Valor Friday

| November 9, 2018

Willy WilliamsWilly Williams, the most decorated enlisted sailor in Navy history

In the history of the U.S. Navy only seven men have earned all of the “Big Three” valor awards: Medal of Honor, Navy Cross and Silver Star Medal. Six were World War II officers, including one aviator and four submarine commanders. The seventh was enlisted sailor James Elliott “Willy” Williams in Vietnam.

In 1947, Williams, a 16-year-old from Fort Mill, South Carolina, enlisted in the Navy with a fraudulent birth certificate. His first 19 years in the Navy included service aboard the destroyer USS Douglas H. Fox during the Korean War and tours on a variety of naval vessels from 1953 to 1965.

In May 1966 Boatswain’s Mate 1st Class Williams was assigned to River Squadron 5 in South Vietnam to command Patrol Boat, River 105. The approximately 30-foot fiberglass boat usually carried a four-man crew who patrolled inland waterways to prevent the Viet Cong from using them to transport troops and supplies.

On July 1 Williams led a patrol that came under fire from a Viet Cong sampan. His deft maneuvers and accurate fire killed five VC and resulted in capture of the enemy boat, earning Williams a Bronze Star Medal with a “V” for valor. Twenty-two days later the capture of another sampan brought Williams a second Bronze Star for valor. Less than a month later, he received a Silver Star and his first Purple Heart.

On Halloween, Oct. 31, 1966, Williams was commanding a two-boat patrol on the Mekong River when he was fired on by two sampans. He and his crew killed the occupants of one and then went after the other. That pursuit put the Navy boats into a VC staging area containing two junks and eight sampans, supported by machine guns on the river banks. Williams called for helicopter gunship support while holding the enemy at bay. During this movement he discovered an even larger force. Not waiting for the armed helicopters, Williams attacked. Maneuvering through devastating fire from enemy boats and the shore, his two-boat patrol fought a three-hour battle that destroyed or damaged 65 VC boats and eliminated some 1,200 Communist troops. For his actions, Williams was nominated for the Medal of Honor.

On Jan. 9, 1967, the Navy dredge Jamaica Bay was blown up by mines in the Mekong Delta, and PBR-105 arrived to pick up seven of the survivors. Another man was trapped in the rapidly sinking dredge. Williams dove into the water and, with a rope attached to a nearby tug, pulled clear an obstruction, then swam through a hatch to recover the sailor.

Six days later Williams was wounded while leading a three-boat patrol that interdicted a crossing attempt by three VC heavy-weapons companies of 400 fighters. He and his boats accounted for 16 VC killed, 20 wounded and the destruction of nine sampans and junks. Williams was awarded the Navy Cross.

When Williams returned home in spring 1967, he had a list of awards unmatched by any enlisted man in Navy history. He retired after 20 years of service and began a career in the U.S. Marshals Service.

During his last seven months in the Navy, Williams received every sea-service award for heroism including the Legion of Merit with “V,” two Navy Commendation Medals for valor and three Purple Hearts.

Williams died on Oct. 13, 1999, and in 2003 his widow, Elaine, watched the launching of the Arleigh Burke class destroyer, USS James E. Williams.


For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty. BM1 Williams was serving as Boat Captain and Patrol Officer aboard River Patrol Boat (PBR) 105 accompanied by another patrol boat when the patrol was suddenly taken under fire by 2 enemy sampans. BM1 Williams immediately ordered the fire returned, killing the crew of 1 enemy boat and causing the other sampan to take refuge in a nearby river inlet. Pursuing the fleeing sampan, the U.S. patrol encountered a heavy volume of small-arms fire from enemy forces, at close range, occupying well-concealed positions along the river bank. Maneuvering through this fire, the patrol confronted a numerically superior enemy force aboard 2 enemy junks and 8 sampans augmented by heavy automatic weapons fire from ashore. 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. Recognizing the over whelming strength of the enemy force, BM1 Williams deployed his patrol to await the arrival of armed helicopters. In the course of his movement he discovered an even larger concentration of enemy boats. Not waiting for the arrival of the armed helicopters, he displayed great initiative and boldly led the patrol through the intense enemy fire and damaged or destroyed 50 enemy sampans and 7 junks. This phase of the action completed, and with the arrival of the armed helicopters, BM1 Williams directed the attack on the remaining enemy force. Now virtually dark, and although BM1 Williams was aware that his boats would become even better targets, he ordered the patrol boats’ search lights turned on to better illuminate the area and moved the patrol perilously close to shore to press the attack. Despite a waning supply of ammunition the patrol successfully engaged the enemy ashore and completed the rout of the enemy force. Under the leadership of BM1 Williams, who demonstrated unusual professional skill and indomitable courage throughout the 3 hour battle, the patrol accounted for the destruction or loss of 65 enemy boats and inflicted numerous casualties on the enemy personnel. His extraordinary heroism and exemplary fighting spirit in the face of grave risks inspired the efforts of his men to defeat a larger enemy force, and are in keeping with the finest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service.

