BY DUANE A. VACHON, PH.D. – Usually one associates the Medal of Honor recipients as men who mainly served with combat arms units – infantrymen, tankers, forward observers, and the like. There are a few exceptions one of the most notable was Private George Watson. He stands out for a couple of reasons, firstly he was in the 29th Quartermaster Regiment. Secondly he was an African American. George was born in Birmingham, Alabama. George joined the Army in September 1942, completed his initial entry training at Fort Benning, Georgia.
During the Second World War about 1.2 million African-Americans served , but none received the Medal of Honor during or after that war. It wasn’t until the late 1990’s that the Army began to do a review of the records of 10 African Americans to determine if they met the high standards to receive the Medal of Honor.
Of the ten names submitted, seven were submitted to Congress and the President. Only one of these was from the Pacific Theater, Private George Watson.
When George finished his training at Fort Benning he was assigned to the 2nd Battalion 29th Quartermaster Regiment which deployed almost immediately to the Pacific Theater.
George and his unit traveled onboard the Dutch Steamer USAT Jacob. After arriving in New Guinea the Jacob was moored at Porloch Harbor waiting to disembark the 29th Quartermaster Regiment. It was midmorning on the 8th of March 1943, when suddenly the Jacob came under devastating attack by Japanese bombers.
After sustaining several direct hits, the ship had to be abandoned. The enemy fire continued to rain down. There were many soldiers floating helplessly in the water. Some didn’t know how to swim, others were injured so severely that they were unable to help themselves. Many were simply paralyzed with fear. If something didn’t happen and happen soon there was going to be a great loss of life. Seeing the tragedy unfolding before him George without giving a thought to his own safety started swimming to those in trouble. George helped many of his comrades to the few life rafts that were available.
He swam back and forth across that deadly scene, dragging his hapless comrades to the few available life rafts that they might live. “Over and over and over again,” as the President made note in his remarks, Private Watson continued saving others, “until he himself was so exhausted, he was pulled down by the tow of the sinking ship.”
For this action, Watson was originally awarded the Army’s second-highest decoration, the Distinguished Service Cross. He was the first African American to receive the Distinguished Service Cross in World War II. The award was upgraded to the Medal of Honor in 1997. During a ceremony conducted on January 13 of that year, President Bill Clinton bestowed the Medal of Honor on seven African American veterans of World War II.
At a crowded White House ceremony on 13 January 1997, President William J. Clinton bestowed the Medal of Honor on seven African American veterans of World War II. Only one of the newest recipients, 77-year-old Vernon J. Baker, a platoon leader with the 92d Infantry Division was still alive to receive his award in person. The others had died during the war or in the decades since and were represented by next of kin.
Medal of Honor Citation
Private Watson, a member of the 29th Quartermaster Regiment, was on board a ship hit by Japanese bombers off the coast of New Guinea on 8 March 1943. When the ship had to be abandoned, instead of seeking to save himself, he stayed in the water for a prolonged time courageously helping others. Weakened by his exertions, he was eventually dragged down by the sinking ship and was drowned.
George’s other military awards include the Purple Heart, Army Good Conduct Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, and World War II Victory Medal. Watson had no known next of kin, so his medals are displayed in the U.S. Army Quartermaster Museum in Fort Lee, Virginia.
George is memorialized on a memorial at the Manila American Cemetery.
Duane A Vachon PhD works at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific. He is the author of “Gems From The Antipodes: 12 Collections of Faith-Focusing Insights” He also writes a weekly column “in The Hawaii Reporter” Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org