August 23, 2004
A Riverine hero rememberedBy John B. Dwyer
South Vietnam's Mekong Delta covers about 40,000 square miles of mostly flat alluvial plain, much of which is covered with rice paddies. It is veined with rivers and canals, streams and ditches. The Mekong—Bassac river system, running from the South China Sea back up into Cambodia, constitutes the primary artery. Mangrove swamps abound. It contains green shaded, flora maniacal hells with names such as the U Minh Forest and the Rung Sat Special Zone
The Delta region is bordered on the east by the South China Sea and to the west by the Gulf of Thailand. The Ca Mau Peninsula defines its southernmost point. At its northern border lies Cambodia.
In 1966 U.S. naval units began to operate in this enemy 'playground' that held 80,000 Viet Cong personnel, 20,000 of which were combat forces divided into some 30 battalions.
Those naval units were deployed as a result of a 1963—64 tactical survey ordered by Commander—in—Chief, Pacific, Adm. Harry D. Felt. Led by double Navy Cross recipient, Captain Phil H. Bucklew, the Delta Infiltration Survey Team spent 6 weeks traversing the region by sea, air and land. Their top secret findings included a recommendation to develop means to control VC infiltration of arms, materiel and personnel on coastal and border waterways within the Delta, its contiguous coastal and border waterways and the sea approaches.
Riverine and littoral warfare was hardly a novel concept for the U.S. military. From the Revolutionary War, when Col. John Glover's 'Marblehead Mariners' ferried Washington's men across the Delaware in their Durham boats, to the actions of Commodore Daniel Patterson's river units during the War of 1812 and the widespread river operations of the Civil War, it was nothing new. And in WWII, the men of US Naval Group China, with Nationalist Chinese soldiers they'd trained, fought the Japanese on the rivers of the Middle Kingdom.
The job of patrolling inland waterways with River Patrol Boats (PBRs) and other craft, fell to Task Force 116, code name Game Warden, while the coasts were patrolled by Task Force 115 Market Time's Fast Patrol Craft (PCFs) and Coast Guard cutters. Close air support from helicopters was available to both task forces. A lot of it came from the armed UH—1 Hueys of the Navy's Helicopter Attack, Light squadrons.
The PBR MK 1, with its 4—man crew, was a 31' long fiberglass boat powered by twin 220 hp. diesels with Jacuzzi jet water pumps serving as rudder. Top speed was 25—30 knots. Armament consisted of twin .50 cal. machine guns, an M60 .30 cal. machine gun and a grenade launcher, plus the crew's personal weapons. PBRs normally operated in at least 2—boat patrols with the Patrol Officer in command aboard one of them. Each River Section consisted of 10 PBRs. Patrol duration averaged 12—16 hours, night and day.
When Boatswain's Mate 1st Class James Elliott Williams arrived in Vietnam with River Section 531 in May 1966, he was already a 19 year Navy veteran, having joined at age 16. A year away from retirement, he volunteered for Vietnam duty. When he left in 1967, it would be as the Navy's most highly decorated sailor of that war.
River Section 531 was based at My Tho, about 30 miles southwest of Saigon on the Mekong River. In the immediate vicinity were Viet Cong from the 263rd and 514th battalions. West of My Tho was the Cam Son Secret Zone which held VC military, political and logistical installations.
On July 23, 1966, BM1st Class Williams was serving as boat captain of PBR—105 on an operation with friendly foreign forces when an enemy sampan was detected late at night in hostile territory on the Cua Tieu River. On orders from his patrol officer, Williams went after the sampan, which was keeping dangerously close to the enemy shore. Under the illumination of a flare, the sampan opened fire on PBR—105. Skillfully employing his boat's speed and maneuverability, Williams returned fire, killing six of the nine passengers aboard the enemy craft, forcing the rest to flee overboard as the sampan began evasive action. Williams continued his pursuit, which was taking him to closer still to the hostile shore, killing another VC. He then captured the sampan, along with its cargo and valuable documents.
For that action, 'Boats' Williams was awarded the second of his three Bronze Stars, all with Combat Distinguishing Device. His first was earned on July 1 for a similar feat of skill and heroism.
BM1st Class Williams was serving as patrol officer for PBRs 101 and 105 on August 22, 1966 during a Mekong River operation. In the early evening hours his patrol came under heavy enemy fire on four occasions from an estimated 100 VC gun emplacements on both banks of the river. While courageously directing suppressive fire from his PBRs which neutralized a number of enemy positions, Williams noticed, then intercepted a motorized sampan carrying high—ranking VC personnel. Directing PBR 101 to cover his south flank, while the 105 Boat fired on the north bank, Williams recovered the contents of the sampan. Though now wounded in the face, he continued in full command, directing suppressive fire while withdrawing with the captured vessel from the kill zone.
His Silver Star citation concludes:
'His aggressiveness and calmness under fire were an inspiration to all in his patrol. His determination and daring, despite overwhelming enemy fire, directly resulted in the capture of of 31 VC top secret, 12 secret, and 58 confidential documents.'
This was the first of two Silver Stars that Williams earned. Two months later he would find himself in an action for which he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
On October 31, 1966 he was again serving as Patrol Officer of a 2—boat patrol aboard PBR—105. They were searching for contraband on the Mekong River when two enemy sampans took them under fire. Williams's order to return fire resulted in one sampan crew killed, while the other craft fled, taking refuge in a nearby river inlet. As the PBRs pursued they came under heavy small arms fire, at close range, from well—concealed VC forces in riverbank positions.
Recognizing the overwhelming strength of the VC force, Williams radioed for helicopter gunship support and pulled his PBRs back. While doing so, he discovered an even larger concentration of enemy boats. Not waiting for the arrival of the gunships, Williams boldly led his PBRs right through the intense fire now coming from the enemy flotilla, damaging or destroying 50 enemy sampans and seven junks.
That phase of the battle over, Williams now directed the arriving gunships to their attack on remaining VC forces.
It was now virtually dark, but Williams, the riverine warrior, ordered his boats' searchlights turned on to press the attack towards the hostile shore. Though their ammunition supply was now low, the PBRs successfully engaged the VC force along the bank and routed it.
'His extraordinary heroism and exemplary fighting spirit in the face of grave risks inspired the efforts of his men to defeat a larger enemy force, and are in keeping with the finest traditions of the United States Naval Service.'
''Boats' Williams was a true American hero and a great Navy man. I am lucky to have known him and to call him a friend. We are forever grateful for his service to our nation.'
Though having earned the Medal of Honor, Navy Cross, two Silver Stars, three Bronze Stars and three Purple Hearts, the South Carolinian remained a modest man. He turned down many offers from Hollywood. He did not like to talk about his medals, at one point telling an interviewer,
'You gotta stop and think about your shipmates, that's what makes you a great person and a great leader — taking care of each other.'
Among other honors, this epitome of US naval valor has had the headquarters building of Special Boat Unit 20 named after him, and this year, the Arleigh Burke Class guided missile destroyer USS James E. Williams (DDG—95), will join the fleet.