Harry J. Watkins, Jr.


Harry Joseph Watkins, Jr.
1167 Enyon Street, Scranton, PA
Mother, Mrs. Ludwina Watkins
7/10/1942 – 12/5/1945
Roi-Namur D/1/24 641 PFC
Saipan HQ/1/24 641 Corporal WIA
Purple Heart

Harry Joseph Watkins, Junior was born on August 19, 1921, to Harry and Ludwina Kern Watkins. He grew up in Scranton, Pennsylvania, where he attended St. Ann’s High School; at six-one and 210 pounds, Watkins was a formidable force on the school football and baseball teams. After graduating, he found work as a clerk at “The Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company” – better known as the grocery chain “A&P” – and attended the Penn State Extension School. And, of course, he registered for the draft in late 1941, at the age of twenty.


watkins_hj_The_Tribune_Fri__Feb_12__1943_Draft Board #4 never needed to call Watkins’ number: he enlisted of his own volition on July 10, 1942. He showed some aptitude for communications work, and after training with the Signal Battalion at New River, North Carolina, joined the communications platoon of the 1st Separate Battalion (Reinforced) on New Year’s Eve Day. PFC Watkins’ specialty was that of telephone lineman; he would lay cable between important posts and maintain the connection under fire. His large build and footballer’s muscles made it easy to carry around the heavy, bulky spools of wire.

After two months with battalion headquarters, PFC Watkins and a handful of other communications men were transferred to Company D. They were attached to the 81mm mortar platoon, as the size and combat disposition of these weapons meant that telephone communications were essential. Shortly after this transfer, the entire battalion was shipped from chilly North Carolina to sunny southern California and would spend the balance of 1943 training in the hills and rugged boondocks of Camp Pendleton. There they became known as the First Battalion, 24th Marines, part of the Fourth Marine Division.

PFC Watkins’ first combat experience came in early February 1944 – Operation FLINTLOCK, or the invasion of Roi and Namur, in the Marshall Islands. Watkins recorded his experiences in a lengthy letter home, which caught the attention of a local newspaper.

We had mail call yesterday, and you may laugh, but I received 76 letters. I thought I’d never get through reading them, but they were really welcome. All of them. Those V-mail letters are a good time and paper saver, but they are nothing like a real letter. Tell Jerry thanks.

You spoke in one of your letters that I may have gotten seasick, but no, I didn’t even get a little sick. We were on the water for quite some time, too. When we went ashore, we had to fight for it, and we did pretty well.

Boy, to go through a battle like that really makes a guy a man if he isn’t already one. We had the Navy behind us more than anyone could think. They really plastered the beach before we took over. When we hit the island, we kept the Japs on the run and didn’t give them a chance even to breathe.

In the scrap we got a large number of high-ranking Jap officers, including a vice-admiral. You could tell the moment some were around, either dead or alive. I’ll tell you most of them were dead.

We took them over so fast that our casualties were very light. Our whole platoon came out without a man being scratched. Our worst problem, though, was that of the snipers at night. I’m telling you the first night we were on the island, I said more prayers than I could think of. Some of our boys who never went to church on Sundays said they knew plenty of prayers there.

To make matters worse, it rained most of the night we were under fire. We lay in our foxholes that night, soaked to the skin, like mud rats. But when morning came through trouble broke loose. We secured the whole island around noon of the next day. Well, our job was done and all we did was lay around for almost two weeks. On the evening that we boarded ship, the Japs bombed us, but didn’t do much damage. They came in so high that they couldn’t cause any real trouble. So that was all to that story. Oh yes, a B-24 Liberator that was damaged in a scrap landed the evening before we left. It was the first bomber to land on the air strip. You should have heard the boys cheer the pilot and his crew. He made a perfect landing with a damaged plane on a bad air strip.

After the affair was all over, the boys took off souvenir hunting (I among them). We had Jap beer, saki, pineapples and plenty of canned goods. The Japs lived underground like rats, and incidentally there were plenty of rats also.

I got a Jap flag, a watch, and a piece of a Jap Zero for Jerry. The only thing wrong with the watch is that the crystal is broken and a hand is off it, but otherwise It runs well.

Well, there are plenty of incidents I’d like to tell you about, but it just isn’t possible to do so. All I can say is that a fellow really has to get into it to know what it is. It can’t be described at all. I’m telling you we have plenty of tough boys in our outfit, but there isn’t one of them that will tell you he wasn’t scared because we all were at some time or other. Once you get there, though, you forget all about fear until you get time to think.

I also think that the Japs will admit that the Marines are tough and when they want to be, yes, merciless.

