James E. Williams

James E Williams

In between working on another post, which may take a few days, I was watching a program on Amazon Prime involving that famous trio, Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond, and James May.

Except this wasn’t the Grand Tour but a boat trip through Cambodia and the Mekong Delta of Vietnam. It was a pretty interesting program, with the usual silly assortment of vehicles.

Richard Hammond had a cigarette boat,  bringing one back to drug smugglers and Miami Vice. James May had an old wooden cabin cruiser.

Clarkson had the only boat really suited for the journey. Since no Vietnam-era PBR boats remained, he had one made in New Zealand.

They had a shallow draft and were jet propelled, as not to get any prop entangled or damaged by shallow water.

These were really something I think unique to Vietnam – trained by the Army, manned by Navy personnel, they were armed with .50 caliber machine guns and, as Clarkson said, “whatever the captain wanted”, from mortars to 20 mm cannons…

If you saw the movie Apocalypse Now, you’ve seen the boat and its mission.  These personnel and boats were known as the “Brown Water Navy“. I knew someone who was a captain of one of these boats.

Anyway, during a segment on the Mekong Delta, Clarkson (wearing a Che Guevara Tee Shirt – what’s with that?) –  was talking about the Brown Water Navy and one James E. Williams.

What Clarkson said Williams did to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor and what the citation reads is a bit different, but it is still amazing.

From the citation:

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty. PO1c. Williams was serving as Boat Captain and Patrol Officer aboard River Patrol Boat (PBR) 105 accompanied by another patrol boat when the patrol was suddenly taken under fire by 2 enemy sampans. PO1c. Williams immediately ordered the fire returned, killing the crew of 1 enemy boat and causing the other sampan to take refuge in a nearby river inlet. Pursuing the fleeing sampan, the U.S. patrol encountered a heavy volume of small-arms fire from enemy forces, at close range, occupying well-concealed positions along the river bank. Maneuvering through this fire, the patrol confronted a numerically superior enemy force aboard 2 enemy junks and 8 sampans augmented by heavy automatic weapons fire from ashore. In the savage battle that ensued, PO1c. Williams, with utter disregard for his safety exposed himself to the withering hail of enemy fire to direct counter-fire and inspire the actions of his patrol. Recognizing the overwhelming strength of the enemy force, PO1c. Williams deployed his patrol to await the arrival of armed helicopters. In the course of his movement his discovered an even larger concentration of enemy boats. Not waiting for the arrival of the armed helicopters, he displayed great initiative and boldly led the patrol through the intense enemy fire and damaged or destroyed 50 enemy sampans and 7 junks. This phase of the action completed, and with the arrival of the armed helicopters, PO1c. Williams directed the attack on the remaining enemy force. Now virtually dark, and although PO1c. Williams was aware that his boats would become even better targets, he ordered the patrol boats’ search lights turned on to better illuminate the area and moved the patrol perilously close to shore to press the attack. Despite a waning supply of ammunition the patrol successfully engaged the enemy ashore and completed the rout of the enemy force. Under the leadership of PO 1 c. Williams, who demonstrated unusual professional skill and indomitable courage throughout the 3 hour battle, the patrol accounted for the destruction or loss of 65 enemy boats and inflicted numerous casualties on the enemy personnel. 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 U.S. Naval Service.

Perhaps Clarkson was simply elaborating, but he said that Williams, seeing the 8 enemy sampans around the corner firing at him, ordered “full speed ahead” and between the .50 calibers and ramming them, destroyed all 8. In so doing, after the first run, he turned around and rammed or otherwise destroyed the rest. Between these and the helicopter gunships called in with Viet Cong firing at him from the shore, over 1,000 Viet Cong were killed.

Williams repeatedly led the PBRs against concentrations of enemy junks and sampans. He also called for support from the heavily armed UH-1B Huey helicopters of HA(L)-3. When that help arrived, he kicked off another attack in the failing light. As a result of the three-hour battle, the U.S. naval force killed 1,000 Viet Cong guerrillas, destroyed over fifty vessels, and disrupted a major enemy logistic operation. For his actions on that date he was awarded the Medal of Honor.

And as Clarkson said, most of these PBRs were crewed by teenagers. Going up the river waiting for shots fired.

I am “assuming” Clarkson’s account is true, but you see the citation.


01/11/20 0103: In going through the links, one from Wikipedia which I kept was HA(L)-3. I had “assumed” that these were either Army or Marine Hueys, but they were from another little known Navy group – a group of volunteers manning Hueys – the Seawolves – in support of Naval Special Warfare operations and Mobile Riverine Forces.


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Filed under Heroes Among Us, History, Naval History, Navy, Vietnam

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