Native Heritage, Navy Pride

Story Number: NNS151125-11Release Date: 11/25/2015 11:12:00 AM
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From CNSL Public Affairs

NORFOLK, Va. (NNS) -- When the Navy names a ship after a person it is typically done to honor their heroism, bravery and leadership. These traits can all be found in the service of Chief Boatswain's Mate James E. Williams, the DDG 95 namesake.

Williams is among the most decorated enlisted Sailors in the history of the U.S. Navy. As a Cherokee of South Carolina, he is also one of only 32 Native American service members to receive the Medal of Honor.

Their military history is a point of pride for many Cherokee, a tribe native to the southeastern United States. Tribe members have been valuable assets in the American military since the Civil War; most sided with the Confederates when the tribe found their territory divided between Union and Confederates.

In the summer of 1947, 16-year-old Williams was the latest in a long line of Cherokees to volunteer for service in the United States military. He persuaded a county clerk to falsify the age on his birth certificate, allowing him to enlist in the Navy as a Boatswain's Mate. His career would span 20 years.

"I thought there was nothing better than servin' my country and gettin' paid for it," reflected Williams, who was somewhat disenchanted with his first assignment, in a 1998 interview for All Hands Magazine. "I'd joined the Navy to see the world--and doggonit, I wasn't moving. I'd got orders to an [landing ship, tank] that just sat around a buoy in the San Diego harbor."

Despite not seeing the action he had hoped for, this initial assignment proved to be a valuable lesson about discipline and leadership.

"An old chief told me, '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.' Well, I got the message," said Williams. "Learning discipline was the springboard that helped my Navy career. From then on I had the sharpest damn knife and the shiniest shoes in the Navy. That's what I was taught. That's what I believed in, being a good Sailor."

As a successful career began to draw to a close, Williams chose to forgo the so-called "twilight tour" orders and instead asked for a chance to finish his career in command of a Patrol Boat, River (PBR) in Vietnam.

On Oct. 31, 1966, Williams was boat captain of PBR 105 when his boat, along with another PBR, came under fire from two enemy boats on the Mekong River in South Vietnam. After Williams ordered his crew to return fire they pursued the surviving enemy boat into an enemy stronghold. Three hours later, Williams and his 10 Sailors had damaged or destroyed nearly 65 enemy boats, inflicting numerous personnel casualties while engaging more than 1,000 enemy troops and disrupting a major enemy logistic operation.

This day had been the ultimate test of something Williams had been preparing for his entire career, to lead Sailors. His keen understanding of how his Sailors, weapons, and equipment could be used helped him achieve victory under fire.

The following year, Williams retired from the Navy, and on May 14, 1968, President Lyndon Johnson presented him the Medal of Honor for his actions, making him the first person to earn the Navy's top seven awards: the Medal of Honor, Navy Cross, Silver Star (two awards), Legion of Merit, Navy and Marine Corps Medal (two awards), Bronze Star (three awards), and Purple Heart (three awards). In 1977 Williams was given an honorary promotion to chief petty officer.

Williams died at the age of 68 on Dec. 13, 1999, and was laid to rest with full military honors at the Florence National Cemetery in Florence, South Carolina.

"Willie did not seek awards," said Rear Adm. Morton "Jim" Toole, Williams' former commander, in Williams' eulogy. "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."

The Navy continued to pay tribute to Williams in 2004 by naming the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS James E. Williams (DDG 95) in his honor, and again in 2010, when Special Boat Unit 20, based at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story, dedicated their headquarters, the BM1 James E. Williams Building.

"Like Chief Williams, our crew knows that it takes devotion and teamwork to succeed," said Cmdr. Heidi Haskins, the destroyer's commanding officer. "We look out for each other and make sacrifices for those we love and care about, just as many Native Americans have done for our country."

Since her commissioning, James E. Williams has carried on the proud legacy of her namesake, making multiple deployments in support of the global war on terrorism and maritime security operations in the 5th and 6th fleet areas of responsibility and include carrier escort duties and conducting anti-piracy operations.

For more news from Commander, Naval Surface Force, U.S. Atlantic Fleet, visit

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