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Gold Star memorial underway in metro Detroit

'We had to do something to honor the families'

May 24 2020
Alex Szwarc | C & W Newspapers

CLINTON TOWNSHIP — People across the country will soon pay their respects to military personnel who have died while serving in the U.S. armed forces this Memorial Day. Locally — along with help of a Medal of Honor recipient and his foundation — efforts are underway to reflect on Memorial Day year round, by establishing a Gold Star Families Memorial Monument.

A new Gold Star Families Memorial Monument honoring the families of servicemen and women who sacrificed their lives while serving in the military is currently being planned in metro Detroit. The proposed site location is on the grounds of the Clinton Township Civic Center, located at 40700 Romeo Plank Road, south of the Clinton-Macomb Public Library Main Branch.

“We paid tribute to them, thanking them for their sacrifice, but after everyone left, one man remained. He was sitting with his head down and said with tears rolling down his cheeks, 'Dads cry too.’ That hit me like a thunderbolt.”

Hershel “Woody” Williams, Medal of Honor recipient, Gold Star Family Memorial Monument founder

Nick and Karen Straffon, of Algonac, are the honorary board members for the Gold Star Family Memorial Monument, associated with the Hershel “Woody” Williams Medal of Honor Foundation.

The black granite monument will feature two sides — one side bearing the words: “Gold Star Families Memorial Monument, a Tribute to Gold Star Families and Relatives who sacrificed a Loved One for our Freedom,” and the other side featuring four granite panels with the words “Homeland, Family, Patriot, and Sacrifice” inscribed.

Karen Straffon has participated in “Wreaths Across America” at Resurrection Cemetery in Clinton Township since 2012 and has met many Gold Star families.

“They go through the pain and sacrifice everyday for the rest of their lives,” she said. “This is one way to make sure they are honored and not forgotten.”

The idea for a monument to be built in Clinton Township came in 2017 after Karen Straffon attended the dedication of the foundation’s first and only monument in Michigan, in Bay City.

The goal is to raise $75,000 for the monument. Due to COVID-19, a couple fundraising events and dinners have been canceled.

Karen Straffon said what Gold Star families want the most is for others to ask about their son or daughter.

“Then they know they are not forgotten,” she said.

Also due to COVID-19 and the economic impact it’s having in Michigan, Karen Straffon said the plan now is for the monument to be dedicated in September 2021. The original plan was for it to open September of this year.

The Gold Star Family Memorial was created by Medal of Honor recipient Hershel “Woody" Williams to remember those families who have made the ultimate sacrifice.

Woody’s background

Williams, 96, of Ona, West Virginia, is one of two Medal of Honor recipients alive from World War II. For actions during that war, 472 U.S. military personnel received the Medal of Honor.

The Medal of Honor is the highest award for valor in action against an enemy force which can be bestowed upon an individual serving in the armed services of the United States. Since it was first awarded in 1863, there have been 3,508 medal honorees. Today, only 70 recipients are living.

Williams, who served for 20 years in the Marine Corps and Marine Corps Reserves, was awarded the medal for his actions at the Battle of Iwo Jima on Feb. 23, 1945.

Earlier this year, C&G Newspapers interviewed Williams via phone about his foundation, Gold Star families and his actions at Iwo Jima.

Williams said that his story is history, while the story of Gold Star families are still being made.

He explained the background of Gold Star families, which dates back to the days of World War I when a group of mothers in California who had sons fighting in Europe decided they needed something on their homes to show they had a loved one in the war.

That led to the creation of the Blue Star Mothers Service Flag to be displayed by families with members serving in the armed forces during any period of war or hostilities, and the Gold Star flag for those who lost someone in the armed forces.

Williams said that from the Korean War onward, not much was done for Gold Star mothers, let alone families.

In his work with the Department of Veterans Affairs for 33 years as a veterans service representative, Williams would deal with families who lost loved ones, assisting them in obtaining benefits.

What he realized was that nothing was said about anyone else in the families, except for the mothers.

Around 2008, he was speaking to a senior citizens group in West Virginia, figuring some Gold Star mothers would be in the group.

“We paid tribute to them, thanking them for their sacrifice, but after everyone left, one man remained,” Williams recalled. “He was sitting with his head down and said with tears rolling down his cheeks 'Dads cry too.’ That hit me like a thunderbolt.”

In all the times Williams talked about it, no one brought up that he had never mentioned a God Star dad. Williams learned the gentlemen was a widower who had one son in the Army who was killed in Afghanistan.

“He had never heard of a Gold Star dad either,” Williams recalled. “I decided from that incident, we had to do something to honor the families who lost a loved one in the armed forces.”

A couple years later, Williams’ foundation was formed, and on Oct. 2, 2013, his 90th birthday, the first Gold Star Families Memorial Monument was dedicated at a veterans cemetery in West Virginia.

To date, the foundation is responsible for establishing 60 monuments in 46 states and one U.S. territory. Like in Clinton Township, more than 70 additional monuments are underway in 45 states.

Williams said that to him, a monument is a recognition tribute to the families that should’ve been done a long time ago.

“I have no understanding, why somebody, with all the death we’ve had in all the wars, hasn’t come up with a tribute or memorial to the families,” he said. “We have so many veterans memorials and monuments, we’ve done a pretty good job of that, but for whatever reason, we did not do anything for the families of those that gave more than any of us.”

Alex Nauert, programs director at Williams’ foundation, said that daily, along with some of Williams’ grandchildren, he is in contact with Gold Star families.

“Having all these projects in progress, we require a Gold Star family member to be one each monument committee,” Nauert said. “They’re extremely supportive of our mission and want to go all in because at the end of the day, it’s about them. It’s about us being able to honor, recognize and serve those Gold Star families who have sacrificed a loved one for our freedom.”

Williams said he believes most Americans never actually stop and think about what it takes to preserve the precious gift of freedom.

“The sacrifices have alway been necessary in order to maintain that freedom, so we can live the life we do and have the country we have,” he said. “These memorials will bring to their attention that this didn’t all come about without sacrifice. Someone had to make a sacrifice for this to take place.”

To contribute to the Clinton Township monument, visit

Medal of Honor actions

On Feb. 23, 1945 — the same day the iconic flag raising image on Mount Suribachi was taken, Williams was at the small island of Iwo Jima.

“We were in a terrific firefight and had what today is called bunkers, but we called them pillboxes,” he said.

Japanese forces were well fortified at Iwo Jima, making it difficult for American troops, mostly Marines, to advance.

Williams said he was trained to be a flamethrower demolition guy.

“That particular day, my commanding officer asked me if I could possibly do something about all of these pillboxes that had us stopped,” he said.

Since Williams was the last of six members of his company, he was asked if he could possibly do something with a flamethrower.

With four Marines providing some protection for him, Williams said he took his flamethrower and went to work, doing the job he was trained to do.

“Unfortunately that day, two of those Marines sacrificed their lives for me, protecting mine. They gave all they had to make it possible for me to accomplish what I was supposed to do,” he remembers.

For a four-hour period, Williams, as he describes it, “eliminated” seven enemy pillboxes.

At the time, and even when he arrived at the White House in October 1945 to be presented the Medal of Honor by President Harry Truman, he had never heard of the medal, let alone knew what it was for.