This Heroic Sailor Enlisted At 16 And Ultimately Became The Most Decorated In U.S. Naval History

It’s Halloween 1966, but Boatswain’s Mate First Class James Elliott “Willy” Williams and his buddies aboard River Patrol Boat 105 have no time for celebrations. And as the Vietnam War rages, they’re cruising waterways in the Mekong Delta, searching for Viet Cong sampans. Then they spot two enemy craft and an explosion of gunfire shatters the evening peace, marking the start of a grueling battle.

We’ll come back to the lethal drama of that October 1966 engagement later, but first let’s get to know Williams a little better. Born on November 13, 1930, he was a Native American Cherokee and his first home was in Fort Mill, South Carolina. However, just two months after his birth, his family moved to Darlington, also in South Carolina.

Williams spent the remainder of his childhood and his early teen years in Darlington and attended St. John’s High School. But it seems he had no intention of spending any more time in the backwoods of South Carolina than he had to. And at the age of 16 he decided it was time for a move.

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Somehow, Williams talked a county official into giving him a birth certificate with a false age. And armed with this, he could enlist in the Navy, despite being too young at 16. Williams remembered his motivation in a 1998 interview published in All Hands Magazine, saying, “I thought there was nothing better than servin’ my country and getting’ paid for it.”

The teenager then joined up with his falsified papers in August 1947. After signing up, his first stop was the Naval Training Center in San Diego, California for his basic training, which he completed in November 1947. From there, Williams was sent to Amphibious Base Coronado, California, for his first posting.

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However U.S. Navy life did not immediately live up to Williams’ expectations. He told All Hands Magazine, “I’d joined the Navy to see the world – and doggonit, I wasn’t moving. I’d got orders to an LST that just sat around a buoy in the San Diego harbor.” However, he may not have known it then, but there would be plenty of excitement later in his career.

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The LST was USS Landing Ship, Tank-1123 and although not initially enamored with the vessel, Williams later recalled that he learnt a valuable lesson while serving on her. He said, “An old chief told me, ‘Son, you got to learn to take orders, even if you disagree with them. That’s the first step to being a good sailor and a good leader.”

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Williams clearly took these wise words to heart. He continued, “Well, I got the message. Learning discipline was the springboard that helped my Navy career. From then on I had the sharpest damn knife and the shiniest shoes in the Navy. That’s what I believed in, being a good sailor.”

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Williams then moved on from the tank landing ship in July 1950 and his next posting was on the USS Douglas H. Fox, a destroyer. And he saw some Korean War action during his service on this vessel in 1952. While the Douglas H. Fox was stationed off the Korean coast, Williams sailed on small craft to take part in raiding missions on the mainland.

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After serving on the Douglas H. Fox, Williams then went through several postings. These included spells on shore as well as tours on ships such as the minesweeper USS Direct, the light cruiser USS Little Rock and USS Alcor, a cargo vessel. That last assignment took him up to May 1966, when he went to Vietnam.

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America had become involved in the Vietnam war as early as November 1955. Indeed, President Dwight D. Eisenhower had authorized a body called the Military Assistance Advisory Group to travel there to train the army of The Republic of Vietnam, also known as South Vietnam.

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By 1955 North Vietnam, confusingly called the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, was controlled by the Communist government of Ho Chi Minh, with support from China and the Soviet Union. It’s worth remembering that in the mid-1950s and on into the 1960s and 1970s, the Cold War between democratic America and her allies and the Communist Soviets and their friends was at its height. And many saw the Vietnam conflict as a proxy war between the two superpowers.

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As the 1960s dawned, President John F. Kennedy sent more advisors into South Vietnam. And by the time of his assassination in November 1963, there were 16,000 American troops in Vietnam. President Lyndon B. Johnson then accelerated the deployment of the U.S. military, and by the beginning of 1966 the number of military personnel in Vietnam had risen to just short of 185,000.

