High-ranking father and son are unique in U.S. Navy history

By Hugh Lessig


Feb 16, 2011 at 12:00 am

HAMPTON — This father and son who visited Hampton University Thursday occupy a unique place in the leadership history of the U.S. Navy.

Melvin Williams Sr. 77, is a retired command master chief. His son, Melvin Jr., 55, is a retired vice admiral and former commander of the U.S. Second Fleet in Norfolk.

To date, they are the only African-American father/son combination who have reached the highest enlisted rank in the Navy and a high officer leadership rank, respectively.

They are also co-authors, having just written a book about their leadership experiences titled “Navigating the Seven Seas.”

The title is a play on words, as the book explores the seven “Cs” of leadership: character, competence, courage, commitment, caring, communicating and community.

Master Chief Williams entered the Navy in 1951, three years after then President Harry Truman ordered the integration of U.S. armed forces. He retired in 1978, and his son picked up the tradition that same year, serving from 1978 to 2010.

The two shared some thoughts Thursday before speaking to midshipmen at HU’s Navy ROTC program.

Although the armed forces blazed the trail on integration, Master Chief Williams still faced challenges as a young sailor.

As a steward, he had found limited opportunities for advancement at first. He remained a third-class petty officer for eight years, even though his advancement test scores were always near the top. There was no secret to his eventual success; he said it came through staying positive and maintaining his determination to advance.

He strikes a comparison between how yesterday’s military dealt with racial barriers and how today’s military will deal with the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the policy that forbid gay service members to openly discuss their sexual orientation.

“This generation that’s coming in, I feel, thinks a little differently about that, more so than those in the past,” he said. “And that will evolve itself over time.”

Both father and son said racism is still something that African-American sailors will have to deal with, but there is good news as well.

“There was a culture change,” said Adm. Williams, “in that leaders really worked to help provide increased opportunities for all people to realize their full potential. The whole idea of additional opportunity that happened on our watch is a good news story. Big institutions like the Navy can change their culture.”

Adm. Williams referred to his father as “master chief” during the interview. His praised his father and his comrades of that era as role models.

“I sensed they were people of integrity,” he said. “They said what they said they were going to do. They were very honest.”

Their book is available through Naval Institute Press, which can be reached at http://www.nip.org.

For more armed forces news, visit hrmlitary.com.