BMC James Elliott Williams, MOH
13 Nov. 1930-13 Oct. 1999
"There's just no right way to do
By: J. E. Williams, MOH
The following article appeared this morning (Oct 14, 1999) in the Charleston
Post and Courier, written by Bo Petersen of the P&C staff:
Highly Decorated Vietnam War Hero From S.C. Dies South Carolinian James Elliott Williams, one of the nation's most decorated war heroes, died Wednesday morning in a Florence hospital. He was 68. A retired Petty Officer 1st Class, Williams gained fame in Vietnam at the end of a 20 year Navy career. As a Boatswain's Mate commanding patrol boats along the Mekong River delta in 1966-67, Williams earned the series of medals that would make him the war's most decorated veteran: three Purple Hearts, three Bronze Stars, the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry, the Navy and Marine Corps Medal, two Silver Stars, the Navy Cross and the Medal of Honor - the nation's highest award for valor.
President Clinton said in a statement Wednesday: "Hillary and I are saddened...His extraordinary bravery in combat and his dedicated service on behalf of this country were truly admirable."
Born in York County and raised in Darlington County, Williams returned to the state after retiring from the Navy in April 1967 and was appointed U.S. Marshal for the District of South Carolina in 1969. He served in a variety of positions with the U.S. Marshal Service before retiring as a GS-18. He lived in Murells Inlet for years before moving to Palm Coast, FL, but kept his vacation home in Georgetown County. Williams was also a past president of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society and a former member of the Patriot's Point Development Authority's board of directors.
Williams most legendary exploit came on Oct. 31, 1966, when he and eight other sailors in two PBR patrol boats killed more than 1,000 North Vietnamese soldiers in a three-hour firefight that sank or destroyed more than 65 enemy boats. Williams was not done. In January 1967, just four months before his retirement, his patrol boat and another were attacked by 400 soldiers from three Viet Cong heavy weapons companies along a branch of the Mekong River. Williams was wounded protecting the other boat after it was disabled, but continued to fight. Nearly 40 Viet Cong were killed or wounded and nine of their boats were destroyed. The action won him the Navy Cross. He was the most decorated enlisted man in the history of the U.S. Navy, according to the service. "He was the epitome of a war fighter," said Jim Flatley, Patriot's Point Development Authority chief executive officer. "He was the kind of guy you wanted out there when the going got tough." Largely through his efforts, the Congressional Medal of Honor Society moved it's headquarters from the aircraft carrier Intrepid, in New York, to the Yorktown at Patriot's Point earlier this decade. "Elliot Williams was a classic character in out military, an incredible individual in leading the charge when he needed to. It's legend," said Flatley, a retired admiral and a three-tour Vietnam veteran. Williams repeatedly turned down Hollywood offers to turn his exploits into a movie. "Hell, if you're not going to tell the truth about the battle, then it ain't worth telling," he told the Post and Courier in 1990.
The son of a law enforcement officer, Williams ran for sheriff in Darlington in 1969 as a Republican, but lost. In 1969 he became the first U.S. Marshal appointed by President Richard Nixon. A popular speaker at civic functions, Williams was proud of his record, but practical, too. "Medals," he said, "don't put food on the table." Williams joined the Navy in 1947 at age 16, using a forged letter of consent from his parents. He married his childhood friend and neighbor, Elaine Weaver Williams, in 1949.
"He was firm," said Mike Williams, his son. "If you know anything about the Navy, he was a old crusty Boatswain's Mate. His favorite saying was 'there's just no right way to do wrong.'" He spent Saturday "cutting up" with his dad, who was in good spirits despite health problems, he said. "He was one of those fellows who's either up or down. There was no in-between. On Wednesday, he received phone call after phone call from people remembering his dad.
Williams also served in the Korean War. He was a member of the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Purple Heart Club, Fleet Reserve Association, Hammerton Masonic Lodge, Scottish Rite and Omar Temple Shrine. He was a Methodist.
In 1997, the Navy's Special Boat Unit 20 named it's new headquarters building in Little Creek, VA, for Williams.
He is survived by his wife; two daughters, Debbie Williams Clark of Palm Coast, FL, and Gail Williams Patterson of Florence; three sons, James E. Williams of Darlington, Steven M. Williams of Dorchester, and Charles E. Williams of Charlotte; and seven grandchildren.
Funeral services, directed by Belk Funeral Home, will be at 2 PM Saturday at Central Baptist Church, Darlington.
[a footnote was added: The Associated Press contributed to this report]