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Meanwhile, by the time Williams had arrived in Vietnam, there was a full scale war under way. And in May 1966 he joined River Squadron Five of the River Patrol Force. Now with the rank of petty officer first class, he took command of River Patrol Boat 105, or PBR-105. When Williams joined it, the River Patrol Force’s mission was known as Operation Game Warden.

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Operation Game Warden’s aim was to prevent the Communist South Vietnamese guerrillas, the Viet Cong, from infiltrating the Mekong Delta in South Vietnam. This delta is a sprawling maze of waterways centered on the Mekong River, covering an area in excess of 15,000 square miles. Lying to the south of Saigon, it became a key strategic area during the Vietnam War.

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The delta was home to some eight million civilians and much of it was inaccessible to motor traffic during seasonal flooding which deluged the land each year. This meant that the only dependable way for both American and South Vietnamese soldiers and Viet Cong fighters to get around was by boat.

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The Viet Cong made use of traditional craft known as sampans. This made detecting and tracking them extremely difficult as these were the very same craft that the civilians of the delta used. And it was all too easy for the Viet Cong to mount an attack and then melt away among the ordinary population.

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A report in The New York Times in 1964 vividly described an example of Viet Cong hostilities in the delta. The guerillas attacked a village called Thuan Dao, just 15 miles from Saigon. They killed the leader of the hamlet’s defensive militia force and compelled the villagers to destroy their own homes. Then, unopposed, the Viet Cong disappeared into the night.

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The houses in Thuan Dao were quickly rebuilt and an American general visited to reassure the villagers and to declare that they were now safe. But soon after, the Viet Cong returned and destroyed the village a second time. The Times reported that such attacks were all too common, and they challenged the authority of the South Vietnamese government.

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Operation Game Warden was launched precisely to stop this type of Viet Cong activity. The U.S. Navy said it aimed to hinder the movement of Viet Cong soldiers and supplies. The operation would also work to cut enemy communications, impose a night-time curfew and secure the main waterways leading to Saigon.

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Williams regarded his mission to help secure the Mekong Delta’s canals, rivers and channels with relish, viewing it as an excellent opportunity to use all his experience and training. In his 1998 All Hands Magazine interview he said, “The proudest day of my life had nothing to do with medals, ribbons, citations. It was when they made me a patrol officer.”

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By the time he had arrived in Vietnam, which he’d volunteered for, Williams was already in his 19th year of service, just a year away from retirement. He later recalled, “I always wanted the opportunity to show what I could do. This Vietnam thing was it for me. The Navy gave me the chance to do my job.”

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So now Williams was in charge of River Patrol Boat 105. There, he was part of what was known as the “Brown-Water Navy” which served on inland waterways as opposed to the “Blue-Water Navy,” whose duties were on the high seas and oceans. The brown water name dated back to the Civil War, when Unionist forces had patrolled the muddied waters of the Mississippi.

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Williams was commander of a 37-foot fiberglass vessel. Theses patrol boats, which were actually converted leisure craft, started operating in April 1966, the month before Williams arrived in Vietnam. The boats went out in pairs on patrols lasting for 12 hours, but the vessels were not without their problems.

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The boats were propelled though the Mekong Delta waters at speeds of up to 25 knots by water jets. But early on maintenance workers had to make adaptations as the pumps for the jets had components prone to rusting. The Navy men also had to add fenders to their vessels to protect the fiberglass hulls from damage.

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The Mark I patrol boats, crewed by four sailors, may have been improvised but they were well armed. Each carried three .50 caliber machine guns, two mounted on the prow and one at the stern. M-18 grenade launchers provided the boats with added firepower. Indeed, Williams soon got the opportunity to make use of his boat’s formidable weaponry.

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Meanwhile, on July 1, 1966, Williams went out on patrol with his men. They were mostly around 20 and often called their commander “Old Man”, since he was all of 35 years old. That day, Viet Cong fighters aboard a sampan opened fire on their river boat. Williams and his men retuned fire killing five of the enemy and capturing the sampan, an action which later earned Williams a Bronze Star.

