Valor Friday

| October 30, 2020

Charles Watters was a 35 year old Roman Catholic priest in the Newark, New Jersey area, where he’d been born and raised, when he enlisted as a chaplain with the New Jersey Air National Guard in 1962. An experienced light aircraft pilot, he’d flown single-engine planes as far away as Argentina. In 1964 though he elected to enter active duty with the Army in the Chaplain Corps.

By July 1966 he’d finished airborne training and was assigned to the 173rd Support Battalion, a part of the 173rd Airborne Infantry Brigade, for a 12 month tour of duty in Vietnam.

Chaplain Watters conducting a baptism

While there he conducted mass, baptisms, and was known for being among the men. During his tour there he received both the Air Medal and a Bronze Star Medal for valor. He has the rare distinction of having made a combat parachute drop into Vietnam.

Father Watters conducting a mass in the field

February 22, 1967 saw Operation Junction City kick off. It would be the largest airborne operation since Operation Varsity during World War II in 1945. Eight battalions of infantry aboard 249 helicopters were joined by 845 paratroopers of the 173rd Airborne Brigade who made the only mass jump of the war. Among these elite warriors was Chaplain Watters.

Casualties of Operation Junction City were high. Despite killing thousands of the Vietcong (VC) enemy and depriving them of hundreds of tons of food and war materiel, the Americans suffered more than 200 men killed and 1,500 wounded.

July 1967 saw Major Watters set to rotate home, but he volunteered to extend for an additional six months. And so it was that Watters was accompanying the front line men of the brigade on 19 November, 1967 as they took part in the Battle of Dak To.

Across the summer of ‘67, fighting with the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and the VC had been intense. Operation Greeley had been conducted, which was a large scale search and destroy operation in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. This had involved the US 4th Infantry Division, the 173rd Airborne Brigade, and several large formations of South Vietnamese troops. It ended when the NVA suddenly seemed to retreat.

It turns out, they were just biding their time. By October US intelligence was that the NVA forces had been reinforced, becoming the NVA 1st Infantry Division. Their goal was to attack at Dak To to destroy a US brigade. A defector provided additional intel that described where the enemy forces were placed. This led to Operation MacArthur being launched by the US and our South Vietnamese allies. What would happen in the following weeks during November 1967 would be some of the bloodiest fighting of the war. The hills south and southeast of Dak To would, specifically be some of the worst.

Two weeks into the fighting, on 19 November, Watters was with 2nd Battalion, 503rd Airborne Infantry Regiment as three companies (totalling about 330 men) commenced an attack at Hill 875. This was the same battalion he’d jumped with in the previous year.

2nd Battalion started their assault at about a quarter to 1000 hours. They employed the textbook “two up, one back” formation in which Companies C and D made a direct attack while the third company, Company A brought up the rear and cut out a landing zone at the base of the hill.

Movement up the hill was slowed by the thick underbrush, but as the hour struck 10 they were within 300 meters of the hill’s crest. It was then that the well entrenched enemy forces opened up from their fortified emplacements with machine gun fire.

Casualties mounted. Chaplain Watters ran, without regard for his own safety, to the front of the lines. Unarmed, fully exposed, and apparently without fear, the padre not only ran to the front of the battleline, he got in front of it. He placed himself between the enemy and the wounded as he provided first aid and gave last rites to those down most forward. He moved through the open, constantly exposing himself to enemy fire, to move between positions to provide care, encourage the men, and coordinate the evacuation of those injured.

One young soldier at the front of the assault was frozen in shock. Already wounded, the man was standing there a prime target for the enemy. Major Watters ran to the man, picked him up, hoisting him onto his shoulders. The priest single-handedly carried the man to a position of safety.

The paratroopers pressed the assault, but the enemy responded with rockets and 57mm recoilless rifle rounds. As the Americans moved relentlessly forward into this maelstrom to capture their objective, the enemy, concealed in a large tunnel and bunker network, cut into them with small arms fire and grenades. The chaplain saw one man at the forefront of the attack get cut down. Again, with no hesitation and no regard for his own mortal safety, he rushed forward into the enemy fire to come to the man’s aid.

As the men attempted to pull back to reform for a second frontal assault, Chaplain Watters saw two American men lying wounded and being left behind. The father ran out of the retreating battle line and into not just a field of enemy fire but friendly fire to rescue the two paratroops.

The enemy fire too great to overcome, the men of C and D Company were forced to ground, finding whatever cover they could, to wait for reinforcement. As they formed a hasty perimeter Watters saw several injured men were stuck outside the line and subjected to enemy fire.

Again, without any second thoughts, and fighting against attempts to restrain him, the padre went out to their aid. Subjected to small arms and automatic weapons fire as well as enemy mortars raining down, the chaplain carried and aided the men back.

He couldn’t get them all though. He went back out.

Carrying and dragging more men back, he still hadn’t saved everyone left behind. He went back out.

For a third time, finally able to get the injured back to relative safety, the father could finally take a moment’s rest.

At 1430 hours Company A (the rear guard element) was taken under heavy fire from several hidden enemy formations behind the battalion. The company was forced to move up the hill in a retreat, lest they be cut off from the rest of the battalion and destroyed. One of the men of the company, Carlos Lozada, of the Heavy Weapons Platoon of Company A, would use his M60 machine gun to cover their retreat. Refusing to retreat himself, he mowed down wave after wave of well-disciplined NVA soldiers so his comrades could survive. The valiant private first class wouldn’t leave his post until he was fatally wounded by the enemy. He’d receive the Medal of Honor posthumously for his bravery.

Airstrikes were called in on the encircling enemy, but were ineffective against the dug-in enemy. As the afternoon dragged on, the men ran low on supplies and ammunition. Six UH-1 Huey helicopters were shot down or badly damaged attempting to resupply 2nd Battalion.

