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Marching in honor

Watkins Field honors hero

JBLM’s Watkins Field is named in honor of Master Sgt. Travis E. Watkins, who was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in 1951. Photo credit: J.M. Simpson

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A part of Camp Lewis, Fort Lewis and now Joint Base Lewis-McChord, the field takes its name from Master Sgt. Travis Earl Watkins.

The eldest of three sons, Watkins was born in 1920 in the small town of Waldo, Arkansas.

In time, his family moved to the slightly larger town of Troup, Texas.

"He was an average boy," recalled Mary Helen Martin, Watkins' first cousin.

"He was kind-hearted; he always wanted to help; and he was into everything."

After graduating from high school, Watkins enlisted in the Army in 1939.

Sent to the Pacific theater during World War II, Watkins earned a Bronze Star during the Guadalcanal Campaign (August 1942-February 1943).

At the war's end, he returned home to Texas where he met and married Madie Sue Barnett in April 1948.

"He told her when he asked her to marry him that he would ‘not live to be thirty years old,'" recounted Jason Branch, Watkins' grandson.

Branch added that his grandfather had an artistic side to him, and that he wanted to work drawing ads for newspapers.

That all changed when war broke out in Korea.  Not long after, Watkins reenlisted in the Army.  

"I can tell you that he was away most of the time - Japan, Fort Lewis, Korea.  And I also can tell you that he was military from the top of his head to the soles of his shoes," recounted his sister-in-law Bonnie Watkins.

When Watkins left Fort Lewis for Korea, he was assigned to Company H, 9th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division.

He and the soldiers he led soon found themselves in southeastern Korea on the Pusan Perimeter next to the Natkong River.

On Aug. 31, 1950, a major force of North Korean troops appeared out of a dense fog and attacked.

The Second Battle of Natkong Bulge had begun.  It would last for 15 days.

"All day the battle raged on," wrote Pfc. Edward Gregory, Jr., Company B, 23rd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division, in The Korean War: Pusan to Chosin, an Oral History.

Thousands of North Korean troops crossed the Naktong River, and Watkins' and 30 soldiers were cut off.

"We fought hard, hoping to hold our position until relief arrived. The situation became more and more critical. ... We were being fired on from all sides," continued Gregory.

The fighting spilled over into September, and the outnumbered American line of defense soon suffered from a lack of water, food and ammunition.

Determined to hold his ground, Watkins took command and directed action on enemy assaults.  He moved from one defensive position to another, exposing himself to enemy fire while giving instructions and encouragement to his soldiers.

When ammunition ran short, Watkins ran out, shot two enemy soldiers and retrieved their weapons and ammunition.

As he did, he was attacked by three other enemy soldiers and wounded.  Killing them, Watkins added their weapons and ammunition to take back to his soldiers.

The fighting continued into the 3rd, and the North Koreans repeated their assaults.  At one point, six enemy soldiers gained an advantage that allowed them to hurl grenades into the company's position.

Watkins attacked the six.

Wounded by machine fire, he fought until the threat was eliminated.

Paralyzed from the waist down, Watkins continued to encourage his soldiers.  

When rations arrived he refused to eat, saying his soldiers needed them more than he did.

Soon thereafter, Watkins ordered his men to move back toward the friendly line. Over 500 enemy soldiers lay dead.

Not wanting to slow his men down, Watkins stayed behind.

"He remained in his position and cheerfully wished them good luck," reads his Medal of Honor citation.

Watkins died soon after - two days before his 30th birthday.  

For his actions, Master Sgt. Travis E. Watkins was posthumously awarded the nation's highest medal, which was presented by President Harry Truman to his wife Jan. 9, 1951.

Not long thereafter, the parade field at Fort Lewis was named in his honor.

Credits:  Waldo (Arkansas) City Hall, Magnolia (Arkansas) Public Library, Mr. David Watkins, Miss Mary Helen Martin, Mrs. Dianne Branch, and Mr. Jason Branch 

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