Ship's Maiden Voyage Marks Special Moment for Top Army NCO
By Kathleen T. Rhem
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, May 1, 2006 When the USS James E. Williams sets sail from Norfolk, Va., tomorrow, it will be a special moment for the family of a top Army noncommissioned officer.
Army Command Sgt. Maj. William J. "Joe" Gainey poses in his Pentagon office next to a portrait of his cousin, James E. Williams, a Medal of Honor recipient and the most decorated sailor in Navy history. A ship named for Williams, the USS James E. Williams, sets sail on its maiden voyage from Norfolk, Va., May 2. Photo by Kathleen T. Rhem
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Medal of Honor recipient James E. Williams was a first cousin of Army Command Sgt. Maj. William J. "Joe" Gainey, senior enlisted advisor to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Williams was the most decorated sailor in the history of the Navy. In addition to the Medal of Honor he received in 1968 for service as a river patrol boat commander in Vietnam, he earned a Navy Cross, two Silver Star Medals, a Legion of Merit with Combat "V," two Navy and Marine Corp Medals, and three Bronze Star Medals.
Elliott, as his family knew him, was a large presence in Gainey's early life.
"He's one of the ones that I give credit to for prioritizing my life," Gainey told American Forces Press Service. "He always told us, 'In order to know where you're going, you've got to know where you've been.'"
This is a theme Gainey often expounds on as he visits with young servicemembers. "I tell people, 'How do you know who you are if you don't know where you came from?'"
In his current position, Gainey advises Joint Chiefs Chairman Marine Gen. Peter Pace on issues affecting or concerning enlisted servicemembers. He often speaks to sailors on his visits to various commands, and he always refers to his cousin, who is something of a legend in Navy lore.
During a visit to U.S. Southern Command in November, he asked several young sailors who the most decorated sailor in the Navy was. None of them knew the answer, but one enterprising young man researched the information and e-mailed Gainey with the answer an hour later. The sergeant major saw to it that the sailor received one of his challenge coins.
During an April visit to the USS Ronald Reagan in the Persian Gulf, a sailor told Gainey he was impressed that an Army NCO knew so much about the Navy. Gainey later said he took that as a supreme compliment, and attributed all he knows about the sea service to Williams' influence on his early life.
Gainey has lobbied Navy enlisted leaders to begin a recognition program for sailors modeled after the Army's Sgt. Audie Murphy Club, which recognizes top-notch soldiers and is named after the World War II hero and Medal of Honor recipient of the 3rd Infantry Division. Gainey said he believes it would be fitting to name such a Navy honor after Williams.
The sergeant major was serving in Iraq when the ship was christened, but said he was touched by the reception he and his wife received during a brief visit to the ship earlier this year. Gainey was in a meeting during an official visit to U.S. Joint Forces Command in Norfolk when his wife, Cindy, asked her escorts if the James E. Williams was in port.
Gainey chuckled as he told of being pulled out of his meeting and told: "Your wife has commandeered the USS James E. Williams and won't let it sail until you get there."
An hour and a half later, they had seen the ship from top to bottom and came away impressed at the crew's professionalism. Gainey said he particularly enjoyed seeing a portrait of his cousin in the ship's galley.
He recalled with pride that the ship's skipper told him: "As a blood relative of James E. Williams, you are part of this ship. Any time this ship is in dock, you are welcome."
The USS James E. Williams sets sail tomorrow to participate in maritime security operations in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of operations, which encompasses about 7.5 million square miles and includes the Arabian Gulf, Red Sea, Gulf of Oman and parts of the Indian Ocean.
Gainey said his cousin, who died of a heart attack at age 68 in 1999, would approve of a ship named for him taking part in the war on terrorism. "James would be very proud of what that ship is doing," he said.