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Later in July that year Williams and his navy comrades on PBR-105 came across another Viet Cong sampan. They captured this one as well and Williams received a second Bronze Star. And the accolades kept coming, because not long afterwards he earned a Purple Heart and a Silver star. It seemed that he just couldn’t stop winning medals, but the best was still to come.

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Later in 1966 Williams and his men were out on another patrol. He later remembered the day in his 1998 All Hands Magazine interview. He said, “October 31, 1966, was supposed to be a restful day in the steamy, heartland of the Viet Cong. But it’s one of those times I won’t ever forget, no matter how hard I try.”

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“We were on a day patrol, kind of like the ‘relax and recreation’ patrol – nothin’ too heavy. We were only gonna check a few boats coming down the Mekong River for contraband,” Williams said, making it all sound rather relaxed. He continued, “We were just moseying on down the river minding our own business when our forward gunner hollered, ‘There’s two fast-speed boats crossing ahead of us.’”

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Experience had taught Williams that these types of craft were often carrying a senior North Vietnamese officer. And indeed the sampans immediately opened fire on William’s patrol boat, confirming his suspicions. Then the two Viet Cong vessels now parted ways with one speeding off to the north bank and the other heading east.

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Williams’ men drew a bead on the boat that had headed for the north bank of the river and their fire sank the vessel. Now the Navy men set their sights on the other sampan but just as they were about to engage it, the boat performed a sudden turn into a narrow channel that ran through a rice paddy.

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This channel, just eight feet wide, was too narrow for the patrol boat to navigate. But Williams was nothing if not a quick thinker. He later recalled, “I looked at the map and saw that I could go to the right maybe for a third of a mile and come back to where he would have to come out.”

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“We wanted to get them real bad,” continued Williams. “I went around that corner at max speed to cut him off – and, lo and behold, I looked up and didn’t see nothing but boats and people and more boats and more people.” Indeed, PBR 105 had unknowingly sailed straight into a Viet Cong mustering area.

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Williams now did just about the only thing he could have – he launched the boat straight through the middle of the Viet Cong force at full speed. Williams remembered, “Fire came from all directions. But their aim was off that day ’cause they [were] shootin’ and hittin’ more of each other than we [were].”

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But that wasn’t where this hair-raising episode ended, not by a long shot. Williams continued, “We get through this area and I’m trying to high-tail it back. We got around the next corner and by God! There’s another staging area. We had to just fight. There was no way out. I twisted, crisscrossed and turned that PBR. I did whatever I could to get them off our backs.”

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Williams’ description from memory almost makes it sound as if the engagement was over in minutes – it wasn’t. The fighting actually lasted for three-and-a-half hours. Williams force had consisted of 10 sailors and two patrol boats. But by the end of the battle, the Viet Cong had lost some 65 boats and sustained a staggering 1,200 casualties. Amazingly, not a single sailor was killed.

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And the upshot of this incredible bravery was a Medal of Honor for Williams, the highest military award for bravery in combat that the U.S. has to offer. In part, the official citation for the medal read, “In the savage battle that ensued, BM1 Williams, with utter disregard for his safety exposed himself to the withering hail of enemy fire to direct counter-fire and inspire the actions of his patrol.”

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But Williams was never one to hog the limelight. He told All Hands Magazine, “You gotta stop and think about your shipmates. That’s what makes you a great person and a great leader – taking care of each other. You’ve got to think [you’re a] team. It takes a team to win any battle, not an individual.”

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Meanwhile, William’s retirement duly came round in April 1967. And even today, he is considered the most decorated enlisted Navy man of all time. After serving, he worked for the U.S. Marshals Service and then as a trainer for law enforcement personnel. His final resting place is the Florence National Cemetery in South Carolina and, fittingly, his name lives on in the destroyer USS James E. Williams.

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