The ceremony that unfolded in an aircraft carrier hangar bay Thursday had all the bells and whistles of a typical Navy retirement.
But when the applause rang out, it was for not one man but two, both standing in crisp white uniforms at the front of the crowd and both named Mel Williams.
Vice Adm. Melvin G. Williams Jr. ended his military career by handing over command of the Norfolk-based Second Fleet, which he’s led for the past two years.
He’s overseen some 90,000 sailors and Marines, 130 vessels and more than 1,500 aircraft. And they’ve been busy. During his tenure, more than half his force has been under way or deployed – conducting humanitarian missions in Haiti and on the Gulf Coast, providing ballistic missile defense in Europe and supporting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
His boss, Adm. John C. Harvey Jr., said he wasn’t surprised by that success, “since I knew Mel was a man of magnificent talent.” The Navy was able to tap that talent, Harvey said, thanks in part to the work of Williams’ father.
Mel Williams Sr. enlisted in 1951, when the Navy limited black and Filipino sailors to serving as messmen – cooks and stewards. After trying without success to break into another career path, he decided to make the most of the job he’d been given. He rose to become a command master chief, one of the highest enlisted positions, and to work for the chief of naval operations, Elmo Zumwalt.
“Master chief, you served your Navy and your nation with honor and distinction for over 27 years, during a period of time when you loved your Navy far more than your Navy loved you,” Harvey said. “You never lost the faith that someday, the Navy you loved so much and served so well would take the steps that had to be taken and allow a sailor’s talent to be the sole measure of what a sailor can do.”
While working for Zumwalt in 1974, Harvey said, Williams helped do away with the restrictive policy for minorities. “You unlocked the doors, you took the first steps, and you helped put us on the right path,” Harvey said.
Four years later, Mel Williams Jr. graduated from the Naval Academy and joined the submarine force. At the time, his father expected that if his son worked hard and stayed in, he might someday make captain. “Then he made flag officer, and then it kept coming,” he said.
Listening to Harvey speak, he said, “I got choked up, because you think back on where the Navy was, and where it is today – my goodness, it’s just overwhelming with the progress.”
Father and son have been collaborating on a book about their experiences that’s due for release early next year.
Meredith Kruse, (757) 446-2164, email@example.com