Lt. Gen. Willie J. Williams' big break came in the late 1980s, when he was handpicked to lead the logisitics element for a contingency task force sent to the Persian Gulf to protect oil tankers facing threats from Iran. Lessons learned trying to keep the force supplied laid the foundation for the Corps' approach to such efforts over the next 20-plus years, says longtime friend retired Maj. Gen. John H. Admire. (Sgt. Jimmy D. Shea / Marine Corps)
From the general
This summer, after nearly four decades in service, I will take off the uniform of a United States Marine to start a new journey and chapter in my life of service. Although I only know the location from which my new journey will start, I am confident of the great potential and possibilities it holds.
As my transition day quickly approaches, I am humbled, grateful and deeply moved by the honor to have served with tremendously talented and motivated Marines across the Corps — individuals who are open to different points of view; willing to make friends of strangers; able to view others in a light different from what history may have taught them; and understand that “human will” still lives in each of us, despite the deepest of tragedies. Being one of the Few, the Proud, the Band of Brothers and Sisters of the United States Marine Corps for the past 39 years has truly been — in a word — awesome! I can't tell you what a tribute and pleasure it has been to serve, and serve with each Marine that I have; especially those with whom I have developed a close personal and professional relationship. I admire who you are and what you stand for. You taught me well. Through your example, I have come to know that only by serving a higher calling do countless men and women grow up to sacrifice themselves to protect and defend the freedoms of others, with Honor, Courage and Commitment.
During my years, I came to appreciate and understand that losing and failure is merely how you feel before you win, that hope springs from despair, and that it is a sacred responsibility to give of yourself to change someone's life, and in the process, demonstrate that you can be whatever your heart desires. The Corps is in the steady hands of leaders committed to all that and more. I am proud for having had the opportunity to serve with them all. They are more than capable of confronting the challenges and uncertainties ahead. So, with heartfelt optimism for our collective future, I wish you well … thank you for making me a better person, our Corps stronger, and our nation and the world a better place to live.
Lt. Gen. Willie J. Williams,
Director, Marine Corps Staff
One of the Marine Corps' most influential officers will retire this summer after nearly 40 years in uniform. As director of the Marine Corps Staff since 2009, Lt. Gen. Willie J. Williams has served as the top adviser to two commandants and worked alongside some of the military's most senior leaders. To date, he's one of only four African-American Marines to wear three stars, according to the Montford Point Marine Association, which promotes the legacy of black Marines.
That group's national president, Chief Warrant Officer 4 James Averhart, believes Williams' professional accomplishments bode well for the prospect of the first minority four-star Marine general. “I know by him being in that position that one day we'll get there,” Averhart said.
Williams' retirement ceremony is scheduled for July 10 at Marine Barracks Washington, D.C., and he intends to settle in Huntsville, Ala. His ascent is a story of adversity overcome and several smart, well-timed decisions. He grew up poor in the segregated South and would've enlisted in the Air Force out of high school had his teachers not intervened and helped secure him a college scholarship. Even then, he worked nights in a textile plant to supplement the cost and seemed on a course to make that his career until he met a Marine officer selection officer who told him, “We can offer you something better — and it won't be based upon the color of your skin.”
Pending Senate confirmation, Maj. Gen. Charles “Mark” Gurganus will receive a third star and replace Williams at the Pentagon. Gurganus spent the past year commanding Marine forces in southwestern Afghanistan.
The DMCS position — it's pronounced “dimmicks” — was created during the 1990s. It grew from Marine Corps headquarters' chief of staff job, a post that's been held by several prominent officers, including future commandants Lt. Gen. John A. Lejeune and Gen. P.X. Kelley.
As the DMCS, Williams, a career logistician, oversees operations at HQMC and works with the deputy commandants to shape policy. He confers with the commandant on nearly everything, from the ongoing effort to improve diversity to planning the service's birthday celebration. Williams also engages with his counterparts in the Army, Navy and Air Force, advocating the Corps' point of view on matters in which all have vested interest, such as caring for those wounded in combat.
