By James Draper
The torch has been passed.
For decades, U.S. Marine (ret.) Leon Watson was the principle caretaker of the Medal of Honor gravesite of U.S. Army Master Sgt. Travis E. Watkins. Watson and other area veterans ensured the final resting place of the Korean War hero was well-tended at Gladewater Memorial Park.
Years pass and so do the duties people bear – on Monday, Watson laid a symbolic penny on Watkins’ gravestone, followed moments later by four Gladewater firefighters in a simple ceremony to ensure the grave will be respected for years to come.
More honors and activities are being planned for the weeks, months and years ahead. For now, though, a crisp flag flies cracks in the wind over a brightly-painted flagpole. The plot below is newly-landscaped, the marble is freshly-polished and the bronze Medal of Honor plaque has been given an extra shine.
“I’m glad they’ve taken this on,” Watson said, admiring GFD’s recent handiwork. “We’d hate to have someone like this who’s not recognized.”
Watkins was an Army soldier and veteran of World War II who was killed in the Korean War in action that began August 31, 1950, during the Battle of Yongsan. Following courageous acts on the battlefield, Watkins was killed Sept. 3, 1950, and later interred in Gladewater Memorial Park. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in February 1951.
Watson served in the Marines from 1959 to 1963. Naturally, the Gladewater native and veteran knew of Watkins’ legacy and of his gravesite at Gladewater Memorial Park, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that a representative of the National Medal of Honor Society visited town and recruited Watson to help install an official plaque on Watkins’ final resting place.
“At the time, I was active in the Marine Reserves,” the retired gunnery sergeant said, “so I got a Color Guard together for the occasion.”
Later, he tended the grave, but there were no other specific celebrations in the following years until President George H.W. Bush signed into law the national Medal of Honor Day, set annually on March 25 since it was first observed in 1991.
Watson and his fellow veterans continued to care for the gravesite over the years but at “82 knocking on 83,” the former Gladewater City Council member is content to pass on the privilege to Gladewater Fire Department, whose personnel – veterans among them – will show the plot the respect it deserves in perpetuity.
They’ve already made a significant impact, enlisting a litany of volunteers to enhance the Medal of Honor winner’s space.
Before they got started, “The flag that was here was tattered and worn,” Watson said, and there was no key to be found for the padlock put in place by the Korean War Veterans Association. As his brother was a retired GFD firefighter, “I called the fire department to see if they would come out and cut that lock off for me so I could change that out. They did, and ever since then Gladewater Fire Department has been involved in maintaining this.”
From enhancing the landscaping to adding solar lights and revitalizing the flagpole, the department’s firefighters (veterans among them) and other volunteers have made diligent improvements. Several joined Watson Monday to place their own pennies on Watkins’ headstone.
“It comes from the Wounded Warrior Project,” GFD Fire Chief Mike Simmons noted. “When people come and visit any kind of veteran’s grave, you put a penny down.”
A nickel means the person served with the fallen at boot camp. A dime indicates they served together elsewhere. If a quarter is laid at a gravesite, it means that individual witnessed the service member’s death.
“You can go anywhere in the world where Americans have served, and you’ll see coins on graves.”
After Watson’s coin was in place, Simmons insisted GFD Capt. Kevin place his penny next: “He kind of took the bull by the horns when he came out here and saw the flag and said, ‘Can we do something?'”
Palmer is a veteran himself – he joined the Army in 1998 – and spearheaded the gravesite revitalization alongside his GFD colleagues.
Gladewater firefighters Tim Basham and Josh Ewald were among the volunteers who helped with the project and laid down pennies as well Monday afternoon.
“I think this is going to generate some interest and we’ll get back to doing an annual event,” Simmons said. Meanwhile, “At least we’re getting back to doing Wreaths Across America. It’s a good starting point, and we’ll go from here.”
That memorial observation – set in December – has already collected more than half the cost of 400 wreaths ($6,800 at $17 apiece) to be placed on veterans’ graves throughout Gladewater Dec. 16. Donations by individuals, families, churches, businesses and other organizations should be directed to Gladewater Chamber of Commerce’s Lois Reed.
In the meantime, Simmons is proud of his personnel and Bucket Brigade volunteers for honoring Watkins’ grave with time to spare before the Sept. 3 commemoration of his sacrifice.
“Definitely a marked improvement from where it was to where it is now.”
M/Sgt. Watkins distinguished himself by conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty in action against the enemy. When an overwhelming enemy force broke through and isolated 30 men of his unit, he took command, established a perimeter defense and directed action which repelled continuous, fanatical enemy assaults. With his group completely surrounded and cut off, he moved from foxhole to foxhole exposing himself to enemy fire, giving instructions, and offering encouragement to his men. Later when the need for ammunition and grenades became critical he shot two enemy soldiers 50 yards outside the perimeter and went out alone for their ammunition and weapons. As he picked up their weapons he was attacked by three others and wounded. Returning their fire he killed all three and gathering up the weapons of the five enemy dead returned to his amazed comrades. During a later assault, six enemy soldiers gained a defiladed spot and began to throw grenades into the perimeter making it untenable. Realizing the desperate situation and disregarding his wound, he rose from his foxhole to engage them with rifle fire. Although immediately hit by a burst from an enemy machine gun he continued to fire until he had killed the grenade throwers. With this threat eliminated he collapsed and despite being paralyzed from the waist down, encouraged his men to hold on. He refused all food, saving it for his comrades, and when it became apparent that help would not arrive in time to hold the position ordered his men to escape to friendly lines. Refusing evacuation as his hopeless condition would burden his comrades, he remained in his position and cheerfully wished them luck. Through his aggressive leadership and intrepid actions, this small force destroyed nearly 500 of the enemy before abandoning their position. M/Sgt. Watkins’ sustained personal bravery and noble self-sacrifice reflect the highest glory upon himself and is in keeping with the esteemed traditions of the U.S. Army.