recipients.
“You could tell the difference in the students (attitudes) these last two days,” Watson said.
GHS student Austin Sharp was the first to ask a question. He wanted to know how each recipient felt when he learned he’d been awarded the Medal of Honor.
Some of the replies generated laughter.
Recipient John McGinty III joked that his biggest fear was tripping in front of the president.
“I kept saying, ‘Don’t fall down on the carpet,’” he said.
Williams’ response was more somber.
“I had no idea what effect (the Medal of Honor) was going to have on my life,” he said.
Williams has always said he wears the medal to honor his fellow Marines especially those who gave their lives for their country.
“I was no longer this country boy from West Virginia,” he said. “I still represent a whole lot of boys who didn’t come home.”
Recipient Bob Modrzejewski of California echoed Williams’ sentiments.
He said his Medal of Honor reminds him of “those who didn’t come back.”
“There’s not a day goes by that I don’t think about them,” he said. “Those 245 men that (were) with me on that day..They deserve this as much as I do.”
Wisconsin native Kenny Stumpf said his whole family was invited to the reception when President Lyndon Johnson presented him the Medal of Honor.
He said facing Johnson — a man known for his height and imposing presence — was a bit intimidating.
“I was scared to death I’d stumble,” Stumpf said of the encounter with Johnson. “When the president asked, ‘Son, where are you from?’ I was too nervous to say Wisconsin for about a minute.”
Recipient Harold Fritz said being a Medal of Honor recipient is “an awesome responsibility.”
“I feel honored to be the temporary guardian of this medal,” he said.
A highlight of the recipients’ visit was a performance by the Gainesville High School band and choir. Gainesville VFW Hughes-Tune Post No. 1922 posted colors.
After the event, Gainesville Middle School student Julio Lizalde said he learned about the significance of the Medal of Honor while he was a student at Lee Intermediate.
“I had gone to (MOH events) before while I was at Lee,” he said. “I’m kind of thinking of joining the Army or the Marine Corps. I thought it was a big honor for (the recipients) to come to the school.”