James Elliott “Willy” Williams – Among The Navy’s Best

 In History

James Elliott “Willy” Williams enlisted in the US Navy in 1947 at age 16 with a fraudulent birth certificate. Today he’d have been drummed out of the service and maybe even thrown in the brig. But this not-quite-legal recruit became the most decorated enlisted sailor in Navy history.

The first 19 years of his service were spent aboard numerous vessels, including the USS Douglas H. Fox during the Korean war. But it was his service in Vietnam that earned him top honors:

Doug Sterner at The Navy Times wrote in 2018:

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. 

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.

James Elliott “Willy” Williams earned the Medal of Honor. Not many enlisted men have earned such a high number of awards. He died in 1999, and retired from the Navy in 1967. He joined the US Marshal’s office after the Navy.

Navy noted his awards: The Medal of Honor,  the Navy Cross, Silver Star (with one gold award star), the Legion of Merit (with Valor Device), the Navy and Marine Corps Medal with gold star, Bronze Star Medal with two gold stars, Vietnam Cross of Gallantry with Gold Star and Palm, Navy Commendation Medal, Navy and Marine Corps Presidential Unit Citation with one service star, Purple Heart with two gold stars, Vietnam Service Medal with bronze service star, Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal, National Defense Service Medal with bronze service star, United Nations Service Medal, Korean Service Medal with two bronze service stars, Korean Presidential Unit Citation, Korean War Service Medal, and the Navy Good Conduct Medal with four bronze service stars.

His wife Elaine was present at the launching of the USS James
E. Williams, an Arleigh Burke Class Destroyer in 2003.

USS James E Williams

It is an amazing life, though borne out of deception, that turned a young man from South Carolina into a major Navy Hero. Fair Winds and Following Seas, Willy.

Featured photo: Willy Williams,  US Navy


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  • Michael. J. Janus

    Too fellow brother to your brave deeds I salute you .And hope too see you down the road .

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