James Elliott Williams, USN (ret)
16 October 1999 in
Darlington, South Carolina
by RADM Morton E. Toole, USN (ret)
Elaine, children and grandchildren of James Elliott Williams, relatives of James Elliott Williams, friends of James, friends of Elliott, fellow shipmates of "Willie."
Those of us who served for one year up the Mekong River with Boatswain's Mate First Class James Elliott Williams always called him "Willie"... Navy people do that ... they'll latch onto your name and decide, affectionately, to change it. We who served alongside him always called him Willie, even though he told us after he retired that he was NOW Elliott. We all ignored that.
Today, you and I, the crew of PBR-105, the United States Navy, and our nation have all lost a great friend, an outstanding naval leader, a genuine American hero. But he has come home to you of Darlington and Florence South Carolina who knew him the longest ... Home is the sailor, Home from the sea.
I met Willie in 1966 when he was a very long way from home during the last year of his service: a time during which most Naval careerist seek a job near their future retirement home ... it is called the "twilight tour". Willie saw that his country was at war, whatever people wanted to call it. He had been in one of those "non-war" wars before, and I am reminded of that because I see his old ship's-named hat in the casket with him. In 1952, he was assigned to USS DOUGLAS FOX (DD-779) during gunfire support and shore bombardment of South and North Korea. He volunteered when his ship was asked for a Boat Coxswain to shuttle U.S. and South Korean Raiders against North Korea from an island-base off Hungnam, each night for six months.
In 1966, he could see that his country's new effort was small boats could use his experience. So, he came to the River Patrol Force. He lead young Americans who were not draftees, who were not draft-dodgers ... who were volunteers one and all. He and they went to Vietnam to help the South Vietnamese people ... to help keep their rivers free: for them to move safely on those rivers and bring their products of fish, coconuts, rice, bananas to market. And not be intercepted by the Viet Cong - the Vietnamese Communists - who would rob them and "tax them" and murder them in the name of something they did not believe ... communism.
So Willie came to help by serving on a 31 foot fiberglass boat: a boat specifically designed NOT to stop bullets, but let bullets pass through the boat. Armor would have slowed the fast boats down and would have caused shrapnel wounds. The boats were painted in camouflage to blend in with the lush jungle and coconut trees that lined the sometimes very narrow river. But, the enemy snipers could peer out and easily see the bright red, white and blue flag of the United States of America.
It had not been since the Civil War that Americans had fought a river-war. Willie and the PBR-men like him in 1966 became the pioneers of 20th Century small-boat river-fighting. Some of them are here today: Willie's forward gunner Rubin Binder, who had to physically push around the un-powered twin .50 caliber guns; Willie's immediate boss, retired Commander Fred McDavitt: one of Willie's river-shipmates, retired Captain and Navy Cross winner, Chester Smith.
In 1966 I commanded River Division 53 which consisted of three River Sections. The first one to be ready to go up the Mekong River was then-Lieutenant Fred McDavitt's River Section Five Three One. With no staff, I was smart enough to attach myself to Fred's unit as it went up the Mekong River to operate on 20 June 1966 out of My Tho. For months prior to that date, they had been trained as individuals in the United States. Then the shell of their new boats arrived at the mouth of the Saigon River and individual Boat Captains were assigned individuals who came together to outfit their boat-shells with working engines, radios, radar, 50 caliber and 30 caliber machine guns, M-60 machine guns, grenade launchers, M-16 rifles, pistols, and anything else we could find to throw at the enemy. They THEN trained as a crew for the first time: in the war zone up the Saigon River.
Under Willie, PBR-105 quickly was molded into a Team: not just physically, but mentally ready to do the job. By training his crew on those twin aspects of readiness and ensuring everyone could readily and quickly do all jobs on board THEIR PBR-105, Willie did more than lead: he inspired them as a team. Willie inspired all of us who had the privilege to see that team. We not only became associated with that team we, in effect, became part of "Willie's Team."
The Navy thought it would have Officers and Chief Petty Officers act as the Patrol Officer for a two-boat Patrol. The reality of river warfare found that it was the natural leaders who became the guiding lights. It was the natural, real leadership showed by Willie that made it clear that he be given the additional responsibility as a Patrol Officer over and above all others.
The first real combat action resulted in Willie's first Bronze Star: a Viet Cong tax collector who was nothing more than a highwayman on the river, robbing the poor people of their money to finance the VC campaign of terror and murder. He was expected to try to cross the river. LT McDavitt and Willie set a trap. I shall never forget LT McDavitt saying over the radio, "Go get him Willie". That action returned thousands of dollars back to the South Vietnamese people.
