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This Day in History: George Watson's Medal of Honor

On this day in 1943, a soldier is awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. The award made U.S. Army Private George Watson the first black man to be honored for his actions during World War II. That Cross was later upgraded to a Medal of Honor.

Watson was, in some ways, an unlikely military hero. He excelled in math and wanted to go to college, but his family could not afford the tuition. He persevered, working as a janitor and a firefighter to finance his college education. He finally graduated from Colorado A&M in 1942.

Then, the war intervened. As so many did in those days, he put his dreams on hold and enlisted in the Army. He was immediately dispatched to the Pacific.

On March 8, 1943, Watson was among those being transported from Australia to New Guinea aboard a chartered Dutch steamer, USAT Jacob. The steamer was just entering Porlock Bay, in New Guinea, when shipboard alarms rang out: Two Japanese squadrons were approaching.

Japanese bombers scored three direct hits on Jacob during the attack that followed.

Watson was on Jacob’s deck with his friend James Guilford when the Japanese attacked. The scene was chaotic as the ship erupted in flames and men began jumping into the water. Guilford caught up two life jackets and handed one to Watson, but Watson declined. He was a strong swimmer. Someone else should have the life jacket.

Together, the two men leapt out of the sinking ship. It was 40 feet into the water, and the jump plunged Guilford too deep into the water. He couldn’t swim, and he was struggling, despite the life jacket. Watson grabbed his friend and helped him to a life raft—but then he refused to get in himself. Instead, he turned back toward the sinking Jacob.

He could see that more men were out there, struggling. They needed help.

Remember: The ship could go down at any minute, creating a huge suction that would drown anyone who was too close. Watson went anyway. In fact, he went back multiple times. Several men were saved because Watson retrieved them from where they were floundering in the water, pulling them back to the relative safety of the life rafts.

In the end, Watson went back one too many times and couldn’t save himself. “Weakened by continuous physical exertion and overcome by muscular fatigue,” his Medal citation describes, “Private Watson drowned when the suction of the sinking ship dragged him beneath the surface of the swirling waters.”

Army Major General Harry F. Hazlett presented Watson’s Distinguished Service Cross to his grandmother soon afterwards. “George died in the shining splendor of high courage and utter unselfishness,” he said at the time, “true to the best traditions of the American soldier, an inspiration to every real American.”

Decades later, the Army engaged independent researchers to “determine if there was a racial disparity in the way Medal of Honor recipients were selected” during World War II. It was determined that Watson had met the standards for the Medal. Thus, an old wrong was corrected on January 13, 1997, when Sergeant Major Eugene McKinney received the Medal on Watson’s behalf in a White House ceremony.

The President closed with a note about Watson:

“I think it might be an appropriate way to close to say that when I gave Mr. Watson’s medal to the Sergeant Major of the Army, he looked at it and smiled and he said, ‘This is indicative of the type of soldiers we have today, a group of people in our military, men and women, that really do reflect the vast and rich texture of our Nation.’”

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