Valor| HistoryNet

Valor | Willy Williams, Most Decorated Enlisted Sailor in Navy history

By Doug Sterner
7/18/2017 • Vietnam Magazine

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.

On May 14, 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson presented Williams with the Medal of Honor. For his lifesaving actions at the sinking Jamaica Bay, he was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal, often called “the noncombat medal of honor.”

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.

Doug Sterner, an Army veteran who served two tours in Vietnam, is curator of the world’s largest database of U.S. military valor awards.

Published in the August 2017 issue of Vietnam magazine.

41 Responses to Valor | Willy Williams, Most Decorated Enlisted Sailor in Navy history

  1. Walter Johnson says:

    He died at the age of 68. I wonder if Agent Orange was a factor in his death.

    • Gary Baird says:

      Wouldn’t surprise me , we operated in the very southern part of the Mekong river, and others and I have major agent Orange problems , 100 % DV

  2. Terry Michalski says:

    Thanks Boats, see you upstairs………………

    • ThatOldCop says:

      The proper naval term would be “topside” not upstairs. Lol

      • tonym says:

        I think in terms of heaven as a promotion upstairs. I would refer to topside in nautical terms aboard a vessel.

  3. Topogezzo says:

    Think what a nation we would have if we had 300 million people like this sailor. RIP my Sailor Brother.

  4. Jack Spencer says:

    Bravo Zulu Mate. Bravo Zulu

  5. Lawman says:

    God bless Brother.

  6. Stephen Dixon says:

    Great Story of a true American Hero..

  7. Melvin Miller says:

    He should have gotten meritorious advancement to BMC

    • ThatOldCop says:

      He didn’t want it, he said he didn’t like the uniform because it made you look like an officer lol.

      • Steve C Scott says:

        Now that, is awesome!.I feel the same although I only made it to second class.I loved our uniform since I was a kid around Navy bases.USN, HT2, 1974-1980..My Dad was in for 25 MMCS when he retired.WWII, Korea, Vietnam.

      • Me You says:

        I made CPO in 2005 and having to give up the cracker jacks was a hard thing to do. The most recognized military uniform in the world is that of an enlisted man in the USN. But I did enjoy being a chief until I retired.

  8. anyonebutme2a . says:

    Obviously easy to get medals in the Navy.

    • ThatOldCop says:

      Yeah, you try sitting in the middle of a river in a 31′ fiberglass boat surrounded on both shores with hundreds of VC shooting rockets and machine guns at you and on the river all around you are 8 to 10 junks and sampans also shooting rockets and machine guns and it’s just you and one other 31′ fiberglass boat fighting for your lives. When I was on the PBR’s just in my squadron there were 6 sailors who had 3 or more Purple Hearts. Navy policy is 3 PH’s and you automatically get a ticket home. These 6 brave sailors declined their free ride home because they didn’t want to leave their ship mates.
      BTW none of those 3 medals are given away easily by any service. If you would take the time to actually read Willie Williams citations you would be in awe. This short story just gave some of the highlights.
      I’m sure that all your medals are for much more valiant acts than his but hey, we all can’t be YOU.

      • Steve C Scott says:

        Well ……..a Marine……..what can you say, just hope he is a young one because the older gyreen’s i know are not so immature.Actually met some gentlemen.we did not take their crap when I was in and we won our share.

    • Lee Helle says:

      About the most stupid comment I’ve seen for several years

      • Phil Habib says:

        Couldn’t agree more, Lee.

      • Steve C Scott says:

        Aye,affirmative.Probably a young punk with the need for some swabby to teach him some manners in the fan room.

    • Steve C Scott says:

      You have to be kidding there ….Sir.We sure mixed it up a few times with your lot.No problem.

    • SoManyMike says:

      He’s just trolling. Don’t let him get to you.

    • Me You says:

      You’re an idiot. This man is a legend. I could say the same thing about the USMC. Must not be too hard to get a Navy Cross, look how many Chesty got right?

      I spent 25 years on active duty in the USN including serving on 2 gators that deployed with the 24th and the 26th MEU. Do you know how many times I saw a jarhead kick a sailor’s butt? NONE! But I sure saw a lot of jarheads outside medical with brand new knuckle bumps on them.

    • Randy Engle says:

      You are certainly one special kind of Punk!!

  9. David Gumienny says:

    GOD BLESS Mr. James E Wilson.

  10. SkivMarine says:

    I don’t always give these to members of other services, but from this old Marine, to this truly heroic Sailor; “SEMPER FI, BROTHER”.

  11. George Edmondson says:

    was he ever advanced to CPO?

  12. texasccl2@msn.com says:

    A Great Sailor of the Brown Water Naval Forces. Thanks for your sacrifices and saving the lives of an untold number Service Members.

  13. DONBALTIMORE says:

    People like this EARN a warship named after them !!! For ACTION, COURAGE, LEADERSHIP, and many other traits of honor !!! Warships SHOULD NOT be named after people who are primarily VICTIMS of mentally deranged people that should NOT even be loose on the streets !!! I am talking about the USS GABRIALL (sic) GIFFORDS, The gun shot victim of a whacko in Arizona several years ago, after which she and her husband became big time gun control advocates. This pleased the Obama Administration so much that the Yes Man Secretary of the Navy named a Littoral Combat Ship LCS after Rep. Giffords D,Arizona . Ms. Giffords is a decent person and didn’t deserve to be a victim nor did the other folks that were shot and killed or wounded. But she also didn’t deserve a ship named after her for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

  14. MichaelDevine says:

    This man is a United States Navy “First Class Petty Officer”. I don’t think First Class Petty Officers get the respect they deserve for the position they hold in the Navy Chain of Command. If making Chief is a big deal and it is, you must first be a First Class Petty Officer. That’s where you “make your bones”, where you sharpen your skills for the change in uniform, when you get “the hat”. And if you retire as a First Class Petty Officer it is something to be proud of because of the grand achievement that it is.

  15. jimmer99 says:

    A genuine Navy hero that served his country beyond reproach, unlike John Kerry.

  16. Morris Steen says:

    A legend among those of us who served in the “Brown Water Navy” in Vietnam!

  17. DOCWRIGHT says:

    Looking at his picture I wonder how many people who passed him on the street though he was just another chubby old man…. never knowing they had just rubbed shoulders with the baddest badass on the street. Fair winds and following Seas my brother. Thank you for your service is not enough. Mark A. Wright, HMC(SS/FMF),USN,RET.

  18. revkenmcdonald says:

    God Bless you Brother, and rest in peace.

  19. Mark says:

    I am simply stunned. This was truly a master warrior and hero.

  20. Ned Carbine says:

    Think what a nation we would have if we had100 people like this in the US Senate.

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