We took a few prisoners, very few, and among them an officer who was plenty scared and said they were merciless. It could be so, because our boys were pretty sore at them after we heard of some of the things they do to our men.

To sum it all up, hunting rats was a field day. We captured one of them and he said, “You may have captured the Marshall Islands, but you’ll never get Pearl Harbor back.” The boys really laughed at him. Why none [probably originally “some” – ed.] of the Japs even thought they were in California.[1] That shows you what they are told and what they know. All I can say is that they were a bunch of punks. How’s that? We Americans can lick these Japs any time, any day, any place. Send me some pogie bait.[2]

After Roi-Namur, the 4th Marine Division sailed for Camp Maui to rest, recuperate, and reorganize. On March 1, 1944, Company D disbanded and the mortar platoon was absorbed by battalion headquarters. Three weeks later, Watkins received a promotion to corporal.

Maui was great, but Watkins knew that “life isn’t supposed to be a bowl of cherries in war.” He had plenty of time to reflect on this belief following his experiences in the battle of Saipan.

On June 16, 1944, as the rifle companies of his battalion advanced against the enemy, Watkins’ mortar platoon hurried to set up their weapons to fire in support. A Japanese sniper drew a bead on the position and picked off the assistant platoon leader, 1Lt. James A. Donovan, as he checked over his map.[3] Donovan was carried away, mortally wounded, with “a prayer on his lips.” The sniper shifted his aim to the next most valuable target: a big Marine working on a telephone line. Two of his shots missed Henry Watkins, but the third hit home.

The bullet struck Watkins in the left elbow. “The impact knocked him around quite a bit,” reported a newspaper. “The bullet did not lodge in the arm, but went right through after breaking the bone.” Battalion corpsmen fired back – they “made sure that the Jap sniper who shot me is no longer among the living,” reported Watkins – and helped the wounded Marine to the rear. He was soon aboard the hospital ship USS Relief.[4]

Corporal Watkins’ wound was deemed a serious one; there was no question of returning to his unit, and it would eventually spell the end of his combat career. By July 20 he was back in Hawaii, undergoing treatment at the Naval hospital in Aiea Heights; a few months later he was back in Scranton visiting his family and telling his story to the press. “To see the USA after being in battles in which death reared a very obvious head – well, if that wouldn’t affect even the hardest person in the world, then I don’t know what would,” he said. “When we landed, most of the fellows, all war-hardened Marines, bent down and kissed the ground. I know, because I was one of them.”[5]

Harry Watkins would be in and out of the US Naval Hospital, Philadelphia for the remainder of the war. He received a promotion to sergeant while convalescing and was well enough on August 4, 1945 to marry Miss Kathryn “Kaye” Plager.

The Scrantonian, August 26 1945.

After his discharge on December 5, 1945, Harry Watkins went right back to the A&P store at 330 Prescott Avenue in Scranton. He made a career out of grocery work, finding employment with Golden Quality Ice Cream and Super Value Distribution, before winding up in the sales department of the Seal Test Company. Harry and Kaye raised five children in Scranton; their union would last until Kathryn’s death in 2001.[6]

Harry Watkins passed away on May 2, 2007. He is buried in Fairview Cemetery, Mill City, PA.

[1] There are some notable similarities in Watkins’ letter and those written by 1Lt. Philip E. Wood, Jr. (A/1/24) – notably the specific phrase “hunting rats” and the anecdote from the prisoner: “Interestingly enough, one of the few Jap prisoners that we took, a lance corporal, said ‘Well you may have taken Kwajalein, but you still haven’t gotten Pearl Harbor and the California coast back yet!'” [Phil Wood Letter #66, 28 April 1944]

[2] Robert Housen, “We Can Lick Japs, Says Marine Who Has Hunted Among Them,” The Scrantonian (28 May 1944), 6.

[3] Donovan made himself unnecessarily conspicuous, according to PFC John C. Pope. “About half a mile inland from the beach, somebody said ‘Look at Donovan!’ There he was several yards out front crouching behind a palm tree no more than six inches in diameter with a map spread out in front of him. Oh hell, we better cover him quick…. I stooped behind him just as a bullet hit him in the side and he went limp. I remember asking, “Where are you hit?” He said, “I don’t know, but I can’t feel my legs.” I pulled his jacket up and saw a bullet hole in his side just under his rib cave with a small blister of gut bubbling out.” Donovan died aboard a hospital ship two days later. John C. Pope, Angel On My Shoulder.

[4] Robert Housen, “Navy Corpsmen Okay With Veteran Marine,” The Scrantonian (1 October 1944).

[5] Ibid.

[6] Harry Watkins, obituary, The Times-Tribune (Scranton, PA) May 4 2007.

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