Gary Alan Williams
Lieutenant – U.S. Navy, USS Shangri-La (CVA-38),
USS Robert H. McCard (DD-822) & USS Vigor (MOS-473)
Vietnam War (1965-1969)
Gary Alan Williams always rallied to the task. It seems like there wasn’t a disaster he couldn’t manage. He was born on August 23rd 1943 in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. His parents owned and managed a greenhouse and florist shop. Perhaps growing up and watching his parents demonstrate the multiple skills it took to run a successful business helped prepare him for what lay ahead in his career in the Navy. Influenced by his father, who was a bombardier in the 8th Air Force during World War II, he joined the ROTC while attending Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
Williams had four years of ROTC training consisting of a demanding engineering course curriculum, ROTC classes, weekly drills and summer midshipmen cruises. These cruises included amphibious training in Little Creek, Virginia, flight indoctrination training in Corpus Christi, Texas and duty aboard the USS Wasp in the Caribbean. Immediately after college graduation, he was off to his first assignment. He was deployed to the Mediterranean Sea on the aircraft carrier, USS Shangri-La operating with the Sixth Fleet.
He reported to the ship’s administrative officer on July 1, 1965. He was going to be sent to the 2nd division in the weapons department, but boldly asked if he could go to engineering where he could utilize his degree. The officer shuffled some papers around and concluded that the engineering department was the best place for him. At that time, the USS Shangri-La was off the coast of Cannes on the French Riviera. Forty-eight hours after he arrived, he recalls, “I reported aboard, and a kid from R Division went down in the number 3 fire room and was supposed to be pumping out salt water from a void space. Instead he proceeded to pump 3,000 gallons of black fuel oil over the side. Keep in mind that we were anchored out right off the main beach on the French Riviera in the middle of tourist season.” He thought to himself that this had the markings of an international incident. The media coverage was exploding, and the mayor of Cannes was sending the chief of police to arrest the captain. The next morning, Williams was sent as the officer in charge of one hundred men to relieve the crew that was cleaning the beach all night under lights. It took them three days to clean up all the oil and bury it on both ends of the beach between two jetties. At one point, a man with a huge camera came up to him and asked if he was in charge, and if he could get seven to eight men around the hole to take a picture. He then called a few men over and made them look productive, and the man snapped ten to twelve pictures. The next day this picture appeared on the front page of the New York Times. As the ship left, the chief engineer thought some oil might have collected around the hull. He sent Williams in a utility boat to make sure there was no residue. Williams recalls, “We had a chemical that we were spraying on the oil that was floating, and we had this carbonized sand that would adhere to the oil and sink it to the bottom, so the boat had a bunch of that aboard. I was in this utility boat circling the ship as the ship got underway to make sure there wasn’t any residue there that got left behind. That was the last aircraft carrier ever allowed into that port, because of that incident.’”
Five weeks later, a disoriented destroyer struck the USS Shangri-La. He recalls, “That particular night I ….was scheduled to go on watch at four o’clock in the morning, so I hit the rack early, and at 1:13 in the morning, the general alarm sounded, and we went to general quarters; I was in the repair two locker, and this impact took place about fifty feet from where I was assigned. So, we were overseeing the flooding that was taking place and the damage control that needed to be done.” The entire bow of the destroyer that hit them was ripped off. A couple of chiefs died, and several people were severely injured. The destroyer had to back down all the way to Naples for repairs. The USS Shangri-La returned to homeport. The night before their arrival, the captain had a huge flesh colored ‘Band-Aid’ painted on the side repaired, so that when they pulled into port in Florida, all of the crew’s family members on the pier saw this huge Band-Aid.
After returning from this deployment, the USS Shangri-La was sent to the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard for a seven-month overhaul. The ship and Williams were then deployed to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba for refresher training. After the training they returned to Florida, and then the USS Shangri-La was deployed back to the Mediterranean. During this deployment, Williams was assigned to the Auxiliaries Division of the Engineering department, which was made up of six work crews of 120 enlisted men. Williams was initially responsible for three of the crews hydraulic systems, liquid nitrogen and oxygen generating plants, and air conditioning and refrigeration systems. Within a year, he was also put in charge of the machine shop, the ship’s compressed air systems and all diesel engines on board.
