MILLEDGEVILLE — Laurens County native John Williams was 17-years-old when the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor launched the Unites States into World War II. After hearing the details on a home radio, Williams with brothers Homer, Ellis and Robert had no reserves about the next move.
At 19, he was drafted into the U.S. Navy.
“Right off the bat I said, ‘I have to go.’ There were four of us boys that all went. All four of us came back,” Williams said.
While the others served in various capacities including Army Rangers, Army infantry and medical divisions, Williams found his duty on the waters.
A young, country boy received a quick crash course from boot camp in the Great Lakes to crew assignment in Norfolk, Va. Williams and other southerners slept on mattress springs in Wisconsin barracks.
All-important clothing went into one bag. A buzz cut was the least of the worries.
Williams said people passed out during a multitude of tests.
“Somebody going into service now can’t even imagine how much difference there was when we went in. I caught a bus in Dublin to Atlanta by myself. I’d never been anywhere,” Williams said. “They put me on the slowest and worst train to Chicago. I had nothing to eat for 36 hours.”
Training was the difference in life and death. The 88-year-old said his chief petty officer cried, saying the crew was the best he’d ever seen.
Boot camp had no down time. Everyone was told not to make too good of friends within the crew.
In Virginia, the 187-person crew loaded onto the USS Martin H. Ray. Williams served as gunner on the 20mm cannon, in addition to assignment as the ship’s cook.
“It was pretty good. I enjoyed that. A ship’s cook rating was about the best thing for an enlisted man. You did eat better. If you didn’t, it was your fault,” Williams joked.
During Williams almost two-years onboard, the ship traversed the Atlantic Ocean 32 times providing destroyer escort protection against submarine and air attack for Navy vessels and convoys.
Seven escort vessels protected 150 ships. The Martin H. Ray made runs on German submarines.
“It got to be a routine thing. I was afraid the first time. After that it didn’t bother me. It was kind of a game,” Williams said. “There were times when we were on our battle stations as much as doing anything else. The Germans really weren’t after our vessels. What they were trying to do was penetrate our defensive lines.”
The local hero remained on the escort ship for longer than expected. Over one year aboard the same ship was hazardous duty.
Nintey percent of the crew was 18 or 19 year olds, according to Williams. All servicemen grew up fast to survive.
The boys told stories about home life during any down time. Faith came up in most conversations.
Williams believes a higher power kept the ship safe.
“Church was all we had and needed to do at home. That made a lot of difference in what you did when you went away like that. I truly believe that is the only reason we survived because we had a lot of Christians. We had one escort blown to pieces right behind us,” Williams said.
When the Martin H. Ray docked in Europe, wartime destruction was unimaginable. Buildings were leveled off and entire cities torn to shreds.
It was nothing to see a lifeless body lying in an Italian street. Williams is affected more years later than as a young man doing his duty.
“We didn’t think anything about it when we were doing it. I really enjoyed firing on planes because I didn’t think anything about the pilot,” Williams reflected. “I was thinking of taking the plane out. There is a lot of stuff I did that I wouldn’t like to do now.”
After finishing up his 23-month service, he spent nearly 65 wonderful years with his wife Elizabeth. Williams worked in the sporting good business 34 years highlighted by the successful Williams Sport Center in Milledgeville.
Remember honorable veterans still living and others not so lucky this Sunday. Spending time with someone who jumped at the chance to protect others above himself is a true reality check.
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