"Go get him." You and the nation never knew that the orders for Americans on that river in 1966 were: go up to a suspicious boat and ask him if he would be so kind to show us his Identification Card... in effect... go up to him and ask him if he is the enemy, no matter the time of day or location. We were not allowed, initially, to shoot first because the Navy did not want us to make mistakes and accidentally kill the civilians we were trying to help.
Now, that was very dangerous. Because after certain hours, no one was suppose to be on the river. But Willie still had to maneuver his boat up alongside, with the distinct possibility of a grenade being thrown into the boat, and ask the enemy for his ID card. Our boats had to take the first round.
However, Willie's first success set the tone for the entire River Patrol Force. It was professional. It was effective. It was supportive of the people. It demonstrated an ability to plan, prepare, and respond in-combat if combat occurred.
And combat occurred often with Willie. Many men in many boats patrolled 85 to 100 hours a week in support of South Vietnam... but none ever had Willie's opportunities to engage the enemy nor were they ever as successful as Willie. He and his beloved PBR-105 and his two-boat patrols were always ready for the worst, and when that happened, they devastated the enemy.
The night he earned the Navy Cross, an important enemy Commander sought to sneak across the river in a high-powered boat. Willie and his team spotted him. Heavy enemy fire from both sides of the river sought to protect the enemy boat. Willie could have stood-off to safety and called in support. But he knew it would be too late; the enemy would escape. He knew that to have that much enemy fire support, the enemy had to be someone big. With his support boat suppressing one river bank and his boat suppressing the other, he guided his boat alongside the enemy sampan. In a hailstorm of enemy bullets from which he was wounded in the hand and eye, he retrieved a treasure of invaluable documents from the bodies of the enemy.
On October 31, 1966 a regimental size enemy troop movement was going on along the river; many troops in two staging areas were already in their boats and moving when Willie surprised them and waded right into them, destroying or capturing over sixty five sampans and junks, causing scores of enemy casualties, and earning the Medal of Honor.
I always remember sitting in the Tactical Operations Center while the patrols were out and hearing Willie come on the radio, with his engine throttles wide open and guns blazing, the background rat-tat-tat of Seaman Binder's twin .50 caliber, and Willie's gravely voice calmly telling us; where he was, what was happening, what he was doing, what he was going to do, and what backup he might need. He was the consummate professional who had the enemy situation under control, although outnumbered a hundred to one. Willie always surprised the enemy. When the enemy left the jungle he was out of his element: on the water, he was into Willie's element. On the water, Willie always won.
The History of the Navy in Vietnam has yet to be written. But no historian will ever be able to talk about the war without devoting many paragraphs to Boatswains Mate James Elliott Williams and his incredible twilight tour, because no man in any war, on land, sea or air ever earned the top seven awards for combat: Medal of Honor, Navy Cross, Silver Star Medal, Legion of Merit with Combat V, Bronze Star (two) with Combat V, Navy Commendation Medal with Combat V, and Purple Heart (two).
And he was not just a hero who fought the enemy and took lives. He also saved lives on the river. On two occasions he earned the Navy and Marine Corps' highest life saving award, the Navy-Marine Corps Medal. Each of those non-combat medals have one word on the medal-front: "heroism." So, in combat and not in combat, Willie was a hero.
Willie did not seek awards. He did not covet getting them. We did not seek to make him a hero. The circumstances of time and place, and the enemy's presence did that. And I know, through personal investigation of each incident, that he never placed his crew nor his patrol boats in danger without first ensuring the risk was calculated and that surprise was on his side. He always had the presence of mind not to endanger friendly villages. He inspired us all, junior and senior alike. That one year in my life was the most satisfying, exciting, and vital because it was my greatest honor to have served with the man who truly lead us all with his example of unselfish devotion to duty.
Throughout history, there have been many famous sayings by many famous names: I have not Yet Begun to fight ... We have met the enemy, and they are ours ... Henry the Fifth that on every Saint Crispin's Day, those who fought the French could say that they were at Agincourt.
Vietnam has never engendered such a ringing phrase. In a war and at a time when the know-it-all elements of our society were saying there were no heroes, they did not know the hero we knew, who daily was doing his job up a dirty, muddy river. And what a job he did! For those of us who served aboard the River Patrol Boats on the Mekong River, it says it all to simple say: "I SERVED ON THE RIVER WITH WILLIE."
God be with you, Willie, on this, your last patrol.