Coast Guard Bronze Star recipient inducted into Hall of Fame
New London — The mayday call came over the radio on the night of Feb. 23, 1969, alerting 25-year-old Kent Williams and his crew that a U.S. naval gunfire liaison unit was under attack by more than 100 North Vietnamese soldiers, and was in danger of being overrun.
The Coast Guard crew sailed in on its 82-foot patrol boat until the group was 50 yards off the shore, and started shooting .50-caliber machine guns. Thirty minutes in, they started receiving rocket fire from the enemy.
"Your choice is fight or flight. Do I stay here? Or do I pull back off 500 yards where the rockets can't get me? But I can't do a whole lot for those guys on the beach," said Williams, 74, now a retired vice admiral. "Once you buy into the mission that you're there to support them, to protect them, you're not going off the beach."
Williams was one of four Coast Guard Academy graduates to be inducted into the school's Hall of Fame Thursday evening. The others, inducted posthumously, were Vice Adm. Thomas R. Sargent '38, Capt. John M. Austin '45, and Adm. John B. Hayes '46.
For four hours, Williams and his crew of 14 men exchanged fire with the enemy, virtually exhausting their ammunition supply. About 3 a.m., Feb. 24, it was announced that the enemy had been stopped. They were going back to North Vietnam.
The naval unit was safe.
Williams' crew did not suffer any injuries, and the boat was miraculously undamaged. He was awarded the Bronze Star with Combat "V" device, and was cited for outstanding leadership and courage under fire. Williams and his crew, whom he called heroes, never assumed they would receive any recognition from that night; they were just doing their job, he said.
"You don't do it for any medal," said Williams, dressed in a suit, during a brief interview at the academy before being inducted into the hall of fame. His friend and classmate, William Carr, a 2015 Hall of Fame inductee, sat next to him, filming the interview on his phone.
"Friends for 50-plus years to share in this moment with me as well as my family who supported me through roughly 24 moves in 32 years," said Williams, who lives in San Antonio, Texas.
Williams commanded the Point Young for only one month, taking over in the interim for the previous commanding officer until his replacement arrived.
During the year that he served in Vietnam, Williams patrolled in three different patrol boats, including the Point Young.
"Yeah, I couldn't keep a job," he joked while seated in a room adjacent to where a plaque, honoring his 32-year service, now hangs on the wall in Chase Hall on the academy's grounds.
The picture on the plaque is of a much younger Williams, and he joked that it must be his stunt double.
Later Thursday, during the induction ceremony, Williams addressed cadets, telling them that "it's the devotion to duty that drives you."
"Completing the mission successfully and bringing everyone home safely, that's what you're about," he said.
On Saturday, the academy will honor 31 Coast Guard Vietnam veterans, including New London native Merle Smith, for their service at halftime of the Secretaries Cup football game against the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy.
The vets will receive a Vietnam Veteran Lapel pin and be congratulated by Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft, academy Superintendent Rear Adm. James Rendon, and Director of Athletics Tim Fitzpatrick.
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