Dillard Williams, Graham County's "Frog Man"

  • The shoulder/sleeve patch of the Naval Underwater Demolition Team, which served as a precursor to the present-day Navy SEALs.
    The shoulder/sleeve patch of the Naval Underwater Demolition Team, which served as a precursor to the present-day Navy SEALs.
Body

By Steve Odom

Special to The Graham Star

When I look back on my school years, my greatest regret is my apathy concerning history. 

As an adult, I came to love history, especially that relating to our great military heroes. Many of the greatest generation lived right here among us. We have heard several of their stories, but some we have not. 

In the last year, I have found out about one particular story of a hero I had known my entire life, yet had no clue of his outstanding service and accomplishments on behalf of our nation. 

Meet the “Frog Man”

I knew Dillard E. Williams as a quiet man who loved to fish and worked for Alcoa at the Tapoco Powerhouse. He would stop at my family’s store on his way to Santeetlah Lake and was always nice to me. His wife, Marie Carpenter Williams, was a true gem, an extremely sweet and kind lady. His daughter Karen I knew as one heck of a basketball player at Mountain View High School. 

Although Dillard lived on Meadow Branch – and he and his family were a part of that community – the invaluable role he played in WWII was unknown to most of us. Little did I know when I was around Dillard Williams, that I was in the presence of a true American hero.

A gentlemen by the name of William “Bill” Dawson was an original member of the Naval Underwater Demolition Team, the precursor to the modern-day Navy SEALs. He is also the author of a book entitled, Before They Were SEALs, They Were Frogs. Dillard Williams was a close friend and team member of Bill Dawson, and they served together for two years in the Asia-Pacific region. 

SEALs

The two friends were in Class 1, the first class for Naval “Underwater Demolition Teams,” in Fort Pierce, Fla. They were two of 52 men chosen out of over 500 applicants for the first training school at Fort Pierce. There they underwent extensive underwater and demolition training. Appropriately referred to as “Frog Men,” their job was to swim behind enemy lines and blow up any man-made or natural obstacles in the way that would put the invading U.S. forces in danger. 

Many of the 52 original members did not make it through the extensive training and left the school. The sand fleas and the mosquitoes were so bad at times the men were in agony. The survivors of that training, however, would go on to set a standard for future naval recruits. Many of the same training procedures that were used in the first Underwater Demolition Team training school are still utilized today to create the ultimate warrior, the elite U.S. Navy Seals. 

Midst of battle

After finishing their training, the men were immediately shipped to the Pacific, as the war effort was in serious need of their specialized skills. Class 1 broke into several teams. Some of them ended up in places forever enshrined in history, such as Normandy and Iwo Jima. 

Dillard was in Unit 2. Fifty-three percent of the team members at Normandy were lost during that invasion. After it was completed, those remaining were sent to the South Pacific, where they joined back up with the remaining teams. 

Unit 1 was sent to aid in an assault on Kiska Island in Alaska, which had been occupied by Japanese forces since June 6, 1942. Soon after their arrival, the Japanese stormed an American weather station, where they killed two and captured eight United States Naval officers. The captured officers were sent to Japan as prisoners of war.

Unit 2 – which had Williams and Dawson – were deployed to Australia, where they began operations throughout the Asia-Pacific region. Dillard enlisted at the age of 18 and was 19 when they began their first mission on Jan. 3, 1944. 

On that date, they arrived at Milner Bay New Guinea. Their team was later combined with Unit 3, to make up a 10-man squad capable of handling large operations. 

The one thing that caught my attention was the fact three out of the ten team members were mountain boys from North Carolina:

* Dillard E. Williams, Tapoco

* Johnny N. Wilhide, Swannanoa 

* Harrison Q. Eskridge, Rutherfordton

By the end of 1945, units 2 and 3 had led the way in an undisclosed number of top-secret missions, 16 separate invasions, and more than 36 amphibious assaults all across the Pacific. In the process, they cleared the way for General Douglas MacArthur’s return to the Philippines. 

In December 1941 – after the attacks on Pearl Harbor – General MacArthur instituted a series of steps that would fail, leading to the surrender of US Forces. American troops under McArthur were ill-equipped. Fighting with rifles from WWI, they had very little food and even less support from the military. But even when faced with these odds, they fought the Japanese almost six months before Lieutenant General Jonathan Wainwright was forced to surrender in the spring of 1942. 

One of the soldiers who had continued fighting and was ultimately taken prisoner of war by the Japanese was another Graham County Hero named Wayne Carringer. It amazes me that it was a Graham County sailor/hero named Dillard E. Williams who led the way – along with his fellow frogmen – to retake the Philippines in 1945.

