By Katie Lange
Defense Media Activity
This blog is part of a weekly series called “Medal of Honor Monday,” in which we’ll highlight one of the 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients who have earned the U.S. military’s highest medal for valor.
Of those 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients, only 32 have been Native American, and only five earned the distinction during the 20th century. Three I’ve already named in previous posts. The fourth is Navy Petty Officer James E. Williams, a South Carolinian of Cherokee descent.
Williams was too young to join the military during World War II, but as soon as he turned 16 in 1947, he enlisted in the Navy. He would spend the next 20 years there, retiring as the most decorated enlisted sailor in Navy history.
Williams served in the Korean War, but Vietnam is where he earned his Medal of Honor.
In 1966, Williams, a boatswain’s mate first class, was the captain of a River Patrol Force boat whose mission was to police the Mekong Delta in South Vietnam and intercept arms shipments from the Viet Cong, communist guerillas fighting in the south for the north.
On Oct. 31, Williams’ crew and another patrol boat were in an isolated area of the delta when bullets started flying. Two Viet Cong flat-bottomed boats, known as sampans, had found them and started firing.
Williams ordered his crew to fire back. They were able to take out one of the sampans, while the other found refuge in a nearby inlet. The two American boats followed it and were quickly consumed by more enemy fire. In their pursuit, they had stumbled into a major enemy logistics operation.
Viet Cong guerillas hiding on the shores began firing rocket-propelled grenades and other ammo at the Americans at close range, while eight more sampans and two low-riding peasant boats, called junks, confronted them.
The Americans were heavily outnumbered, but Williams wasn’t deterred. He remained out in the open and directed the two boat crews to fire back time and time again. He was also able to call in heavily armed UH-1B Huey Navy helicopters for added support. Before the choppers got there, however, his crew stumbled upon an even larger number of enemy sampans and junks. Williams boldly led his crews through the intense fire aimed at them, and they were able to take out several of those boats.
As the helicopters arrived and the light of day faded, Williams called for the boats to turn on their search lights to help find the hiding guerillas on the shoreline, even though it gave the enemy a clear view of them.
After three hours of fighting, the battle was finally over. The Americans took out about 1,000 guerillas, destroyed more than 60 enemy vessels and managed to disrupt the enemy operation they stumbled upon.
Williams’ ingenuity, strategic planning under fire and his understanding of the equipment and men he had around him didn’t go unnoticed. On May 14, 1968, President Lyndon Johnson presented the boatswain’s mate with the Medal of Honor.
Williams rose to the rank of chief petty officer before retiring from active duty about a year before he earned the medal. Throughout much of the rest of his life, he served in the U.S. Marshals Service.
Williams died in 1999. A year prior to his death, he told Navy’s All Hands Magazine, “You’ve got to stop and think about your shipmates. That’s what makes you a great person and a great leader – taking care of each other.”
In 2004, the Navy named the newly commissioned guided-missile destroyer USS James E. Williams in his honor.
Williams is still the most decorated enlisted sailor in Navy history. His other distinctions include:
- 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
- The Navy Good Conduct Medal with four bronze service stars
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