I recently got a very interesting email from a reader — Steve Lovell of Bristol, England. He was reading my fourth novel Wreck of the Huronand wanted to tell me about a true story related to the wreck. You can learnmore about the Huron here.
Antonio Williams received the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions that day making him the oldest recipient of the award. (Until just before World War II, servicemen could receive the award in peacetime. Now it is only given for actions during war.)
Williams was born in Malta in 1830 and came to the United States in 1867, after being shanghaied and serving aboard a whaler in his youth. He became a naturalized citizen of the United States in 1890—the same year he retired from the Navy. He later moved to England, his wife’s home.
The Secretary of the Navy, in sending the medal to Antonio Williams, wrote “It is shown in evidence that upon that occasion, the wrecking of the U. S. N. steamer Huron, you gave up whatever chance of life a foothold upon the wrecked vessel offered by taking to the sea, with Ensign Young, on a small balsa in the attempt to carry a line to the shore for the relief of your ship-mates. The effort failed by the shortness of the line. Four times capsized on the balsa, and nearly drowned, you reached the shore, where, before you were clear of the undertow, and notwithstanding your bruises and worn condition, joining hands with your companion, you helped with him to haul two men out of the water, and afterward, joining hands with him again, and running back into the surf, hauled out two more. It is also shown that you rendered material assistance to the weak and exhausted men whom you had saved.”
In an interview with Harpers Weekly he was asked “Did you think you would reach the shore?”
“Yes, I did; and every time the sea knocked me off the balsa I set my teeth the harder together, and made up my mind to do my best. The sea off that coast of North Carolina would take me and throw me clear off of the balsa and then I would have to get back again. I was very much battered and bruised, as was Mr. Young, but he was as brave as you ever find them. If we had only known that we were 300 yards from the shore we might have done better, but we could not see. It was pitch dark. I said to myself the wind and the sea must fetch us up somewhere near the shore, and we worked about three miles of a course on that balsa before we struck the beach, and we struck it hard, I tell you. Of course I must have been used up, but I didn’t know it then… I saw more work to do, and I forgot the pains in my back, where the seas, or a spar, or something struck me. I was three months in hospital before I got all over it. I never was a strong man after it; though my nerves were just as good as ever…”
Later in his career, Williams was at sea on the Corvette Yantic and faced another severe storm. Harpers Weekly wrote: when it was thought that the Yantic would founder, (Williams ) strapped on his medals, and declared that if he went down he would still carry his decorations for manly and honorable conduct about him. “That’s the belt I put them in, and I wear it for three days-until the medals hurt my back. The sea make the bronze medal a little green, but the gold one is just as bright as when my adopted country give it me.”
Williams was buried at Greenbank Cemetery in Bristol with honors. The minister who officiated said he was struck by Williams’ idea of Christianity and his preparations for the afterlife. Being a man who obeyed orders all of his life, Williams said “when the order came from his Captain to go aloft, he would be ready to obey.”