Honoring a legend: the story of the most decorated enlisted sailor in Navy history
BY Jack Dorsey The Virginian-Pilot
Jul 17, 1997
James Elliott Williams wasn’t looking for medals when he went to Vietnam, even though he ended up with nearly all of them, including the Medal of Honor.
He just wanted to show he had “something else between the ears” other than his ability to chip paint and salute. He got that opportunity more.
Williams is credited with damaging or destroying 65 enemy sampans and junks during a three-hour fight on the Mekong River, where he led his two small patrol craft in a fierce battle.
This morning, the 67-year-old Florida man is being honored again.
Special Boat Unit 20, based at the Little Creek Naval Amphibious Base, will name its new headquarters the BM1 James E. Williams Building.
“I’m excited and pleased,” Williams said earlier this week from his Palm Coast, Fla., home near Daytona. “There are very few times in a man’s life he gets these kinds of honors.”
Williams has become a legend to the sailors who fought aboard the small special warfare craft during the Vietnam war.
At 36, with his retirement papers nearly in hand – he enlisted when he was 16 – Williams asked to go to Vietnam to finish his career in command of a river patrol boat. His was No. 105. He actually became boat captain and patrol officer, in charge of two boats.
The 32-foot fiberglass and armor-protected boats carried a crew of four and plied the inland waters of Vietnam, searching for supply-carrying junks and sampans that aided North Vietnam.
Williams had served in Korea and spent most of his time aboard large Navy ships. But it was the river patrol boat he wanted most.
For a ninth-grade dropout who thought of the Navy “as my second mom and daddy,” this was an opportunity to show that a senior enlisted man had something more to give, he said.
“I looked at it as an opportunity to do something better. So did all the others. That is why the PBR was so successful in Vietnam. The men were so proud.”
Williams recalls the afternoon of Oct. 31, 1966, in vivid detail: “When you want to forget, you can’t,”‘ he said. It was a day patrol, sort of a “relax-and-recreation” patrol as opposed to the more dangerous night operations the crew had just completed.
“We were just dee-dee-boppin” down the river when the forward gunner . . . hollered there were two high-speed boats crossing ahead of us,” he said.
“We all got real alert. These boats had twin long-shaft motors, Mercury outboards, and they were tremendously fast, over 40 mph. That usually signified some high-ranking officers aboard.
“Then they started firing at us. We returned fire. One went to the north bank and the other to the east. We gave chase to one and . . . eliminated him.”
Williams’ crew then turned to pursue the other boat and watched as he cut into an eight-foot-wide canal in front of a rice paddy.
“Looking at the map, I could see where he had to come out. I turned hard right to wait for him. As I did that, lo and behold, we found a big staging area. All I could see were boats and people.”
Putting out a large wake as he sped across the water, Williams plowed through the middle of the formation.
“They were shooting at us from the right and left and we were shooting. They were doing more of hitting each other than we were.
“We got through that and I am trying to zigzag. . . . I go by a couple more corners and turn into this area . . . and lo and behold, we hit the second staging area.”
Again, they sped down the center, guns blazing and radio squawking for help from friendly helicopters.
As his commander appeared overhead in a helicopter, he told Williams he was about to make a strafing run and asked Williams his intentions.
“I said, ‘Damn if you are going to leave me in here.’ So I followed him back out and that is when we hit the big (ammunition) junks and blew them up,” Williams said.
It was a rout of the enemy. When it started getting dark, Williams could tell the enemy was ready to give up. He ordered his boats’ search lights turned on, despite the added attention it drew to him.
“I know people have questioned my judgment many times since then and probably always will, asking why did I turn on the search light,” he said.
“It was obvious they were whipped, giving up, throwing their arms down. We didn’t lose a man. That’s saying something. We had some wounds, but nothing serious.”
Williams received shrapnel wounds in his shoulder, chest, side and head.
When he returned home a year later, Purple Heart in one hand, the Navy Cross, two Silver Stars and three Bronze Stars in the other, Williams was asked to remain in the Navy. He was promised a promotion to chief.
But he had accepted a job with the U.S. Marshal’s office in South Carolina. He retired from that second career in 1983 after taking over all field activities in the nation.
Besides, he wanted to go home to his wife and family. He has been married nearly 48 years, has five children and eight grandchildren.
The Navy made Williams an honorary chief in the 1970s, he said. Made him go through the traditional initiation and all.