Additionally, he represents Marine leadership at ceremonies, speaking engagements and VIP events. In April 2011, the general even helped dedicate a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for actor Joe Mantegna, whom Williams praised for supporting military families and veterans. The two have become close friends since, the actor said, forging a surprising bond bridging disparate segments of American society.
Williams and Mantegna met in 2010 when the actor attended an evening parade at Marine Barracks Washington, D.C., where the DMCS resides alongside the commandant, assistant commandant and other top brass. Months later, the actor contacted Williams to ask if the Corps could send a representative to attend his Walk of Fame ceremony. The general volunteered, Mantegna said, pending one request: Don't pick him up in a limousine.
The actor, who portrays a Marine combat vet turned FBI profiler in the TV series “Criminal Minds,” dispatched his driver to retrieve Williams at the airport, relaying the general's request for traveling modestly. The driver told Mantegna he'd use his personal vehicle, assuring him it would be “appropriate.”
Mantegna arrived at the ceremony ahead of Williams and eagerly kept watch for his friend. “And then up pulls a Marine-red Cadillac Escalade with Marine stickers on it — the ones that say ‘My son is in the Marine Corps,' you know? And, of course, out steps General Williams. It was perfect. I looked at my driver's face, and you'd think he was driving the president of the United States and the queen of England all at the same time.”
Williams' remarks were brief. He paid tribute to the actor's charitable work and to his many uncles who served during World War II. Afterwards, they hugged, and the general stepped aside. “It was a dream come true for me,” Mantegna said, “to have a man of his stature, and what he represents, speak on my behalf.”
Despite vastly different backgrounds, Mantegna described Williams as “a guy I could relate to.” Sure, the actor came from Chicago and the Marine from a small town in Alabama, but both worked hard for what they wanted. “We had more in common than we did not, in terms of having goals — me wanting to make a living being an actor, and him wanting to be a Marine and taking it to the highest level he possibly could,” he said. “We've both taken a long road to get to where we are.”
A few weeks after the Hollywood trip, Williams returned the favor by presiding over an evening parade at the Barracks held in Mantegna's honor. Since then they've gotten together socially. “This is someone I know will be a friend for the rest of my life,” Mantegna said. “When you meet someone like that — the leadership qualities, the moral qualities, all these aspects of their personalities — it strengthens my passion for why I am such a supporter of our military.”
Williams traces his big break to high school, when his teachers talked him out of joining the Air Force. An honor student, the future general demonstrated potential but lacked the money to pay for college, he told Marine Corps Times late last year.
In some respects, poverty was a crutch, Williams said. It was a built-in excuse should he ever fail. The Air Force, meanwhile, represented a way out of that life, and he felt confident that working as an aircraft mechanic would at least be interesting. So he found a recruiter.
“They got word of it at school, and those teachers decided they weren't having any of that,” Williams said. “… They took away my excuse for failure.”
At Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, Ala., he pursued a major in business and minor in accounting. In the summer of 1973, at the urging of an OSO he'd met as a college junior, Williams completed the Platoon Leaders Course, a program that affords qualified students an opportunity to become officer candidates.
Afterward, as graduation drew near, Williams weighed his options. The textile mill where he worked nights — first as a janitor and later pulling yarn from the rollers — agreed to offer him full-time work once he earned his bachelor's degree. “It was a job on the plant floor,” the general said. “And when I looked around at the white guys who had those jobs, they had graduated high school, maybe, or had an associate's. That didn't sound right.
“So I went back to the OSO, who said in the Marine Corps … your position is not based on anything other than merit. I grew up in a segregated society, and now here's an institution that says, ‘We can offer you something better — and it won't be based upon the color of your skin.'”
Williams was commissioned a second lieutenant in May 1974.
From butter bars to 3 stars
He started out as a supply officer with 11th Marines, an artillery regiment. In the late '80s, while serving as assistant division supply officer with 3rd Marine Division in Okinawa, Williams began to worry that limited experience would stall his progression. He was intrigued by an executive officer job with a supply battalion and interviewed with the commander, who instead offered Williams another position — “a job that I did not think I needed to help me continue to develop my career,” he said. “So I turned it down.”
