Master Segeant Travis Watkins: MOH for Refusing to Give Up in Korea

US Artillery defending the Pusan Perimeter.
US Artillery defending the Pusan Perimeter.

How a soldier reacts when he is wounded in war varies from man to man. Some wither and fade away, some fall and await help, and some thrive finding the strength to continue the fight until the bitter end. In the case of Master Sergeant Travis Watkins near the Pusan Perimeter in Korea, not even a paralyzing wound stopped him. A brave act of conspicuous gallantry that earned him the nation’s highest military honor.  

Guadalcanal to Korea

Travis Earl Watkins was born on September 5, 1920, in Waldo, Arkansas. He came of age as the world was entering the greatest conflict ever known and so he enlisted in the United States Army in June 1939. In WWII Watkins served in the Guadalcanal Campaign and was awarded the Bronze Star for his actions. By 1950 he was an experienced Master Sergeant at the age of 29. 

His decision to rejoin the US Military after the war resulted in him having to lead an inexperienced and under equipped Army during the Korean War. When the North Koreans crossed the border into South Korea in 1950 the military forces stationed there were ill-prepared for the intensity of the battle to come. Despite brave attempts to hold the line and defend South Korea, the UN forces were pushed back to a small stretch of land known as the Pusan Perimeter.  

It was in the extended battle for the survival of the UN forces that Watkins engaged with a determined enemy. The North Koreans had already broken the UN stand at Taejon and were rapidly approaching the defenses of the Pusan Perimeter.

American troops await North Korean attacks.
American troops await North Korean attacks.

One Final Stand

As the numerically superior enemy forces quickly advanced the US 2nd Infantry Division was tasked with setting up a defensive line along the Naktong River. The overwhelming North Korean soldiers penetrated the line threatening the entire Pusan Perimeter. Additional forces were sent to reinforce the beleaguered troops. The battle for the region was fierce and fluid, resulting in multiple US units being surrounded and entrapped during the fight.

On August 31, 1950, Watkins was with a group of 30 men from Company H, 9th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division isolated and cut off from American support. Due to his rank and experience, Watkins took command organizing their defense and directing their firepower which repelled constant, frenzied enemy assaults.

Despite overwhelming odds, Watkins continually exposed himself to heavy gunfire, moving from foxhole to foxhole giving instructions and encouraging the men. When the need for ammunition and grenades became crucial, he shot and killed two enemy soldiers just outside their perimeter. Watkins then ran out alone to collect their weapons but was attacked by two others and wounded. Returning fire he killed all three, gathered their weapons and ammo and returned to his astonished comrades.

Master Sergeant Travis E. Watkins.
Master Sergeant Travis E. Watkins.

Fighting to the End

Shortly after his brave act six North Koreans gained a strategically superior position and began to throw grenades among them. Realizing the situation was becoming desperate and disregarding his injury he left his cover. Although immediately hit by a burst from an enemy machine-gun he fired his rifle until he had killed all the grenade throwers.

Despite now being paralyzed from the waist down, he continued to direct and encourage his men. He refused food and medical aid in favor of those who could survive. After several days of hard fighting, he ordered his men to withdraw giving one last command; that they leave him behind to cover their retreat.

Due to his leadership and courage over 500 enemy soldiers were destroyed by the small force. Master Sergeant Watkins’ sustained personal bravery and noble self-sacrifice posthumously earned him the Medal of Honor and the eternal gratitude of the men he saved with his sacrifice.  

Jeff Edwards

Jeff Edwards is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE