A Life of Valor: The Navy’s Most Decorated Enlisted Sailor

by Tricia Menke, NMAS Curator of Education

The stories of sailors from the American Revolution to today consistently highlight the  Navy’s core values of honor, courage, and commitment. in the s. Yet perhaps no sailor embodies these ideals more fully than Boatswain’s Mate First Class James Elliot “Willie” Williams. Over the course of Williams’ almost twenty-year career, he continuously demonstrated the leadership and dedication necessary to become the most decorated enlisted sailor in Navy history.

BM1 Williams in Vietnam, circa 1966. Image courtesy of U.S. Navy.

Humble Beginnings

Williams, a Native American Cherokee from South Carolina, did not set out win accolades when he joined the Navy in 1947. He saw the Navy as an opportunity to serve his country and see the world. So at the young age of sixteen, Williams convinced the local county clerk to alter his birth certificate so he could enter the Navy underage. He later said, “I thought there was nothing better than servin’ my country and gettin’ paid for it.”[1] Despite Williams’ excitement upon joining the Navy and completing basic training at Idaho’s Farragut Naval Training Station, he was disappointed with his first at sea assignment. Although his first deployment  lacked excitement, he learned valuable lessons about discipline and leadership. These are lessons he would carry throughout his Navy career and guided his actions in Korea and Vietnam.

The Medal of Honor

By 1966, Williams was in Vietnam in command of a river patrol boat. It was a position in which Williams thrived.. “I looked at it as an opportunity to do something better. So did all the others. That was why the PBR [Patrol Boat, Riverine] was so successful in Vietnam. The men were so proud.” On October 31 of that year, Williams’ PBR 105, along with another patrol boat, suddenly found themselves under fire from two enemy sampans. Williams’ courage, heroism, and leadership that ensued over the next three hours inspired his men to continue fighting against a numerically superior enemy. His bravery and courage resulted in the destruction of the enemy’s forces, and protected the lives of his own men. For his actions, BM1 Williams received the Congressional Medal of Honor. 

President Lyndon B. Johnson presents the Medal of Honor to BM1 James E. Williams on May 14, 1968. Image courtesy of the Naval History and Heritage Command.

Team Player

The Medal of Honor may be Williams’ most renowned award, but it is far from the only citation he received. In 1966 alone, he earned two Bronze Stars, a Silver Star, a Purple Heart, and the Medal of Honor. By the end of his Navy career in 1968, Williams had racked up several additional awards including the Navy Cross. He is one of just seven individuals in Navy history to receive all of the ‘Big Three’ valor awards: Medal of Honor, Navy Cross, and the Silver Star. But despite all of this recognition, Williams remained modest about his individual accomplishments, creating the team instead of himself. “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. You’ve got to think — team. It takes a team to win any battle, not an individual.”

Williams retired from the Navy in 1968 to spend more time with his family and begin a new career with the U.S. Marshals Service. Williams died, fittingly, on the Navy’s birthday, October 13 in 1999. Four years later, his widow attended the christening of USS James E. Williams (DDG 95). Boatswain’s Mate First Class James Elliot Williams’ Navy career  demonstrates the core values of what it means to be a sailor. He put his team and his country ahead of his own safety. It is a model of true heroism that all Americans can admire. 


  1. Jack Dorsey, “Honoring a Legend: The Story of the Most Decorated Enlisted Sailor in Navy History,” The Virginian-Pilot. July 17, 1997.
  2. Patricia Oladeinde, “Riverboat Gambler,” All Hands Magazine, July 1998.

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