It has been said that heroism is defined as holding on for one moment longer. A moment can save a life or change the destiny of a nation. Travis Watkins, a native Arkansan, was one such hero who took charge and held on against overwhelming odds, saving the lives of his men in the process and receiving the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions.
Travis Watkins was born in Waldo, a small community in Columbia County, in 1920. The family would stay in Waldo for only a few years more before leaving for Troup, a small town near Tyler, Texas. In 1939, he enlisted in the army.
At Guadalcanal in the South Pacific, American forces went on the offensive against Japan for the first time in the war, determined to turn the tide of the fighting. In August 1942, American forces launched an attack on Japanese positions. Watkins served with distinction in the battle and was awarded the Bronze Star for his bravery.
He served with distinction in many campaigns until the Allied victory in 1945. Watkins continued to serve in the army in the peacetime years that followed and rose through the enlisted ranks to Master Sergeant. In 1948, he married Madie Sue Barnett, with whom he had two daughters.
In June 1950, the peace was shattered when North Korea launched a massive, unprovoked attack on South Korea. Watkins was called back into action with the Ninth Infantry and sent to shore up their failing defenses. By the end of August, American, South Korean, and United Nations forces had been pushed into a small pocket of the southeastern corner of South Korea that came to be called the Pusan Perimeter. Allied forces were facing total defeat.
On August 31, Watkins and his detachment of 30 men were completely cut off from their regiment. Near Yongsan, he organized his small group into defensive positions, deciding to fight it out. As they ran low on ammunition, Watkins would charge out of their foxholes to retrieve ammunition from fallen North Korean troops. Though he was shot, he continued to fight for the lives of his men for three more days.
Watkins and his men deflected wave after wave of attacks. In one wave, North Korean troops charged his foxhole with grenades. Critically wounded in the attack, Watkins killed all of his attackers, preventing his position from being overrun.
But he realized he had been paralyzed from the waist down by his injuries. He knew he would not survive the battle but kept directing his men to give them their chance to break out and rejoin their regiment. Over the next days, he insisted the men take his share of their dwindling food supply, and on September 3, after seeing an opening, ordered them to make their escape without him, telling them his injuries would only slow them down. According to his men, he wished them luck and then died. The remaining troops made it back safely after a battle that took out 500 enemy troops.
Watkins died two days before his thirtieth birthday. He was later buried in Gladewater, Texas.
A few months after his death, the army awarded Watkins the Congressional Medal of Honor for his service above and beyond the call of duty. President Harry Truman gave Watkins’s posthumous award to his widow in a ceremony at the White House. Watkins would be one of 33,000 Americans to lose their lives in the Korean War and one of 146 men to receive the Medal of Honor during the conflict. His sacrifice was not forgotten. In 1961, a housing complex at Fort Sam Houston was named for him. In June 2000, the navy launched the USNS Watkins, a 950-foot cargo ship named in honor of Watkins, which has been in service ever since.