As for the Medal of Honor – the nation’s highest military award for bravery – Williams said he was stunned when he learned it was to be presented to him two years after he retired from the Navy.
“I was just doing a job to the best of my ability. I wasn’t out there trying to win medals. Events just happened.
The 105 and the crew, we were always into something or other. We weren’t looking for it.”
Photo – HUY NGUYEN/The Virginian-Pilot James Elliott Williams
Graphic THE NAVY THIS WEEK [For complete graphic, please see microfilm]
END OF CAPTIONS
GULFPORT, Mississippi (NNS) — On March 29 2019, Seabee’s assigned to Naval Mobile Construction Battalion (NMCB) 11 participated in a 2.3-mile interactive run on board Naval Construction Battalion Center Gulfport, Mississippi, in honor of the men and women who served during the Vietnam Conflict.
“I was glad to be able to be a part of the event and assist in raising awareness of the sacrifices that Vietnam veterans made,” said Chief Utilitiesman Charlie King, NMCB 11’s command fitness leader. “We take for granted how much Vietnam vets had to actually endure.
Read more at: www.navy.mil/submit/display.asp?story_id=109122
(U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Keia Randall/Released)
VIRGINIA BEACH (NNS) — Service members and guests paid tribute to the service and sacrifice of Vietnam War veterans during the National Vietnam War Veterans Recognition Day commemoration at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story (JEBLC).
Read more at: https://www.navy.mil/submit/display.asp?story_id=109117
For more information about National Vietnam War Veterans Recognition Day and the Vietnam War visit www.history.navy.mil/browse-by-topic/commemorations-toolkits/Vietnam-War-Veterans-Day.html
PBR 721’s involvement this year was orchestrated by SKC (SS) Patrick Doyle (Ret.), and CMC John Heistand SSSW (Ret.) of VFW Post 392 in VB. John jumped through hoops to acquire the necessary permits, and drove down to NC to tow PBR 721 to VB and back, while Pat crewed the boat in the parade pulling down the antenna’s every now and again!
Also crewing the boat were PBR Vietnam Veteran Donald Stegiel- GMG/SFC, Dinah Doyle, Katie Kennon, Karen Slatter, while I drove the lead chase truck along with Tom Farrel, Army PBR Vietnam Veteran and President of the Sea Tigers Association.
Following in the second chase vehicle was David Pizzoferrato, owner of PBR 6927 up in Ohio, with Rick Larsen (Mass.) owner of “Rick Larsen Stencils“, supplier of military stencils.
Following along on foot, documenting all this was Mike Hebert (poor soul), an Army PBR Vietnam Veteran, and “Riverine Reporter” for the Sea Tiger Association, who took all of these pics!
Below is the video of the complete parade, and you’ll see us at about the 30:20 mark, while the pics are in gallery below.
Way back in the late 1990’s, when I was out in Long Beach, California , I stumbled across this “Uniflite Corsair” in the guise of a Harbor Patrol Boat. This of course is a civilianized-Hard Top PBR .
After a lengthy conversation about the PBR with the officers in charge, I did get invited for a ride , which I eagerly took. 🙂
PBR 721 at the “Riverine Group One” merger ceremony at Little Creek Amphibious Base in 2012
Sea Tigers Association – a publication of the US Army 458th Trans. Co (PBR): www.458thseatigers.org/pdf/Riv-Ron_4.pdf
Sea Tigers Association – a publication of the US Army 458th Trans. Co (PBR): https://www.458thseatigers.org/pdf/Riv-Ron_4.pdf
Slideshow from Michael Hebert,”Riverine Reporter” for the U.S. Army’s 458th Transportation co., (PBR) Vietnam Veterans Assoc., and Owner/Operator of the “Miss Hampton II” tour boat in Hampton, VA:
See All Pics: https://photos.app.goo.gl/zaNNrzIPnUXO0pLp2
Pics of restoration of PBR 721, taken by a U.S. Navy SEAL, who was at the boat yard where I was working on restoring my boat. Navy SEAL then gave pics to the U.S. Navy SEAL Museum in Fort Pierce, Florida. Photos are now part of https://www.navysealmuseum.org.
Visit the U.S. Navy SEAL Museum for more information.
(Click any image below to view details)
2012 US Navy SEAL Capability Exercise (CAPEX 2012) off the beach of Little Creek, Virginia. US Navy Amphibious Base showing PBR 721 being used for the SEAL cast & recovery exercise.
(Click Any Image Below To View Gallery)