HARTFORD, Conn. — One night in 1969, Kent Williams was commanding a Coast Guard patrol boat off the coast of Vietnam when a Mayday call came from a naval unit on the beach. The Americans were under attack, and at risk of being overrun by North Vietnamese troops.
Over the next several hours, the crew on the boat traded fire with the enemy, ultimately turning them back near dawn.
"When we broke the attack, we were just about out of ammunition," Williams said.
On Thursday, Williams, a 1965 graduate of the United States Coast Guard Academy, will be inducted into the school's Hall of Heroes. Williams, who spent 32 years in the Coast Guard and retired as a vice admiral, is expected to address cadets in a ceremony at the service academy in New London.
"The ceremony honors alumni who have been formally recognized for acts of heroic service, and serves as a reminder of a history of selfless service performed by generations of Coast Guard men and women," academy spokesman David Santos said.
The patrol boat's primary mission during the Vietnam War was to disrupt North Vietnamese and Viet Cong attempts to smuggle arms and supplies to forces operating in South Vietnam. It was on patrol near the demilitarized zone separating the North from the South on the night of Feb. 23, 1969, when it received the call for help from the naval gunfire liaison unit, which used towers several stories high to look into the North, reap intelligence and help guide U.S. forces.
Williams, a native of Forty Fort, Pennsylvania, brought Cutter Point Ellis close to shore. The crew of 14 engaged the North Vietnamese with machine guns, using flares to identify their location. In turn, the boat came under fire from rocket-propelled grenades. It was around 4 a.m. when the North Vietnamese troops retreated.
For his service in Vietnam, Williams was awarded a Bronze Star and cited for courage under fire.
Williams, 74, said he remembers the night as another mission in his lengthy Coast Guard career.
"Part of what we do is we go into harm's way," he said. "It can be a combat situation in Vietnam or it can be in a hurricane to help somebody."
Three other academy graduates are being inducted posthumously: Thomas Sargent, John Austin and John Hayes.