Dangerous work

The teams cleared the channels with demolitions so that the landing crafts could safely navigate the waters and get the troops to shore. The military learned the hard way – from prior experiences – that troop carriers ran the risk of getting hung up on man-made obstacles, coral reefs or sand bars, thus leaving the troops exposed and caught up in enemy fire. The teams also located and destroyed mines and booby traps that would have demolished landing crafts and cost American lives. 

In the water – with nothing but their heads sticking out – they were in the sights of the enemy and in front of the invading forces, facing the same dangers that Navy Seals face today during covert operations. They often had to swim long distances in rubber and canvas boots and long pants, because the coral was sharp as a razor. It would cut their skin and they would end up with serious infections. 

Usually, the only weapon they had on their body was a K-bar knife. Enemy snipers would often locate them in the water and start firing. While in the water, all they had were a couple of small rubber boats that they pulled along behind them to carry demolitions. These boats were not effective at stopping bullets, so they would dive and swim from place to place to avoid the snipers. Eventually they could return and finish loading the demolitions and complete their assignment.

When not in the water, the two teams were on different ships moving from island to island doing their part to defeat Japanese forces. The ships would routinely come under fire from Japanese fighters and Kamikaze (suicide bombers) who would try and sink the ships.

Family ties 

Dillard’s brother Jimmy Williams had also joined the Navy and was in the Pacific on another ship. Dillard knew Jimmy was aboard this ship the day he saw it attacked. He told Karen he tried every way to get the information and was so relieved when he found out two heart-wrenching weeks later Jimmy had indeed survived.

Dillard’s team witnessed many enemy aircraft being shot down and watched as naval ships shelled the shore lines while they were in the water loading their ordinances. 

One newspaper article I read was entitled: “Japanese Retreat As Americans Advance.” Another read: “Manila’s Liberation Nears; Japs Doomed.”

The fight ends

After two years of clearing the way for American forces, Units 2 and 3 were eventually sent back to Maui, Hawaii. They were to undergo what was termed “advanced training,” in preparation for a large-scale major invasion of Japan. The teams had helped to advance the military all across the Pacific toward Japan in what was to be the final battle. Because of the two years of service they had already put into the teams, they were granted leave to come home. 

While home, they got word that the U.S. had dropped two atomic bombs on Japan, that the Japanese had surrendered and the war was over. The team members were spared from having to return and face what surely would have been one of their toughest missions. 

Dillard’s daughter told me that her dad didn’t talk a lot about the war, but that he did mention that he and another team member helped to carry the wounded off the Island of Borneo. This man was his friend, “Sam Pahdopony,” a Comanche Indian from Norman, Okla. 

Dillard’s co-workers at Alcoa also knew him as a quiet man who usually had very little to say. He never spoke of the war. Most men who saw the things he did preferred not to talk about it. 

Post-war recognition

Karen Williams made her first trip last year to the annual muster at the National Naval UDT - Seal Museum in Fort Pierce, Fla., where her dad and his team members are honored and memorialized. 

She donated some items her dad had brought home from his time in the Pacific, including the diary of a Japanese solider, which the museum is having translated. From the drawings, it seems to belong to an officer.   

Karen states that she was so overwhelmed by the experience. Several active duty Navy Seals came up to her and stated, “It was men like your dad who made it possible for us to do what we do today!” 

These days Karen supports numerous programs at the museum, including the Frogman Foundry K9 program, which provides combat and service dogs for veterans. The dogs also work in outreach and educational experiences to help educate the public. The program will ensure that our youth know about the service and sacrifice of the Naval Underwater Demolition Teams and Navy Seals.  

It is Karen’s hope that others will also take an interest in the museum and the many programs it has to offer. Their website is navysealmuseum.org. I hope to someday make the trip, visit the museum myself and find the name of this unsung hero from Graham County, N.C., if nothing more than to simply stand there with hand over heart and say, “Thank you, Mr. Williams, for what you did for our country.” 

While talking to Karen, she told me that her dad never received any of his service medals. I was floored.

I immediately contacted Congressman Mark Meadows and told him of the situation. He immediately contacted Karen Williams and is working to get Dillard’s medals for her. Such a shame and disgrace that this simple man, a hero, was treated in such a way! Hopefully, Congressman Meadows can make some of it right. I know he will give it his all. 

The heroism and accomplishments of Dillard E. Williams and the members of Class 1 of Underwater Demolition Teams were too great not to tell. They were the “Frogmen,” the forerunners to the elite U.S. Navy Seals. 

To say the Frog Men of WWII helped to defeat, liberate and advance the American war effort all around the globe would be an understatement. 

I consider myself extremely privileged to have known Graham County’s Frog Man, a true American Hero. 

Writing his story has been one of the greatest honors of my life.