By Sherrie Norris
The death of David Watson of Boone, occurring Monday, Nov. 4, has claimed yet another of our local World War II heroes. Having experienced a rather rapid decline in health in recent months, Watson spent the last few weeks of his life in a nursing home near his son in Carthage.
His contribution to our country, and to Watauga County in general, is not one that needs to be forgotten, especially as we are just days away from honoring all American veterans who fought for our freedom.
Born April 20, 1925, Watson was the youngest of nine children in the Deep Gap family of General Dixon Watson and Annie Greene Watson.
He was not only proud of his role as a veteran of the US Navy, but he was also proud of his family heritage; he loved sharing memories of his life with one of America’s most well-known musicians, his brother, the late great musician, Doc Watson.
Those of us fortunate enough to know David Watson and spend time hearing about his life will hold on to those memories, cherishing the opportunities as the gifts they were — whether we realized it at the time, or not.
Watson was drafted into service in 1943, “lucky,” he said, to have gotten assigned to the Navy.
He recounted those days during interviews with this writer on numerous occasions, as well as with others. His story is also part of the local WWII veterans video collection, a project of the Appalachian High Country WWII Roundtable. As such, Watson and several other local veterans agreed to interview with Mountain Television of Boone several years ago, a program co-hosted by the station’s Terry Smith and Ken Wiley; Wiley was also a WWII veteran who was determined that these experiences be documented and preserved for future generations.
Watson was one of the first to be featured during the “Veterans Voice” project, as it was known, and said it was an opportunity that brought him much pleasure.
His story is among the 28-DVD collection that recounts the war in detail, with each local veteran interviewed offering his/her personal experiences during their service. While some of his comrades were killed, taken as prisoners of war, and permanently injured, Watson spoke of how God took care of him and brought him back home when the war was over.
In addition to the video project, Watson was interviewed as part of the World War II Symposium at the Broyhill Center on the campus of Appalachian State University in Boone, August 2012. He joined other local veterans, their families, noted military authorities from across the country and interested community members and students for the first event of its kind locally.
Watson took great pride in his military service and loved to talk about being part of the “The Greatest Generation.”
Off To War
Watson was 18 when he was drafted into the Navy in 1943. Two of his brothers were in service at the same time, he shared. “One was with Patton’s Army and the other spent most of his time in Panama.”
He completed basic training in Great Lakes, Illinois before shipping out to England on an LCM, the landing crafts designed to transport military vehicles. Watson said their duties were essential to protecting land troops or tanks during allied amphibious assaults.
Watson served his country from 1943-46 during the height of the war, primarily aboard “The 86;” he spoke mostly of action in Normandy and on the radar picket line in Okinawa.
“We did a lot of training, but we didn’t know what we were training for, exactly,” he said. “When they loaded us up and sent us out, we were in the English Channel before we knew where we were headed. Then, any questions we had were answered on June 6, ’44 when the Normandy Invasion took place.”
Watson recalled how, in the midst of a terrible storm with limited to no visibility, his LCM hit something. “It ripped a big place out of our boat and it started sinking. We had to send out an SOS and were picked up by an English ship, which fired on ours several times to keep it down. We were afraid another one of our ships would hit it without knowing what it was.”
Taken back to England first for additional training, Watson’s crew eventually landed back in Portland, Oregon, for a larger ship, one of 130 that was built in the Portland yard.
“Then, we headed back out into the Pacific, stopped in Okinawa, where we were on a picket line as a destroyer escort.”
His crew would take a few days off to restock and replenish its supplies, before heading back out, he said.
He recanted, numerous times, about how “The 86” served on the radar picket line, keeping the kamikazes off the beach in about a 30-40 mile radius.
“We were with a couple of other big LCMs, the USS William Porter that was hit, and later, the USS Brain, that was hit by two suicide planes. Many were killed in that last one, 60, I think, and around 100 were injured.”
Things settled down for a while, Watson shared. “We were getting ready to invade Japan, had our supplies and everything, when the United States dropped the bomb. I’m thankful it happened the way it did. Otherwise, it would’ve been much worse.”
As it was, Watson said, not a man on his ship was killed.
“I saw a lot of deaths and injuries,” he said. “But the only one really close to us was an electrician who was electrocuted while trying to hook us up to power. We were very fortunate, overall, that we didn’t lose any men.”
Watson said he tried to think of the good things about the war, and said there were positives along the way.
“Some of my best memories was how we were treated on leave. We felt special when someone came up to us as we were always out in uniform, and they would shake our hands and tell us how much they appreciated us,” he said. “When we would go into Portland, that was the friendliest bunch of people anywhere. The girls would go to eat with us or go to a movie and wouldn’t let us pay our way. They knew we had it pretty rough and they were awful good to us.”
Watson said his fleet of ships was known as “The Mighty Midgets,” which was nothing to be ignored. “We were told that we cast big shadows and prevented many of those suicide planes from coming in on us. President John F. Kennedy later addressed our success in one of his speeches. That meant a lot to us.”
Watson was able to obtain not only photographs, but also actual live footage of the war, which became part of the local WWII archives.
For some, Watson agreed, it was “ We did it and we’ll forget it,” but years later, his comrades decided to start holding annual reunions. It was evident, he said, that they couldn’t easily forget nor should they.
“I wasn’t in on the first reunions,” he said. “Some of them thought I was in South Carolina, instead of North Carolina, and didn’t know how to locate me. When we did finally make connections, I went to my first reunion at Arlington Cemetery in 1994, and tried to attend others from then on.”
Back on the Homefront
When he talked about home, Watson’s memories always included growing up in a big, hardworking and musical family. He had a special bond with his brother, Doc, two years his senior, and had much respect for his accomplishments as a musician, despite blindness occurring around the age of 2.
We loved hearing Watson talk about those good old days, and how he tried to be Doc’s eyes for him, to help him experience and “see” things that he might not otherwise. “We were close as kids and we stayed close as adults, too,” he said.
Watson was proud of his brother, and also of Doc’s son, Merle; he rarely, if ever, missed attending Merlefest every spring.
He said recently that it wasn’t the same since Doc died, but he still wanted to go to represent the family.
After the war, Watson and his wife, Betty Jo (Hampton) Watson, eventually moved to Cleveland, Ohio to find work. He recalled how there weren’t many jobs to be found in Boone, and he didn’t make enough money to make ends meet, even working two jobs,
After almost 20 years, they returned to Boone in the early 70s; he later retired as a security guard for IRC/TRW.
The deaths of his wife, his daughter (Gail Ann Wilder) all his siblings and many friends were hard on Watson, he told us not long ago. But, he was comforted by the presence of long-time companion, Angie Greene, who helped make his last years on earth enjoyable. He was an avid bowler and loved his church, especially his Sunday School class, at Mount Vernon Baptist. According to his obituary, Watson is survived by one son, Dale Watson and wife Ann of Carthage, three grandchildren, two step-grandchildren, a number of great-grandchildren, nieces and nephews.
Graveside services and burial for David Watson will be conducted Saturday afternoon, Nov. 9, at 1 p.m., at Mount Vernon Baptist Church Cemetery, officiated by his nephew, the Rev. Gary Watson.
Flowers are appreciated or memorial contributions may be made to Mount Vernon Baptist Church, 3505 Bamboo Road, Boone, North Carolina, 28607.
Online condolences may be sent to the Watson family at www.hamptonfuneralnc.com
Hampton Funeral and Cremation Service is in charge of the arrangements.