THE HISTORY OF A REAL SWIFT BOAT HERO IN THE
VIETNAM ERA

After destroying one of two fleeing sampans in the Mekong Delta of South Vietnam on 31 October 1966, Patrol Officer BM1 James E. Williams in PBR-105 and the sister boat PBR-99 sped off in pursuit of the second sampan. But this target ducked into a narrow rivulet too small for the PBR's to follow.

Williams, who knew the area well from months of patrols, directed his two boats in a high-speed detour to a spot he knew the fleeing sampan would eventually emerge. Both threaded an alternative channel too narrow for the boats to reverse course. At nearly 35 knots they roared up the twisting passage--the heavily-jungled bank passing in a green blur. Then as they rounded a bend to an area of more open water, to the surprise of all aboard, they stumbled into a major staging area for the North Vietnamese Army. Thirty to forty sampans were crossing the channel, each loaded to the gunwales with NVA troops and supplies. The enemy was equally surprised and sprang to their guns. Along the shore the familiar "thonk" of mortars could be heard. Williams had no choice but to gun his engines straight at the enemy! Tracers streaked across the water. Williams ran his boat directly at several sampans, splitting them in half under the sharp bow of his rocketing speedboat. The PBR's twisted and jinked, blazed their weapons, and spilled hundreds of dead and dying NVA troops into the water. The speed and maneuverability of the Americans kept them ahead of the enemy return fire. They blasted through the enemy formation and back into the narrow channel beyond.

Momentarily safe, the PBR's sped onward. Williams called in Navy helicopter air support, but as his speedboats rounded another bend they found themselves smack in the middle of a second staging area as big as the first! Again the narrow channel determined their fate, and both PBR's sped boldly at the enemy. For a second time their machine guns blazed. For a second time splinters flew from enemy sampans and NVA soldiers spilled into the water. And for a second time the two American gunboats sliced through the enemy, blasting and ramming as they went. Secondary explosions from several of the larger junks confirmed Williams' suspicion that they were ammunition and supply vessels.
Overhead the Navy "Seawolf" gunships riddled the enemy, but rather than stand safely off Williams turned back. For the next three hours PBR's-105 and 99 cut through the assemblage, engaging shore guns and surface craft in a confusing tempest of gunfire. When the smoke finally cleared Williams' boats had destroyed over 65 sampans, killed 1000-1200 enemy troops, and disrupted a major marshalling of NVA forces. For his dedication and valor this day, Williams was awarded the Medal of Honor.

Despite three hours of intense combat, Williams' crew received only two casualties--one gunner was shot through the wrist, and Williams himself was wounded by shrapnel.

James E. Williams continued his noteworthy service in River Squadron 5 into 1967. For a subsequent enemy engagement in January 1967 he was awarded the Navy Cross. And for risking his personal safety in rescuing a shipmate trapped in a sinking barge, he was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal.


Williams' numerous other awards include two Purple Hearts. BM1 Williams transferred to the Fleet Reserve in April 1967 and returned to his native South Carolina. He was promoted to Honorary Chief in 1977. He passed away in 1999, on 13 October (the Navy's Birthday). BMC Williams remains today the most decorated enlisted sailor in the history of the US Navy.


On December 11th, 2004, the Navy commissioned our newest Arleigh Burke destroyer, USS James E. Williams (DDG-95) in a ceremony in Charleston, South Carolina. It is a fitting tribute to this American hero. Self-effacing and humble until the end; and although his exploits in Vietnam were legendary, he was quick to admonish anyone who wanted to talk about his awards. “You gotta stop and think about your shipmates," he said in an interview with the Navy's All Hands Magazine in 1998. "That's what makes you a great person and a great leader - taking care of each other."
 
He couldn’t have said it any better and the Navy could not have paid tribute to a finer sailor.

All the best

Jim Barton