Reference Entry

Williams, Melvin, Jr. (born 1955), Naval Officer (18661995)

Glenn Allen Knoblock

in African American National Biography

Published in print January 2006 | ISBN: 9780195301731
Williams, Melvin, Jr. (born 1955), Naval Officer (18661995)

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United States naval officer, was born in San Diego, California, the son of Melvin G. Williams Sr. and Dora (Ruth) Williams. Williams's father served in the navy as an enlisted man and had an outstanding career, retiring as a master chief petty officer in 1978. Because he was “exposed to the navy,” Williams also contemplated a navy career. “The thing that got my attention was my father's sea stories, mostly positive. I recall hearing my father and his friends laugh and I thought that this was something that sounds fun. As I got older I knew that I wanted to serve our country, and the navy became my first choice” (Telephone interview, 14 March 2007). His decision to join the navy was strengthened by the family's move to Suitland, Maryland, in 1968, where he worked as a newsboy for the Washington Post and “received an education” by reading the headlines and discussing the events of that historic year with his parents. The importance of service and the understanding of national issues were thereby reinforced. His exposure to the navy was heightened when he got a job as a busboy at the Officers' Club at the Washington Navy Yard. Williams subsequently applied to the Naval Academy, but was not at first accepted. He then enlisted into the Navy Reserves in June 1973 and attended the U.S. Naval Academy Preparatory School for a year before going on to the Naval Academy in 1974.At the Naval Academy, things went well for Williams. As he recalled, “everyone was challenged, and with the increase in minority enrollment I had only positive race-related experiences.” Williams gained further confidence and exposure to the navy way of life by attending the traditional Army-Navy football game and occasionally visiting the Pentagon where his father worked in the Flag Mess. Working toward a BS in Mathematics, Williams also had to decide on his career specialty, a decision influenced by his Naval Academy company officer, Lieutenant Commander Jim Brown, “a surface nuclear qualified officer who saw something in me and gave me an opportunity to consider a career in nuclear power.” Because he had “experience watching his father serve in the challenging submarine community,” Williams decided to choose nuclear-powered submarines because he felt that it presented him with the most challenging career opportunity.Upon graduation with the class of 1978, which also included future notable Cecil Haney, Williams attended nuclear power school and prototype training before attending submarine school in Connecticut. He married Donna Freeland, his high school sweetheart, following graduation from the Academy; the couple would have one son, Melvin III, in 1979. Williams saw his first submarine duty when he served on the fast-attack submarine USS Jack as a division officer from 1980 to 1982, making two deployments and performing damage control and main propulsion systems duties. In this tour he “learned a lot about what was required of a submarine officer.” From 1982 to 1984 Williams served as a joint service cruise missile (Tomahawk) project officer at the Defense Mapping Agency in Washington, D.C., and earned a master's degree at Catholic University in Engineering in 1984. His service as project officer proved valuable in his future submarine duties.Williams next served on the missile submarine USS Woodrow Wilson (Gold crew; all missile submarines have two crews and two captains, each referred to as the Blue or the Gold, so that the boat may remain constantly deployed—while one crew is at sea, the other is ashore for rest and training) from 1984 to 1987 as engineer officer. As he recalled, this “was a very large increase in responsibility because about 60 percent of the crew were under the engineers' watch…. It was exciting, challenging, and I made mistakes, but it helped me in my leadership development.” Missile submarines are assigned set patrol routes, so that the missiles they carry remain within range of certain enemy targets. Because the enemy (at this point in time, the Soviets) knew that these subs were out there (but not precisely where they were), the submarines were viewed as a deterrent threat, the idea being that enemies would not launch arms against the United States because they knew that American boats were out there and could quickly retaliate. Even today missile boats perform similar deterrent patrols. The Soviets of course made these same patrols, and both sides had their fast-attack submarines out in the Atlantic tracking boats belonging to the other side. During Williams's four deterrent patrols in the Atlantic on the Woodrow Wilson, the ship earned the Meritorious Unit Commendation.Following a stint of duty on the Atlantic Fleet Nuclear Examining Board from 1987 to 1989, Williams's next submarine assignment was on the fast-attack submarine USS Louisville as executive officer. From September 1989 to January 1992 Williams and the crew earned the Navy Unit Commendation and played a historic part in combat operations against Iraq in Operation Desert Storm. Indeed, the Louisville executed the first Tomahawk cruise missile strike by a nuclear submarine in history. This duty gave Williams valuable experience and insight that would become hallmarks in his career—he later stated that “it was my first exposure to combat operations (with the associated uncertainty) and reinforced in my mind the need for advance preparedness and training for all contingencies possible. This was an appreciation for the value of readiness.” Williams's subsequent shore duty at the Bureau of Naval Personnel was followed by his appointment to command of the Trident missile submarine USS Nebraska, nicknamed “Big Red,” as skipper of the Gold crew in August 1994.Williams's rise to command was historic in two ways—not only was he just the fourth African American ever named to command a submarine (joining C. A. “Pete” Tzomes, Tony Watson, and William Bundy) in a group that would later become known as the Centennial 7, but he was also the first African American officer to command a U.S. Navy ballistic missile submarine. However, while Williams's achievement as an African American gaining this command was highlighted by the press, he downplayed this achievement. Williams would acknowledge these matters when asked, but as a naval officer he did not dwell on the navy's past record of diversity or lack thereof. Interestingly, he was also one of the first officers at the rank of commander to command a Trident submarine. Such a command previously required the higher rank of captain and Williams knew that he had to succeed. Indeed, he did just that; his crew, in close cooperation with the Blue crew, earned the Nebraska not only a Meritorious Unit Commendation, but also the navy and air force's Top Strategic Missile Unit Omaha Trophy Award for excellence, a first for a Trident submarine.Williams's subsequent career as a naval officer was equally accomplished, as well as varied. In addition to furthering his education as a joint service officer to the highest levels, he steadily increased his major command responsibilities. He commanded Submarine Squadron 4 in Groton, Connecticut, from 1999 to 2000 and subsequently served as chief of staff for Carrier Strike Group 5 in Yokosuka, Japan, as second in command of the navy's only forward-deployed carrier strike group. During Operation Enduring Freedom, after the terrorist attacks of September 2001, his service during deployments “opened my aperture and broadened my navy experience … I learned quickly that leadership is leadership regardless of your background.” For this service, Williams received the Legion of Merit (this being his fourth time, it was presented with Gold Star in lieu of a fourth award) for his group's combat effectiveness and “highly effective warfighting deliberate planning process” and “focus on planning and readiness” that “contributed to the short notice response and superior performance … and his exceptional professional ability, personal initiative, and total dedication to duty” (Clark, Legion of Merit Citation). Subsequent to this duty, Williams was elevated to flag rank as rear admiral and served as commander of Submarine Group 9 in Bangor, Washington, followed by duty as director of Global Operations at Strategic Command headquarters at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska. This job involving joint operations with all branches of the military provided Williams with valuable insights into a wide variety of military operations.Williams was promoted to vice admiral, just the sixth African American naval officer to attain this rank after Samuel Gravely, Walt Davis, J. Paul Reason, Ed Moore, and Dave Brewer. In 2005 Williams became deputy commander of U.S. Fleet Forces Command. Through all of his years of service, Williams found that “the common thread has been the privilege serving and defending our country … My passion is serving others through leadership and helping others to grow and learn.”

Reference Entry.  1500 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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