Honoring a legend: the story of the most decorated enlisted sailor in Navy history
BY Jack Dorsey The Virginian-Pilot
Jul 17, 1997
James Elliott Williams wasn’t looking for medals when he went to Vietnam, even though he ended up with nearly all of them, including the Medal of Honor.
He just wanted to show he had “something else between the ears” other than his ability to chip paint and salute. He got that opportunity more.
Williams is credited with damaging or destroying 65 enemy sampans and junks during a three-hour fight on the Mekong River, where he led his two small patrol craft in a fierce battle.
This morning, the 67-year-old Florida man is being honored again.
Special Boat Unit 20, based at the Little Creek Naval Amphibious Base, will name its new headquarters the BM1 James E. Williams Building.
“I’m excited and pleased,” Williams said earlier this week from his Palm Coast, Fla., home near Daytona. “There are very few times in a man’s life he gets these kinds of honors.”
Williams has become a legend to the sailors who fought aboard the small special warfare craft during the Vietnam war.
At 36, with his retirement papers nearly in hand – he enlisted when he was 16 – Williams asked to go to Vietnam to finish his career in command of a river patrol boat. His was No. 105. He actually became boat captain and patrol officer, in charge of two boats.
The 32-foot fiberglass and armor-protected boats carried a crew of four and plied the inland waters of Vietnam, searching for supply-carrying junks and sampans that aided North Vietnam.
Williams had served in Korea and spent most of his time aboard large Navy ships. But it was the river patrol boat he wanted most.
For a ninth-grade dropout who thought of the Navy “as my second mom and daddy,” this was an opportunity to show that a senior enlisted man had something more to give, he said.
“I looked at it as an opportunity to do something better. So did all the others. That is why the PBR was so successful in Vietnam. The men were so proud.”
Williams recalls the afternoon of Oct. 31, 1966, in vivid detail: “When you want to forget, you can’t,”‘ he said. It was a day patrol, sort of a “relax-and-recreation” patrol as opposed to the more dangerous night operations the crew had just completed.
“We were just dee-dee-boppin” down the river when the forward gunner . . . hollered there were two high-speed boats crossing ahead of us,” he said.
“We all got real alert. These boats had twin long-shaft motors, Mercury outboards, and they were tremendously fast, over 40 mph. That usually signified some high-ranking officers aboard.
“Then they started firing at us. We returned fire. One went to the north bank and the other to the east. We gave chase to one and . . . eliminated him.”
Williams’ crew then turned to pursue the other boat and watched as he cut into an eight-foot-wide canal in front of a rice paddy.
“Looking at the map, I could see where he had to come out. I turned hard right to wait for him. As I did that, lo and behold, we found a big staging area. All I could see were boats and people.”
Putting out a large wake as he sped across the water, Williams plowed through the middle of the formation.
“They were shooting at us from the right and left and we were shooting. They were doing more of hitting each other than we were.
“We got through that and I am trying to zigzag. . . . I go by a couple more corners and turn into this area . . . and lo and behold, we hit the second staging area.”
Again, they sped down the center, guns blazing and radio squawking for help from friendly helicopters.
As his commander appeared overhead in a helicopter, he told Williams he was about to make a strafing run and asked Williams his intentions.
“I said, ‘Damn if you are going to leave me in here.’ So I followed him back out and that is when we hit the big (ammunition) junks and blew them up,” Williams said.
It was a rout of the enemy. When it started getting dark, Williams could tell the enemy was ready to give up. He ordered his boats’ search lights turned on, despite the added attention it drew to him.
“I know people have questioned my judgment many times since then and probably always will, asking why did I turn on the search light,” he said.
“It was obvious they were whipped, giving up, throwing their arms down. We didn’t lose a man. That’s saying something. We had some wounds, but nothing serious.”
Williams received shrapnel wounds in his shoulder, chest, side and head.
When he returned home a year later, Purple Heart in one hand, the Navy Cross, two Silver Stars and three Bronze Stars in the other, Williams was asked to remain in the Navy. He was promised a promotion to chief.
But he had accepted a job with the U.S. Marshal’s office in South Carolina. He retired from that second career in 1983 after taking over all field activities in the nation.
