I was in Boston yesterday having lunch with my wife in the Seaport district and afterwards, as we frequently do, we went to the end of the commercial pier to watch the planes take off and land at Logan Airport located just across the narrow channel. On the way to the airport viewing location, we have to pass the Boston Ship Repair Depot on Drydock Avenue. In for (what appears to be) de-rusting and re-painting in the drydock was an enormous cargo ship named the USNS Watkins (T-AKR-315). As it turns out, the Watkins is a large, medium speed, roll-on, roll-off (RORO) prepositioning ship for the Military Sealift Command: It is an impressive vessel due to its sheer size.

Now, knowing from past experience that most of these ships are named after Congressional Medal of Honor (CMH) winners, I immediately wanted to do some research on the eponymous Watkins. It turns out that the “Watkins” on the ship was Master Sergeant Travis E. Watkins, and he was indeed a CMH winner from the Korean War. He was KIA near Yongsan, South Korea in 1950 at the age of 30.

Travis Watkins was born in Waldo, Arkansas, on September 5, 1920 and he was raised in Troup, east Texas, and enlisted in the Army in 1939. He served in the Pacific during World War II and earned a Bronze Star during the Guadalcanal Campaign.

Upon returning to the United States at the end of the war, Watkins married Madie Sue Barnett on April 15, 1948 and they had two daughters. He settled with his family in the east Texas town of Gladewater. [In an odd connection to Boston, in the 1930's, Gladewater was the home of the Gladewater Bears, a minor league team franchised to the Boston Red Sox.]

Sgt. Watkins remained in the Army during the peacetime between WWII and the Korean War, and in 1950 he was deployed to Korea as a Master Sergeant with Company H, Ninth Infantry Regiment, Second Infantry Division.

On August 31, 1950, Watkins and 30 men from his unit were separated from the American forces by an enemy advance, and they were subsequently surrounded near Yongsan, Korea. Watkins took command¬†and set up perimeter defenses to repel the frequent enemy onslaughts. He dodged heavy enemy fire to visit each foxhole and troop emplacement, giving instructions and encouragement to the soldiers. When the group’s ammunition ran low, Watkins shot two enemy soldiers outside the perimeter and went to retrieve their ammunition alone. Three other enemy soldiers attacked and wounded MSgt. Watkins once he had left the defensive perimeter. Watkins killed those three, recovered arms and ammunition from the five enemy soldiers, and returned to his command.

Eventually, Watkins’ position was attacked by six enemy soldiers with grenades. Watkins left the safety of his fox hole to engage the attackers with rifle fire and was shot, but he continued firing until the attackers were killed. Paralyzed from the waist down as a result of his wounds, he collapsed. He refused all food in order to provide more for his men. By September 3, Watkins the intensity of the enemy attacks convinced Watkins that waiting out the siege was hopeless. He then ordered the remaining men to escape to the safety of the American front line. He refused to be evacuated himself as he knew his condition would greatly slow the other troop’s treat. Watkins was cheerful and encouraging as he bid his men good luck in their escape. He died of his wounds shortly after they departed.

Watkins’ cool leadership and demonstrated valor throughout the ordeal helped to keep his men alive while roughly 500 enemy soldiers were killed. In January 9, 1951, MSgt. Travis E. Watkins was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor — presented to his wife by President Harry Truman in Washington D.C.

His Medal of Honor citation reads as follows:

The President of the United States of America, in the name of Congress, takes pride in presenting the Medal of Honor (Posthumously) to Master Sergeant Travis Earl Watkins (ASN: RA-6295287), United States Army, for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty while serving with Company H, 9th Infantry Regiment, 2d Infantry Division, in action against enemy aggressor forces at Yongsan, Korea, from 31 August to 3 September 1950. When an overwhelming enemy force broke through and isolated 30 men of his unit, Master Sergeant Watkins 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. Master Sergeant 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.

It is fitting indeed that I saw this ship this weekend. Life is funny in the things that it brings a person’s way. And the coincidence of seeing the very large ship, and fitting tribute to MSgt. Watkins, Watkins in that Boston drydock was a humbling experience for me after my research. Reading about MSgt. Watkins left me with the question: Where do we get men and women like this?

Learning about the valor, bravery and ultimate sacrifice of Travis Watkins personalized the concept of Memorial Day for me once again. We are a free country, with citizens able to speak and act as they please, because of the sacrifice of men and women like Travis E. Watkins. So tomorrow, on Memorial Day 2011, bow your head in reverence and respect for MSgt. Travis Watkins, and for all those who made the ultimate sacrifice for the safety and security of our nation.

God bless Travis Watkins. God bless America.