NAPPANEE — Do you know what this Sunday (November 11) is? Yes, you there in the gray hair and the American Legion cap. That’s right, it’s Veterans Day, when we celebrate those heroes who fought to keep our country free and returned home to tell about it. Do you know what Veterans Day used to be called? It was called Armistice Day, a celebration of the end of the Great War in 1918, the War to End All Wars, World War I.
Except that it didn’t work out that way. Barely 20 years later, Sept. 1, 1939, German armor rolled into Poland and World War II was underway. It was a couple more years before America got involved, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941. Once again, millions of Americans were called upon to protect our country, defeat tyranny, and ensure freedom for others. They are known today as “The Greatest Generation.” This is the story of one of them.
Dale Watkins was a local boy, born and raised on a farm outside of Bourbon. He was working as a carpenter at the Nappanee Lumber and Furniture Company, earning a whopping 40 cents an hour, when Uncle Sam came calling in 1942. By coincidence, the day Watkins was interviewed for this story (July 23) was exactly 70 years to the day from when he was sworn into the United States Army.
“I was with the 115th Combat Engineers, 160th Regiment, 40th Division,” he said. “I guess they figured that’s where I belonged since I was a carpenter.”
After training in California, Watkins shipped out for Hawaii, where he learned to build pontoon bridges, take heights and other measurements, and “take a lot of 10-mile hikes.” “We did a lot of walking; I also got pretty good at pushing wheelbarrows of cement,” he explained with a laugh. “We built pillboxes all over the island (Oahu) and strung a lot of barbed wire.”
It wasn’t long, however, before his unit moved out into the Pacific to join the island-by-island battle against the Empire of Japan. Watkins fetched up first on the island of Guadalcanal, site of the first major offensive in the Pacific theatre by Allied forces.
“Most of the fighting was over by then,” he said. “Our job was to improve the airfield and the roads.”
Conditions were horrible. “…mud up to your knees, 100 degrees every day, and the mosquitoes just ate you up,” he explained. “You were lucky if a pair of boots lasted you three weeks. There’s just not a place on this earth worse than Guadalcanal.”
In April 1944, having finished the job on Guadalcanal, the 115th was on the move again, this time to the island of New Britain.
“It was also pretty much under (Allied) control when we got there,” recalled Watkins. “We built a hospital and practiced amphibious landings, getting ready to invade Luzon (in the Philippines).”
And before long, off they went, Watkins and 160,000 of his fellow soldiers in a convoy of more than 3,000 ships.
“We landed in Lingayen Gulf, coming ashore in Higgins boats,” he said while recounting a near-miss when a Japanese kamikaze plane struck a small “escort carrier” just 200 yards from his troop ship. “From there, we headed south toward Manila. … We moved along with the infantry, filling in ravines and building pontoon bridges.”
The engineers weren’t supposed to move at night but circumstances dictated otherwise.
“One night we passed a schoolyard where a company of Jap soldiers was hiding,” Watkins said. “We set up camp in a low area next to the stream we were to bridge the next day.” After midnight, the Japanese decided to launch a banzai charge right down the road.
He continued: “Somebody opened up on them with a .50 caliber machine gun and they ran off the road and right down where we were camped! It was complete chaos, pitch black, everybody screaming and yelling and shooting.”
Watkins managed to survive that encounter unscathed but was not so lucky the next time when he was wounded by a “knee mortar” while under attack by Japanese artillery. “We had taken cover under a trailer but the tires got cut by the mortars and the trailer started to settle,” Watkins said. “We decided we’d better get out from under it and just as we did, a mortar went off right next to us.”
The shell killed the man on his left while the man on his right lost an arm. Watkins ended up full of shrapnel and was finally evacuated to a hospital. “I was there 20 days,” he said, “but I got so bored I begged them to let me go back to my unit. My biggest fear was being separated from my buddies and going to some unit where I didn’t know anyone.”
It was also on Luzon that Dale saw General Douglas MacArthur.
“He was just a regular guy – told us we were doing a great job and to keep it up,” Watkins explained. “He didn’t sit back at the rear, he was right out there at the front with the troops.”
After liberating Manila, Watkins and his comrades were off again, seeing action on the islands of Panay and Negros, before returning to Panay to prepare for the planned invasion of the Japanese home islands.
“Our training stopped right away when they dropped the atomic bomb,” he said. “That bomb saved an awful lot of lives ... maybe even mine.”
With the war finally over, and having served continuously for more than three years, Watkins had enough points to go home.
“I got on a ship in Panay, sailed to Leyte (Philippines) and then on a Liberty Ship for 18 days to Seattle,” he recalled. “From there, I caught a train to Camp Atterbury (in southern Indiana). There were no seats on the bus to Plymouth, but when the driver saw me, a serviceman, he took someone else off and home I went.” Five years later, Watkins married Mary “Mim” Slabaugh. “The best thing that could have ever happened to me,” he said.
Watkins spent the rest of his life in this area, working at Mutschler Brothers in Nappanee and retiring in 1978. Sadly, like so many of those whose served in WWII, the veteran left his country Sept. 30th of this year, also leaving behind his beloved Mim, son Greg, and grandsons Stephen and Bryan and their families.
Is his story unique? Was he a hero? Watkins wouldn’t say so, but many would disagree. It’s because of guys like him that this story was written in English, instead of Japanese or German. Humbly Watkins just figured he was doing his job, but it’s a job that few did as well as he did, and fewer still would want to do.
And it’s a job that is still being done today, by young men and women with the same special qualities and dedication that Watkins had.
So make sure this Veterans Day that to take the time to thank a veteran like Watkins. It might be the old man across the aisle in church, or maybe the recent high school graduate who grew up down the block. Their sacrifices keep this great country the “land of the free and the home of the brave.” All gave some, and some gave all. Never forget.