Besides, he wanted to go home to his wife and family. He has been married nearly 48 years, has five children and eight grandchildren.
The Navy made Williams an honorary chief in the 1970s, he said. Made him go through the traditional initiation and all.
As for the Medal of Honor – the nation’s highest military award for bravery – Williams said he was stunned when he learned it was to be presented to him two years after he retired from the Navy.
“I was just doing a job to the best of my ability. I wasn’t out there trying to win medals. Events just happened.
The 105 and the crew, we were always into something or other. We weren’t looking for it.”
Photo – HUY NGUYEN/The Virginian-Pilot James Elliott Williams
Graphic THE NAVY THIS WEEK [For complete graphic, please see microfilm]
END OF CAPTIONS
(U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Keia Randall/Released)
VIRGINIA BEACH (NNS) — Service members and guests paid tribute to the service and sacrifice of Vietnam War veterans during the National Vietnam War Veterans Recognition Day commemoration at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story (JEBLC).
Read more at: https://www.navy.mil/submit/display.asp?story_id=109117
For more information about National Vietnam War Veterans Recognition Day and the Vietnam War visit http://www.history.navy.mil/browse-by-topic/commemorations-toolkits/Vietnam-War-Veterans-Day.html
Way back in the late 1990’s, when I was out in Long Beach, California , I stumbled across this “Uniflite Corsair” in the guise of a Harbor Patrol Boat. This of course is a civilianized-Hard Top PBR .
After a lengthy conversation about the PBR with the officers in charge, I did get invited for a ride , which I eagerly took. 🙂
Sea Tigers Association – a publication of the US Army 458th Trans. Co (PBR): http://www.458thseatigers.org/pdf/Riv-Ron_4.pdf
Slideshow from Michael Hebert,”Riverine Reporter” for the U.S. Army’s 458th Transportation co., (PBR) Vietnam Veterans Assoc., and Owner/Operator of the “Miss Hampton II” tour boat in Hampton, VA:
See All Pics: https://photos.app.goo.gl/zaNNrzIPnUXO0pLp2
Pics of restoration of PBR 721, taken by a U.S. Navy SEAL, who was at the boat yard where I was working on restoring my boat. Navy SEAL then gave pics to the U.S. Navy SEAL Museum in Fort Pierce, Florida. Photos are now part of https://www.navysealmuseum.org.
Visit the U.S. Navy SEAL Museum for more information.
(Click any image below to view details)
ELIZABETH CITY, N.C.
Bill Ferguson steered a Vietnam War riverboat up the Pasquotank River.
The scene was strikingly similar to his experience nearly 50 years ago when he went around the Mekong Delta searching for the enemy.
Only instead of dodging bullets or fretting about what waited around the next bend, Ferguson, 74, casually took in the setting. (Read More…)
Today marks a small historical event not seen in some time here on the East Coast, when there will be two (2) PBR’s on the same river! 🙂 Dave Pizzoferrato is trailering his PBR 6927 down here from Richmond, Ohio to the Pelican Marina here in Elizabeth City, NC today, to join up with PBR 721 on the Pasquotank River.
Monday we will be taking both boats from Elizabeth City, NC. up through the Dismal swamp canal to the Elizabeth river, then past the Portsmouth Naval shipyard and the Norfolk Naval base, to the Crown Plaza hotel in Hampton, Virginia for our Joint US Army and US Navy, PBR combat crewman reunion!
Dave and I have been working on the event for over a year, not only for the reunion , but to get our two PBR’s in the water on the same river! I hope we will get some good pictures of the event to pass on to you all, next weekend perhaps!
For those who haven’t seen the two articles written by Marsha Brown in the Gig-Line, printed in “The Coastland Times”, out of Kill Devil Hills and Manteo, North Carolina, about PBR 721. Here is a reporter who gets it, and has expressed herself in a very powerful way to promote PBR’s in a very positive way! I hope you enjoy the read!
171st GIG LINE – Sunday, 8-23-15 (Dreams Matter)
By Marsha M. Brown
Life is busy! Even with all the time saving conveniences afforded us, we still struggle to make the hours in a day count so that come sundown we can sit back, take a deep breath and know it was productive. But even if the items on our work and personal ‘check list’ are processed/completed, what about our ‘dream’ list? Do you have a dream? Is there at least one special thing we’ve always wanted to do but we just haven’t had or taken the time to do it? If not, why not? What are we waiting for?