He went back to his boss at 3rd MARDIV, who told Williams the Corps was standing up a contingency Marine air-ground task force to deploy to the Persian Gulf as part of Operation Earnest Will, the mission to escort and protect oil tankers from Iranian attack toward the end of the Iran-Iraq war. The task force was led by Col. John H. Admire, who handpicked Williams, then a major, to lead the logistics element.
“It was a critical mission,” said Admire, who retired as a two-star general. “We needed the very best. I'd only known [Williams] for about three or four months … but he stood out as someone who was innovative, and I knew that was one of the things we would need because at that time there was no supply line into the gulf.”
Contingency MAGTF 3-88 was deployed from May to December 1988. And as expected, logistical support proved a challenge, Admire said. Lessons learned from that operation laid the foundation for how the Corps would approach resupply into the region during the first Persian Gulf War and later during the occupation of Iraq, he added.
“That was part of what Willie had done,” Admire said. “We had been there, and he knew the challenges associated with obtaining supplies and resources, how best to get them from the East Coast or West Coast and by the quickest means possible into the gulf region.”
For Williams, the assignment defined him as an “operational logistician,” he said. He went on to command the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit's MEU Service Support Group followed by Brigade Service Support Group 1, both during the mid-1990s. Then, after serving a year as the commanding general of Camp Butler in Okinawa, Williams took command of 3rd Force Service Support Group in 2001, the job that preceded his first stint at the Pentagon as an assistant deputy commandant for installations and logistics.
From there, it was on to the top job at Marine Corps Logistics Command in Albany, Ga., a hub for the service's worldwide supply chain and equipment maintenance efforts. He stayed there for four years, through the height of the Iraq War and as Marines began returning to Afghanistan in large numbers. Operationally, it was one of the service's busiest periods, with as many as 25,000 Marines in Iraq's Anbar province tearing up humvees and other gear, and several thousand others laying the groundwork for what would become Camp Leatherneck, the Corps' sprawling hub in Afghanistan's Helmand province.
In 2009, the commandant, then Gen. James T. Conway, called Williams back to Washington to pin on a third star and become the DMCS. And to think, 25 years ago he worried his career had plateaued.
“I look back on the decision to turn down that job,” he said, “as the decision that influenced my career to this day.”
‘Respect, admiration, affection'
Indeed, admiration for the general runs deep. Averhart, the Montford Point Marine Association's national president, commands a Marine detachment at the Naval Consolidated Brig in Chesapeake, Va. He's sought Williams' counsel on leadership issues, career decisions and matters related to the association. The general possesses many of the same attributes as some of the first black Marines, he said.
“He's had the opportunity to help thousands of African Americans — not just African-American Marines. That's what's great about the guy: He embraces all. He came from the roots, [like] guys like Hashmark Johnson. He's a country boy from Alabama like I am,” Averhart said, referencing the late Sgt. Maj. Gilbert Johnson, one of the first African Americans allowed to enlist in the Marine Corps during World War II. “I can relate to him because I understand what he has come from.”
His friend Admire recalled the two sending congratulatory notes to one another upon their respective promotions and then, sadly, coming together for the funeral of Williams' 33-year-old daughter, Yolanda, who passed away in 2008.
Williams, Admire said, has never lost sight of those who helped him get ahead. He's respected because he respects and inspires those who support him, a trait that's borne from his background, Admire added. “Being a minority and knowing the challenges that have confronted him throughout life, he's an exceptionally compassionate person,” he said. “I think that contributed to his success and the success of those with whom he's served.”
Gen. Joe Dunford, now the commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, worked side-by-side with Williams during the four-star's tenure as assistant commandant. In an email to Marine Corps Times, Dunford marveled at the “profound impact” Williams has had on the service, joking that despite the demands placed on someone in his position, the three-star has managed to keep his golf handicap in the single digits.
But most impressive, Dunford noted, is the influence he's had not only on the institution but those he's mentored over the years.
“Willie Williams,” he said, “completes his career with what every Marine wants to have when he goes over the side — the respect, admiration and affection of his fellow Marines. As a commander of the Marine Corps Logistics Command, he was instrumental in supporting operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Over the past three years, he has been the linchpin of the commandant's staff. … Perhaps the most lasting legacy is the legion of Marines who are proud to call themselves Williams trained.”