Through hours and hours of vicious fighting that saw the Americans largely on the defensive, Chaplain Watters was a source of calm. As the fluid battleline moved, the chaplain was always right there, usually in front of the American line, providing food, water, and encouragement to the able-bodied. At 40 years of age, the chaplain displayed divine stamina, not just keeping up with elite paratroopers half his age, but surpassing them. To the wounded he provided medical aid and even physical evacuation when they couldn’t carry themselves. To the dying, he was there with them in their final moments. The priest was everywhere during the hectic battle.

The beleaguered troops hoped for salvation from the sky. Numerous close air support missions were flown, dropping munitions on the enemy, to little effect. As the 2nd Battalion was at risk of being overrun and annihilated at any moment, these air strikes were conducted “danger close.”

As the men hunkered down in their defensive perimeter, Watters continued his tireless efforts to care for his men. He dressed wounds alongside the medics, distributed food and water, and spread hope and encouragement to those on the line.

Just before 1900 hours a US Marine Corps A-4 Skyhawk was on one such sortie. As the attack plane flew in the pilot dropped two 500-pound bombs. He missed his target and the two munitions exploded within the 2/503rd’s perimeter in what would be the worst friendly fire incident of the war.

Striking right into the command element and where the wounded had been staged, dozens of paratroopers were killed by the bombs and dozens more wounded. Among the dead was a man who had tempted fate for nearly 12 hours of constant battle, Major (Chaplain) Charles Watters.

For his repeated “unyielding perseverance and selfless devotion to his comrades” Major Watters was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. Vice President Spiro Agnew conducted the ceremony, which also posthumously honored Private First Class John Andrew Barnes III and Private First Class Robert Stryker with Medals of Honor. The 22 year old Barnes was also a member of the 173rd Airborne Brigade who jumped on a live grenade to save his comrades. Stryker was a 1st Infantry Division soldier who jumped on an enemy claymore mine as it detonated, saving the lives of several men of his squad. Stryker would (along with a World War II MoH recipient also named Stryker [no relation]) become the namesake for the Army’s Stryker combat vehicle.

2/503rd would be reinforced the next day, but the battle raged on for two days until there was an American tactical victory on the 21st of November.

The Battle of Hill 875 cost the 2/503rd Airborne the lives of 87 men with more than 100 wounded and three missing. The missing men, SP4 Jack L. Croxdale II, PFC Benjamin D. DeHerrera, and SGT Donald Iandoli, have yet to be recovered. The losses suffered by the 2nd Battalion, 503rd Airborne in that one battle accounted for one-fifth of the 173rd Airborne Brigade’s total strength. The 173rd Airborne Brigade received a Presidential Unit Citation (the unit-level equivalent of a Distinguished Service Cross) for their collective valor during the battle.

On an online memorial to the chaplain some of his men write haunting remembrances to Major Watters of that fateful day that I’d like to share. More than 50 years have passed, but the presence of the priest can still be felt today in their messages.

Under the title “Omnipresence”; “There were approximately 300 of us who initiated the fight for Hill 875 that infamous November morn. From the outset, our perimeter was impossible to define. How the padre managed to embed himself in every conceivable location within our ranks is beyond my comprehension.”

Titled “You walked with us”; “It was an extreme honor to know you, Father Watters. I was at your final service on that eerie, quiet morning before going up Hill 875. Your smile, positive attitude, and dedication to us has been a permanent inspiration for me. It will be 50yrs this Nov. 19th since I received communion on that deadly day. Father, for 50 years I have remembered you when I receive communion. I thank god for you being with us when you did not have to be there.”

Another man says, “My name is John Berry. It is my high honor to have known Father Watters. I was not catholic but went to his services on occasion. He usually was in his typical east coast fast talk mode. The services he performed the morning we went up on 875 he was unusually slow and deliberate. In retrospect it was almost like he had knowledge of what was going to happen.

“As D Company RTO with my friend and bro Robert Flemming, we saw Father Watters coming from the very front lines of the battle. As he passed by we asked him where his helmet was. His reply was “I carry my protection a little higher”. With that he was off to attend the wounded. That was the last time I saw him.

“God bless you Father Watters, as we have been blessed in having known you.”

Watters rests in Arlington National Cemetery with countless other American heroes.

Category: Army, Historical, Medal of Honor, Real Soldiers, Valor, We Remember

Comments (11)

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  1. FuzeVT says:

    Truly inspirational.
    V. Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine.
    R. Et lux perpetua luceat eis.
    Fidelium animae, per misericordiam Dei, requiescant in pace. Amen.

  2. Sapper3307 says:

    Big & Rich-8th November (video)
    Play it loud.
    https://youtu.be/h_OyFoxp_uo

  3. Roh-Dog says:

    Thank you Father Watters.
    Airborne!

  4. AW1Ed says:

    Hand Salute. Ready, Two!

    Thanks again, Mason.

  5. Wilted Willy says:

    BZ to the Padre!
    May God Bless your Soul.

  6. Thunderstixx says:

    Dusty day here in Kyle…

  7. Sparks says:

    God rest you well Father Watters. You are never forgotten.

  8. 5th/77th FA says:

    “I carry my protection a little higher.” Amen!

    Didn’t think pollen would be a problem this time of year, must be the air filters need changing…or fur baby dander…or…reasons.

    “That such Men lived” Gun Salute…Fire by the Battery…PREPARE!…FIRE! Rest Easy Padre.

    Thanks Mason.

  9. Green Thumb says:

    Hardcore.

  10. Toxic Deplorable Racist SAH B Woodman says:

    I am not Catholic, but I would have been honored to receive Communion, the Body and Blood of Christ our King, Lord, and Savior, at this good Father’s hands.