Last week on the way home from a doctor’s appointment just outside Elizabeth City on the Camden Causeway, our grandson Ben noticed a boat docked at the PELICAN (Marina). There were quite a few boats there that day but none were quite like this one. It was special…it was unique…it was historical…it stood out like a diamond in the rough…it was a magnet to history buffs. Ben asked, “Pappy, is that a 50 cal?” which Pappy replied “Yep Ben, it sure is…how ’bout that?” At the time I was driving and with cars behind me, we couldn’t just stop to stare. Being just beyond the entrance to the Marina, Billy asked me to turn around and go back. When we did, the up close and personal sight was awesome and the look on both of their faces was priceless…they were looking at a ‘PBR’…in essence…a River Patrol Boat.
I looked at Billy and his eyes were fixed…as a Vietnam veteran the sight before him was striking…a flood of remembrance, appreciation for the weapon itself and of those who operated it…a meaningful mass of metal valued much like the Huey Cobra…the figure resonated…it recalled defense, protection and a chance to come home. In a few words, Billy attempted to explain (to me) that “the PBR was an awesome war weapon…an awesome piece of machinery” he said. Our 12-year-old grandson who’s all about the military, the Civil War and everything historical (written about in GIG LINE) already knew what the term ‘PBR’ meant. I didn’t know the term itself but I recognized the boat immediately for its use in the Vietnam War; the vessel – a predominant figure known for its speed, maneuverability, security and resistance to the enemy. I had seen it on news accounts, in military books and in magazines and I knew it was a critical piece.
About that time I asked a man walking by if he was the owner who told us that he wasn’t but that he knew the owner whose name was ‘Dennis’. When I told him that Billy was a Vietnam veteran and that it would be really nice to meet the man who had preserved such a piece of history, he offered to go see if he could locate him. When he returned saying that Dennis had already left for the day, Billy suggested to Ben to go up on the dock beside it so he could take a picture with his cell phone. The next thing I knew Billy wason the dock too looking inside the PBR next to our grandson. That moment…is one I won’t forget. You see, Billy never bombards Ben with information about Vietnam but he does answer Ben’s questions as honestly and as gingerly as possible. He wants him to understand but not go overboard with intense details for obvious reasons but Ben’s interest in veterans, their service in general and his thirst for knowledge about his ‘Pappy’ and what he experienced while serving means a lot to Billy. Will Ben always maintain that hunger to learn more? I don’t know but for this time in his life his showing to my husband and to all vets who read GIG LINE that history matters; that men and women in uniform are critically important to our past and our future…and that they are all heroes and NOT to be forgotten.
That afternoon we weren’t able to meet ‘Dennis’ but we were able to get ‘A SHORT HISTORY OF THE PBR’ paper that was provided for onlookers. After we got home we emailed Dennis Ambruso (owner) who called us back and at that point we had a lengthy chat with him. At the end of the phone call he invited Billy to come back (with Ben & our son Bill) so he could take them out for a ride on the river. Oh my! Oh my! Oh my! That…my friends will be an experience of a lifetime and I can’t wait to write about it next week! It was great talking with Dennis who seemed especially nice, determined and committed obviously to a dream that he saw to fruition. Hearing his story struck you especially knowing he was a Vietnam veteran and that the project took years to complete…the time and financial sacrifices he made…the devotion of his friends who helped him see it through were nothing short of touching…and the thought that other Vietnam vets will have a chance to see a masterful piece of history, preserved for future generations is a blessing. Dennis did this for Dennis…it was his dream and his heart’s desire but perhaps he didn’t realize at the onset of his project…or maybe he did…that families like ours will embrace his dream because it’s personal to veterans like my husband and our grandson. Dennis would like others to see his masterpiece if they want to and are up for it so, the next time you’re in Camden, please stop by and see it. Thank you Dennis Ambruso…thank you for all you went through to re-create this PBR…your PBR for yourself and for those like us who appreciate its extraordinary value. If you’re interested in learning more, Dennis invites you to visit his web site: www.pbr721.com. His story will inspire you, make you laugh and make you proud that a veteran cared to protect and defend the demise of a historical PBR for future reference. Next week after the boys have had a chance to meet and actually ride in it (good Lord willing), I’ll share their thoughts…and mine too of course. Also, I’ll write about special events coming up over the following months to acknowledge, celebrate and honor our veterans so you can save those dates!
