This Day in History: Travis Watkins & his bravery in Korea
On this day in 1920, a hero is born. Travis E. Watkins is remembered for his service in the Korean War, but he was a World War II hero as well. He’d been at Pearl Harbor when that base was attacked by the Japanese, and he went on to serve in the Pacific theater of the war.
His service at Guadalcanal earned him a Bronze Star, but he seems to have known that his service in the Pacific wouldn’t be the end of it.
Watkins returned home after the war and proposed to his longtime sweetheart, Madie Sue Barnett. His proposal had a twist: He didn’t expect to grow old with his new wife. “I don’t expect to live to be 30,” he told her. She married him anyway. The young couple had a baby girl and another on the way when Watkins left for Korea.
On August 31, 1950, Master Sergeant Watkins was serving near Yongsan, Korea. The fighting was intense, and Watkins became isolated behind enemy lines along with 30 other soldiers. Every officer had been killed, so Watkins took charge.
He organized his men and set up a defensive perimeter, moving from foxhole to foxhole to direct and encourage his men. Each movement exposed him to “continuous, fanatical” fire from the enemy, as his Medal of Honor citation describes, but it didn’t matter. Watkins did what had to be done.
The small group of soldiers were under siege for days, and they began to run out of ammunition. Again, Watkins knew what had to be done—and he did it.
Two of the enemy came within 50 yards of the American position, so Watkins shot and killed them, running from the relative safety of the American position to retrieve their weapons. As he ran for the enemy supplies, three other enemy soldiers attacked him. He returned fire, of course.
Would you believe that he was soon returning to the American foxholes with the weapons and ammunition of all five of the enemy? Needless to say, Watkins’s daring move provided a huge morale boost to his men.
A few hours later, Watkins would put his life on the line again. Six of the enemy had worked their way close to the Americans—too close. They were near enough to throw grenades past the American defenses. Watkins rose from his foxhole. “Although immediately hit by a burst from an enemy machine gun he continued to fire until he had killed the grenade throwers,” his Medal citation describes. The injuries he suffered in these moments were serious. His spine was shattered, and he was left paralyzed from the waist down.
But Watkins was unwavering. He continued to direct his men, even as he refused all food and medical aid. Perhaps he knew he wouldn’t make it? He wanted the food saved for those with a fighting chance.
Finally, on September 3, there was an opportunity to escape. Watkins ordered his men to retreat and to leave him behind. He would be a burden, complicating their escape and potentially making it impossible. He asked only that his men leave him a loaded rifle before waving them off cheerfully.
Watkins died not too long afterwards. It was September 3, just two days before his 30th birthday.
“Through his aggressive leadership and intrepid actions,” his citation concludes, “this small force destroyed nearly 500 of the enemy before abandoning their position.”
President Harry Truman presented Watkins’s Medal of Honor to his widow just a few short months later.
Rest in peace, Sir.
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Art Leatherwood, Watkins, Travis E. (1920–1950) (Texas State Historical Association website)
Bob Smith, Widow Recalls Watkins (Longview News-Journal; May 4, 1986) (p. 1-C)
Cory McCoy, Korean War vets to honor memory of Travis E. Watkins (Tyler Morning Telegraph; March 24, 2015)
Medal of Honor citation (Travis E. Watkins; Korea)
The VLB Recognizes the Heroism of Medal of Honor Recipient Travis E. Watkins (Texas Veterans Land Board blog; Sept. 2, 2020)
Travis E. Watkins (Texas State Cemetery)
Travis Earl Watkins (1920–1950) (Encyclopedia of Arkansas)
Van Craddock. Medal of Honor recipient sold his life dearly (Longview News-Journal; Sept. 2, 2006) (p. 15)