Army Master Sgt. Travis E. Watkins, a Gladewater Medal of Honor recipient, was remembered on Saturday afternoon during an annual memorial ceremony that acknowledged his brave service during the Korean War.
The Congressional Medal of Honor, the U.S. military’s highest honor, is bestowed upon those who serve with conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty.
Watkins was awarded the Medal of Honor after his courageous actions during the Korean War.
According to the official Medal of Honor citation, Watkins distinguished himself through courageous acts of leadership and bravery action against the enemy.
In August 1950, during the Second Battle of Naktong Bulge, Watkins and 30 of his men were separated from the rest of their regiment by an enemy advance, leaving them surrounded near Yongsan, in present-day South Korea.
Watkins took command and ordered his men to establish a defensive perimeter to repel concentrated enemy assaults.
As the group maintained a defensive posture, the Gladewater native moved from foxhole to foxhole, exposing himself to enemy fire, while shouting orders and words of encouragement to his men.
During the defense, as ammunition and grenades ran low, Watkins shot and killed two enemy soldiers 50 yards outside of the defense perimeter. He then went out alone to retrieve their weapons.
As he left the perimeter, he was wounded by fire from three enemy soldiers. He then successfully returned fire, killing all three aggressors, and retrieved ammunition from the five dead enemy soldiers.
During a later enemy assault, several enemy soldiers gained an advantageous position and began to throw grenades into the American’s defensive perimeter, further damaging the integrity of their position. In a desperate move, Watkins rose from his foxhole — still wounded — and killed the grenade throwers, after receiving further injuries by enemy machine gun fire.
Watkins’ wounds left him paralyzed from the waist down, though this did not stop him from encouraging his men until they could egress to friendly lines.
He refused all food, as he did not want to take away from his comrades, and when the time came to evacuate, Watkins refused evacuation, wishing not to burden his men in his helpless condition.
“Through his aggressive leadership and intrepid actions,” the citation reads, “this small force destroyed nearly 500 of the enemy before abandoning their position.”
President Harry Truman presented the Congressional Medal of Honor Watkins posthumously in 1951.
Bob Perry, president of Chapter 286 of the Korean War Veterans Association, said that the ceremony has been held annually for six years, when someone told then-KWVA president Jim Gill about a Medal of Honor recipient buried at Gladewater Memorial Cemetery. The headstone, Perry said, was nothing special.
“We have to do something better than that,” he said. “Because the Congressional Medal of Honor — they don’t just hand those out.”
The KWVA then paid for Watkins’ grave to be revamped. It now includes a bronze plaque, a flagpole and a light that stays on 24/7, among other things.
The distinguished guest of the event was Jason Branch, Watkins’ grandson.
Branch, of Houston, said that while his grandfather would be appreciative of the ceremony, he would most likely be a bit uncomfortable.
“I think he would look at what he did, and would say that he was just doing his job,” Branch said. “He was doing what was right, and he was doing what was necessary.”
During his address, he also issued a challenge to those in attendance to thank all those who have served in the military.
He said that the ceremony was great, because it’s one of the many chances that regular citizens get to thank those who served.
“We should take every opportunity to thank them,” he said. “I don’t think that my grandfather’s sacrifice is any different than the sacrifice that others make when they choose to serve.”
Army Maj. Gen. John Furlow, one of the featured speakers, stressed the importance of those who serve.
“Service members, who make up less than one percent of our population, are doing their job, to ensure the preservation of liberty and the rights that we enjoy,” he said. “And that we should always be encumbered to, and always be in remembrance of.”
Furlow said remembering the price of freedom is crucial.
“A nation should be judged by how they treat their veterans and elders,” he said.
The next mission for the KWVA, Perry said, is renaming the 12-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 80 that cuts through Big Sandy and Gladewater the “Sergeant Travis E. Watkins Memorial Highway.”
Perry said that State Senator Kevin Eltife already has passed the bill, SB139, through. Now the city of Gladewater needs to raise about $6,000 to pay for the signs, which are to be placed at both ends of the 12-mile stretch.