We couldn’t be happier serving on the Dare County Veterans Advisory Council which has made great strides reaching out to our vets. Our seven Council members are working daily to reach out to our veterans and it shows! We now have close to 400 Dare County Veteran ID Cards issued to veterans who can appreciate savings at nearly 50 local businesses; we have initiated interest across not only Dare County but with other counties near and far inspired by the work we’ve done and while we can only share some of the things we do due to the privacy factor – we are proud and grateful for the overall boost in veteran interest and the positive feedback we have gotten from the public! Last week when Billy attended a V.F.W. District 1 meeting out of town, he presented information on what our Council had been doing since its inception and how other counties should consider establishing a council or committee etc. if they hadn’t already to reach out and provide similar help and services to their veterans as well. Following his ‘talk’ several fellow vets approached Billy and clearly indicated they were inspired to grow their outreach potential. That’s GREAT!
God bless all of you who not only say you support veterans but show it in many different ways. You are all GOLDEN! Until next time, thank you all for reading GIG LINE. Be happy, be safe and be proud of our veterans and their families! Please support those who volunteer on behalf of veterans everywhere and if you have a question, please write to firstname.lastname@example.org or call us. Billy’s cell: (252) 202-0798 or mine: (252) 202-2058. God bless you all and stay tuned!
Gig-Line Follow Up
By Marsha M. Brown
‘Veterans Always & Forever’
If you read GIG LINE last week, you heard the story about a dedicated U. S. Navy veteran whose name is Dennis Ambruso. He is the awesome gentleman who had a dream, made a plan and saw it through realizing his hearts desire in tangible form – restoration of his very own PBR721 (river boat) formerly used to combat the evil in Vietnam.
Until last weekend I had only spoken to Dennis over the phone following an email I had sent him about the interest Billy and our grandson Ben had after seeing his PBR721 and to thank him for what he had done…preserving an instrument of history. If you remember from my last GIG LINE, Dennis had called us last Tuesday night at which time he kindly extended an invitation to take a boat ride with him which Billy and our
Between that call and last Sunday Ben could hardly wait. He grinned from ear to ear researching everything he could find about PBR (river boats) through the Internet; in books and magazines and every publication he could get his hands on. He talked to his Pappy about the vessel; he talked to his friend Sam about them…he could hardly wait…Ben’s anticipation about meeting Dennis and taking that special ‘guy day’ trip with his Pappy consumed him. His genuine enthusiasm reminded me of the popular holiday classic movie “A Christmas Story” about little ‘Ralphie’ (played by Peter Billingsley) who simply couldn’t wait to see if Santa had brought him his much anticipated “Red Ryder Carbine Action 200 shot Range Model Air Rifle”…remember? (our whole family loves that movie!) Anyway…Ben was so cute…he asked me if it would be O.K. if he wore his U.S. Army outfit that he had pieced together one item at a time from military surplus stores, thrift stores and private donations and I said, “Of course Ben! Mr. Dennis might get a kick out of seeing such military pride in a 12 year old!” So…come Sunday morning Ben was rearing to go…all decked out in full gear…including his olive green helmet. He was ready to meet another ‘hero’ and to rock n’ roll and before Billy could get to Wanchese to pick him up, I’ll bet he called or text’d us at least five times to make sure they would be on time to meet “Mr. Dennis”.
Yes, I had planned to be there too…I really wanted to be and to witness their reaction to actually riding in Dennis’ river boat but sometimes guys just don’t need women around…they want to do their ‘guy thing’ and I wanted that memorable event to be just for the two of them…so, I took the opportunity to enjoy special time with my granddaughter Elizabeth – nickname ‘Bay’ before school started. However, trust me when I say…I might as well have been there because I got a minute by minute account and by the end of the day I felt as if I had been right there!
