USS Hershel “Woody” Williams Sets Sail for her Inaugural Deployment

The USS Hershel Woody Williams departs Naval Station Norfolk, Va. for its inaugural deployment. Photo by Joshua D. Sheppard/U.S. Navy

On Monday 27th July 2020, the USS Hershel “Woody” Williams set sail from Naval Station Norfolk to Africa on her inaugural deployment.

The USS Hershel “Woody” Williams used to have the name USNS Williams, but this was changed when she had her designation changed at a ceremony for her commissioning as a warship in March.

This one-letter change in her name means that she can carry out offensive military campaigns legally. Marines and Navy SEALs can be launched directly from her decks with her name changed and her being designated as a warship.

The nomenclature ‘USNS’ infers a ship under the command of a civilian, and in these circumstances, the vessel may only engage in armed combat to protect herself, she may not launch an offensive.

The USS Hershel “Woody” Williams is named after the last surviving Medal of Honor recipient from the Battle for Iwo Jima that took place in February and March 1945. Williams landed on the beach with the 1st Battalion, 21st Marines, to face devastating fire from Japanese forces entrenched in concrete pillboxes.

This fire pinned the Marines down. The situation looked dire until the unit commander asked for a volunteer to attach an explosive charge onto the end of a long pole and push it into the pillbox. Williams took a flamethrower and accompanied by several other Marines he fought his way toward the pillboxes.

Arriving at the first box, he was the only man left uninjured, and he shoved the nozzle of the flamethrower through the slit in the pillbox and pulled the trigger. Flames roared from the flamethrower, and the Japanese soldiers in the pillbox were all killed.

Five times Williams retreated back to his lines to refuel. Five times he returned to the next pillbox and repeated the exercise until all the pillboxes fell silent.

Medal of Honor recipient Hershel “Woody” Williams
Medal of Honor recipient Hershel “Woody” Williams

Shortly after the war ended and while he was based in Guam, he was selected to receive the Medal of Honor, which was presented to him by President Truman at a ceremony held in Washington.

The ship will forward-deploy to the U.S. Naval Forces Africa area of operations, according to the Navy, and will conduct missions that include counter-piracy and partner-training operations as well as special operations forces support.
The ship will forward-deploy to the U.S. Naval Forces Africa area of operations, according to the Navy, and will conduct missions that include counter-piracy and partner-training operations as well as special operations forces support.

Williams was thrilled to be included in the commissioning ceremony for the ship that bears his name. She is 784 feet long and has a 52,000 square-foot flight deck. Also, there are the usual equipment, munitions, and fuel storage bunkers, and repair and maintenance workshops. There are mission planning rooms and living space for the couple of hundred staff and other personnel that will sail with her.

The ship also can land various types of aircraft, such as the MV-22 Osprey and helicopters. She also has the capability of recovering small boats.

The USS Hershel “Woody” Williams differs from other warships. She will operate as an expeditionary sea base, with a crew drawn from both military and civilian spheres.  The civilian crew, numbering 44, runs the ship itself and fulfils the functions of engineering, navigation, electrical service, food preparation and distribution, cranes, and shipboard communications.

There are approximately 100 sailors on board from the military sphere that will conduct operations such as intelligence, security, and operate the aircraft and boats attached to the vessel.

“As the commanding officer of the ‘Woody’ Williams’ Blue Crew, I can tell you that we are excited to embark on the ship’s first deployment,” Capt. David Gray, commanding officer of the USS Hershel “Woody” Williams Blue Crew, said in a statement.
“As the commanding officer of the ‘Woody’ Williams’ Blue Crew, I can tell you that we are excited to embark on the ship’s first deployment,” Capt. David Gray, commanding officer of the USS Hershel “Woody” Williams Blue Crew, said in a statement.

The military will also be responsible for staffing the medical department. For specific operations, Marines and other specialized operatives will be brought on board to deal with both offensive and humanitarian missions.

The Williams will fall under the U.S. Naval Forces Africa and deal primarily with aviation mine countermeasures and any specialized missions. This will free up amphibious warships to undertake tasks more suited to their capability.

Even though civilian operators are on board, the ship will operate under the same blue-gold rotational shifts that the rest of the Navy uses. Capt. David Gray, commanding officer of the ‘blue crew,’ said that the crew was excited to be embarking on the ship’s first active deployment.

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He noted that it was their first taste of an active deployment for most of the crew and that he believed they were heading into an exciting area for their deployment.