His living conditions, he states were, in his opinion, amusing on the carrier. He was in the Junior Officers’ Bunkroom with fifteen other men; everyone had a bunk bed and a desk. It was an interesting time, and the food was good. For entertainment, he started an ice cream eating contest whenever ice cream was on the wardroom menu. He fondly remembers, “I happened to be the champion ice cream eater on that ship, having eaten six ice creams in one sitting.” But one night, during the second sitting, the Executive Officer said to the Supply Officer, who was a commander, ‘hey, how come it says on the menu that we’re having ice cream, and they’re serving us fruit cocktails for dessert?’ and the steward said to him, ‘Oh sir, the alligators (referring to Williams’ Ensign table) eat all the ice cream, big contest down there, Mr. Williams, he ate six. Mr. Jess, he ate five.’ So from that point on, there were no more ice cream eating contests. We were limited to only one portion.”
There were always plenty of supplies on the carrier. However, he recalls one time, during his second Mediterranean cruise he was sailing near the Greek Islands. They received a mayday call from a Greek ferry. Unfortunately, the ferry actually sunk. He recalls, “We got on the scene at daybreak, after steaming all night at flank speed, hoping to recover some survivors. But, as it turned out, all we recovered were some bodies because everybody was lost.” They did, however, recover a floating delivery truck, and as they were just about to sink it, because it was a hazard to navigation, he remembers, “Our ship was getting ready to fire the five inch guns… to sink this truck, and the commissary officer came up with the idea that maybe we should send somebody over there to see what was aboard this truck before we sank it, so the ship’s diver got in a Zodiac and went out there and opened up this door to this thing and sure enough, it was all fresh fruits and vegetables. We were short of grapefruits and oranges after we had been at sea for about 10 days. So all these boxes were offloaded into the Zodiac, brought back to the ship, and then the gun fire sank the thing, and we went on our way.”
Williams’ next assignment was on a destroyer, the USS Robert H. MacCard out of Charleston, South Carolina. It was part of Destroyer Squadron Eight, which was deployed, through the Panama Canal to the combat zone in the Tonkin Gulf. He was sent there to serve as the main propulsion assistant in the engineering department. However, once he arrived, the captain called him to his cabin. He explained to him that even though he was sent there as the main propulsion assistant, he had assigned an Academy graduate to that job about two weeks before. He said he was impressed with Williams’ record and needed him to replace the communications officer who was unable to handle the job. The captain further explained that he didn’t have time to send him to Newport to be trained, but in turn, would send him across the road to the fleet training center to learn how to be a communications officer. Williams, always up for a challenge, embarked on a new direction in the Navy. He states, “So, I quickly became the ship’s Communications, Crypto and Registered Publications Officer and began dealing with the challenges of running the communications division. I also soon qualified as officer of the deck underway and became the general quarters, special sea and anchor detail, refueling and replenishing, and Naval gun fire support OOD.”
He recalls his most frightening time was when his ship, the USS McCard, was operating on the gun line in the Tonkin Gulf. They started receiving counter battery fire with rounds splashing down between the cruiser, Newport News, and his ship. Fortunately both ships cleared the area before either was hit. During this deployment, he received a Vietnam Service medal with three bronze clusters, the Republic of Vietnam campaign medal, and the Navy and Marine Corps achievement medal with combat V designator.
Williams was promoted to lieutenant and became the executive officer, second in command, of USS Vigor, MSO 473, an ocean minesweeper. His duties included, ship’s administrative officer, navigator, and senior watch officer in charge of assigning watch-standing duties. He picked up the ship at the tail end of an overhaul at the Avondale Shipyard outside of New Orleans. The USS Vigor spent time in Panama City, Florida, Charleston, South Carolina and was then deployed to the Mediterranean for six-months to demonstrate a new mine hunting sonar system for the Spanish and Italian Navies.
Soon it was 1969; Williams had spent four years in ROTC and four years on active duty. However, the US was ending its involvement in the Vietnam War and did not want to spend the money or the time training new officers, so Williams’s tour was extended involuntarily for a year, which turned out to be only another six months before he was discharged.
After he was discharged, Williams received an MBA from Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Upon graduating, he accepted a marketing consultant position with Cummins Engine Company in San Francisco. During this time, he also took courses and became licensed as a real estate broker. He spent the next thirty-five years as a commercial real-estate broker. His hobbies today are playing the trombone and ice hockey.
Williams looks back at his military service as a challenging time with opportunities to succeed, given the interesting and complex situations he had to overcome. He states, “I wouldn’t exchange those four and a half years of experience for anything, I mean it was a really valuable part of my life.” Looking back, he feels sad that the Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, later admitted that early on in the war, at around fifteen to eighteen thousand U.S military deaths, he concluded that the Vietnam War was unwinnable, but continued on. Ultimately, a little over three times that number of U.S. military personnel died, and for that, Williams is very sad.
Interview by Peter Jake Daniels on June 25, 2014.