The guy’s arrival at the PELICAN marina on the outskirts of Elizabeth City was a great start. Meeting Dennis alone they felt was a reward all in itself…not to mention actually seeing and riding in his PBR721. My fella’s impression of Dennis was clear…that he was a devoted and dedicated veteran always and forever.
‘Mr. Dennis’ explained in full detail the features of his river boat to the guys; he was a nice man they both said, who appreciated others love of military history; he was proud of his vessel and of what he had accomplished and of being able to show others what very brave and committed men used to carry out missions long ago.
A few people who are anti-gun may not see the glory in this story about ‘Mr. Dennis’ and his preservation of his PBR and some may even look at his PBR721 as a killing machine. But let me tell you my impression of it…my impression is that it was mighty…it was hard core…it was a mechanism of defense and a mechanism to save lives as much as it I’m not a proponent of destruction…but I AM a proponent of anything and everything that will protect, defend and bring home our military men and women; I AM a proponent of politicians, lawmakers, leaders and clergy when they support our fighting men and women wholeheartedly and beyond that…I thank God that He gave an abundance of courage to the soldiers, seamen and airmen, that have had the task of using weapons whenever necessary in order to protect our American troops…wherever they might be no matter what got them there. Furthermore it hurts me to hear that some people nowadays back down easily to pressure to dismantle our symbols of patriotism, love of country and respect for our military. Personally I don’t give a hoot nor a holler about a worry that a red, white and blue American flag will “offend” someone and to the folks who whine and bellyache because they are so accommodating to those who don’t wish to support our standards or our symbols…our history and our American way of life…I say this…put your big boy and big girl panties on and get a grip! We cannot afford to be passive…no matter our political preference…we cannot afford to keep letting things slide into oblivion or the abyss…as Americans we stand for justice and peace and honor and anyone who can’t deal with it…oh well! I’m sorry for you and I pray for you. I pray that you will set aside your nit picking and move on toward something positive like protecting our symbols of “…life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” [for all]. Life is too short not to do our best to embrace it, preserve it and defend it. To do otherwise is lame…lame I said.
So…its true…I didn’t make the trip to ‘Mr. Dennis’ PBR721 but I will make every effort to see him soon, hug his neck, thank him for his service to our country having served in our outstanding U. S. Navy and I will further encourage him to take on another dream be if for restoration of a helicopter…a Huey maybe? (Billy said he’s thinking about it). My hat is off to Dennis for his tenacity and his ‘go-getter’ spirit and attitude and to all veterans especially the older ones…just remember…if you’re reading this…no matter what…you’re still upright and vertical 🙂 and much like cheese and wine…the older you get…the better you become! God bless our military men and women all over our nation.
Thank you all for all you have done and continue to do to keep us safe. We love you and appreciate you more than you may ever know!
If you have a question or comment please call us: Billy’s cell: (252) 202-0798 and mine (252) 202-2058 or write to me at email@example.com Remember Dare County Administrative Bldg. (Manteo) Rm. 142 each Monday between 10:00 AM -1:00 PM for walk in access to acquire your Dare County Veteran I.D. Card, just bring your DD-214 showing ‘Honorable Discharge’ (only for our review – you do not have to leave it with us nor bring your original – a simple copy will do and also please bring your local Driver’s License). There is no charge for the ‘Card’ and once you receive it as a Dare County veteran; you will be entitled to discounts at 50 businesses or more on the Outer Banks. (Special note: Dare County offices will be closed Monday, September 7th).
Until next time…be happy…be safe and be proud of yourselves (as veterans) and be proud of people like Dennis and Billy and Ben. They love our country and if you can find a way…as a veteran or not…please show how much you love it too!
Next week’s GIG LINE will be ‘loaded for bear’ about the upcoming event on Hatteras Island that veterans Pete Groom, Frank Miller and other island vets are working on together through the Hatteras Island Veterans Support Group. I will include a personal message from Pete’s lips to your ears too, so don’t miss it! I’ll also talk about the very special September 11th event planned for in Nags Head (on 9/11) and a host of other matters of great importance to be held in our veterans honor! Until then, God bless you & God bless our country so by all means stay tuned!