Boatswain’s Mate 1st Class James E. Williams: Most Decorated Sailor of the Vietnam War

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James E. Williams joined the Navy in 1947 at the age of 16. He was of a young man of the Cherokee Nation and wanted to see the world. His first assignment was on an old LST (landing ship, tank) tied to a buoy in San Diego Harbor.

He wasn’t pleased.

It was the advice of an old Chief Petty Officer that turned him into a good sailor in those early days. The Chief told him, “Son, you got to learn to take orders, even if you disagree with them. That’s the first step to being a good sailor and a good leader. If you can’t take orders now, you certainly won’t be respected when you give them later.”

It was the learning and practicing of this basic self-discipline that would serve him throughout his almost 20 year career in the United States Navy.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Boatwain’s Mate 1st Class James E. Williams


Williams would serve in the Korean War where he would first learn the skills of small craft tactics and riverine warfare. It would be those skills that he would hone to a very sharp edge while serving as a patrol officer on a Patrol Boat, River craft (PBR-105) in the Mekong Delta in 1966. Within the short span of 7 months, in the 19th year of his career, he would be awarded seven of the country’s top medals for valor while commanding PBR-105.

This video gives an all too brief account of the action that PBR-105 undertook on October 31, 1966. His craft and one spotted two VC motorized sampans, which usually carried high ranking Viet Cong officers and important documents. They began to chase them down.

Soon, they would find themselves drawn straight into the middle of a massive concentration of enemy fighters, both on land and in innumerable sampans.

Source: flickr/mannhai
Armed South Vietnamese marines slog through jungle mud in the Mekong Delta.


They were caught in a gauntlet of extremely heavy fire by hundreds of VC from shore positions as well as the sampans. They were in over their heads, but Williams knew that they only had one choice and that was to fight, and fight they did. Those two PBRs under his command pushed up the power on their engines and began to maneuver and fire at everything in the river and on the shore.

They began to bring the old war god “havok” to the enemy.

For some three hours their heavily armed, fast boats maneuvered in and among the sampans destroying many and attacked whatever shore positions were firing upon them. The damage they did to the enemy is almost unbelievable. Both PBRs and their five-man crews survived the battle. They were credited with inflicting an estimated 1,200 enemy casualties and for having destroyed as many as 65 boats.

Source: Good Free Photos
U.S. Marines with M14 rifles poised during the Vietnam War.


It was for this action that Williams was awarded the Medal of Honor. He had been awarded several medals for valor before this battle and he would go on to receive other awards for valor after it, until he was rotated home and retired, just a few months before his full 20 years.

Williams would continue to serve his country as a U.S. Marshal in South Carolina, Georgia, and in Washington, D.C. He died on the Navy’s 224th birthday, October 13, 1999.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
The USS James E. Williams, named after the Boatswains Mate 1st Class.


The following is a list of the medals that Boatswains Mate 1st Class James E. WIlliams received over his 20 year career:

  • The Medal of Honor
  • The Navy Cross
  • The Silver Star (with one gold award star)
  • The Legion of Merit (with valor device)
  • The Navy and Marine Corps Medal (with gold star)
  • The Bronze Star (with two gold stars)
  • The Vietnam Cross of Gallantry (with gold star device and palm)
  • The Navy Commendation Medal
  • The Navy and Marine Corps Presidential Unit Citation (with one service star)
  • The Purple Heart (with two gold stars)
  • The Vietnam Service Medal
  • The Vietnam Campaign Medal
  • The National Defense Ribbon
  • The United Nations Service Medal (Korea) (with two bronze service stars)
  • The Korean Presidential Unit Citation
  • The Korean Service Medal
  • The Navy Good Conduct Medal (with four bronze service stars)

Learn more in the video below.

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The Veterans Site honors the memory of Boatwain’s Mate 1st Class James E. Williams. He served the nation with both love and valor.

It is our honor to remember him and to share his story with our readers. We must never forget what this American and Cherokee warrior did for us all. Fair Winds and Following Seas good sailor. Rest in Peace!

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Dan Doyle is a husband, father, grandfather, Vietnam veteran, and retired professor of Humanities at Seattle University. He taught 13 years at the high school level and 22 years at the university level. He spends his time now babysitting his granddaughter. He is a poet and a blogger as well. Dan holds an AA degree in English Literature, a BA in Comparative Literature, and an MA in Theology, and writes regularly for The Veterans Site Blog.
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