Navy Times Link

Navy Memorial Link

Category: Navy, The Warrior Code

Comments (28)

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  1. The Stranger says:

    Damn….that is one hell of a Sailor!

  2. The Stranger says:

    By the way, I’m really diggin’ this series of posts. It is important to remember service members like these in addition to the busting of phonies. This feature illustrates why Stolen Valor is so egregious and also educates us in our shared heritage.

    • AW1Ed says:

      Thank you, TS. The only thing I can add to that is I try to bring out the human touch- BM-1 here joined the Navy on a falsified birth cert, last weeks VF was relegated to scut work until his band joined up with the the French Army. The list goes on. These really are ordinary men doing extraordinary things, but they will all say “I was just doing my job” or words to that effect. The mark of the true hero.

  3. Mason says:

    The wiki has his ribbons:

    Just look at that ribbon rack. I say Gott damn! There’s a retired CSM Olive Oyl that wishes she had the stones of a sailor like this.

  4. JBUSMC says:

    I’ll bet the enemy puckered up every time they heard a patrol boat coming around the bend hoping it wasn’t this dude again..

  5. Biermann says:

    Holy crap. I didn’t know a PBR could stay a float with the added weight of those enormous brass cojones.

  6. USAF E-5 says:

    That’s a solid Boat there. 65 enemy ships and he rode thru them. He’s the HMFIC for sure.

  7. Jay says:

    Good lord….Medal of Honor, Navy Cross, TWO Silver Stars, Legion of Merit with V, 2 Navy and Marine Corps Medals, 3 BS/V, 3 Purple Hearts, and a Navy Comm with a V….and he did ALL that in about 2 years in country. What do you think he did when got bored?

  8. JTB says:

    Great Story…!!!

    Thank you..!!

  9. 2/17 Air Cav says:

    Old Navy. All balls. Much respect.

  10. Poetrooper says:

    And the shame of it is that in the half century since he did all that, I, and I’ll wager most of those who read here, had never heard of this heroic warrior.

  11. USAFRetired says:

    I am sad to admit I had never heard of this man and his heroics.

    An amazing man.

  12. Comm Center Rat says:

    Willy Williams the Mekong Delta Destroyer!

    Although I never served in the wet services, I still can’t believe I’ve never heard of this one man war machine before reading this post.

    I hope today’s recruits at Great Mistakes get some indoctrination about the Navy’s most highly decorated enlisted warrior.

  13. Ex-PH2 says:

    Never heard of him because he never bragged about himself or what he did. Someone has to brag for him.

    So when I see someone wearing a jacket or hat with a lot of bling, well – is it justified to feel somewhat doubtful?

    • AW1Ed says:

      Sadly, yes it is.

      • 5th/77th FA says:

        Dayyuumn. Excellent post AW1Ed. Keep ’em coming. Another real Sailor Man, too busy kicking ass to take down any names. Is this the kind of Sailor Man that Lurch SKeeerd Kerry wanted to be? In that one action 2 boats & 8 men taking out 65 boats and 1200 +. Did the choppers help or just stay the hell out of the way? BZ Swabbie

        • AW1Ed says:

          Research finds the H-1’s of the HA(L)-3 Seawolves counted coup that day as well.

          The Seawolves would see their first major action while still part of a detachment of HC-1. On 31 October 1966, two Navy boats encountered a superior force of over 80 boats transferring a Viet Cong battalion. Encountering fierce resistance from them, the Navy boat commanders requested close air support (CAS). Scrambling and arriving within approximately fifteen minutes, the Seawolves would claim 16 Viet Cong boats sunk or destroyed.[10]

          The dates match, this must be the same engagement. Talk about QRF, 15 minutes from request to on station is outstanding.

          More at Wiki.

  14. CDR_D says:

    Having been in the Ca Mau area in 1970, I did hear of this warrior. Thanks for posting.

  15. HMC Ret says:

    I am humbled by men and women such as this. Too sad he died so young. Thank you for your service, Warrior. Today’s snowflakes should be made aware of warriors such as you. Maybe they could know how real men perform when it is necessary to be more than a snowflake.

    • rgr769 says:

      Back in those days we had men who were men, and the pussies (who were not females) went to Canada or protested the War.

  16. HMC Ret says:

    He’s a big guy. Not fat big but muscular big. I wonder if anyone superior to him told him he was on the command weight control program. I’m thinking not so much.

  17. Tallywhagger says:

    What a great human being! I wonder what the members of his crew might have to say.

    A 30′ fiberglass boat is not a lot of boat. Good thing he was a lot of man!

  18. Tallywhagger says:

    And then we have John “Fuck” Kerry. Can the contrast be any greater? Hell, I’d guess that even Hanoi-Jane Fonda is as ashamed of him as America is of her.

  19. Graybeard says:


    I am in awe.