This is not the usual military story. This is about a one-of-kind soldier, an officer, who wears the fatigues of a combat warrior, who enters the danger zone with his troops – unarmed. This unique warrior is the military chaplain. Chaplains serve all the soldiers in their units, believers of any stripe and non-believers alike. They are there to give comfort, to listen, to hear confessions, to pray with their soldiers as they recover from their physical or psychological wounds, or to give them the last rites when they are dying.
The story I'm going to share with you here is of a Catholic priest, who served in Vietnam with the paratroopers of the 173rd Airborne Brigade in 1967. His name was Fr. Charles Joseph Watters. He was born in Jersey City, New Jersey in 1927. He attended Seton Hall University, then Immaculate Conception Seminary, was ordained a priest in 1953, and enlisted in the Army in 1965. He was a 40 year old Army major in 1966 when he began a 12 month tour of duty in Vietnam. He spent his time, as all chaplains do, saying Mass, tending the wounded, joking with the men, and giving spiritual counsel. After completing his first tour, he extended in country and In February 1967, he took part in Operation Junction City, which included the only combat jump of the Vietnam War. This endeared him to his men. They saw that he would be with them, even risk his life with them, no matter what. During that tour of duty he would be awarded an Air Medal and a Bronze Star with a V for valor.
On November 9, 1967 at around 10:00 a.m., he went into the field with units of the 173rd Airborne to take an 875 meter high hill near Dak To. They were going up against what the Command thought was a depleted and damaged North Vietnamese Army unit. They would soon discover that instead of a beleaguered and diminished enemy, they would encounter a fresh NVA regiment of 2,000 men who had prepared a masterful ambush for any American units that would come against them.
As Companies C and D approached the top of Hill 875 the NVA unleashed the first part of their ambush. They opened fire with RPG's, automatic weapons, and grenades from heavily camouflaged bunkers, trenches and spider holes. Other elements of the NVA waited until Company A, which was covering the rear, had moved higher up the hill to open their attack from behind and below. The Airborne units found themselves now surrounded by a force of 2,000 well trained and equipped North Vietnamese regulars. The Airborne units totaled some 300 men.
When the initial, intense firing opened up, Chaplain Watters went forward towards the center of the firing. He saw one of his troopers standing in shock before the assaulting NVA forces. He ran out, picked the trooper up and carried him back inside the defensive perimeter. Within minutes he was seen moving through the intense fire zone to aid a fallen soldier. They said he moved to wherever he was need.
After the defensive perimeter had been formed, the chaplain was observed going out, exposing himself to enemy fire to recover two wounded soldiers. The NVA were coming at them from all sides now. The wounded were brought to the center of the defensive redoubt with the medics. Fr. Watters helped the medics care for the wounded, giving words of encouragement and comfort, as well as giving last rites to those who were dying.
The defensive zone was forced to contract due to the heavy onslaught of the enemy. Air support was brought in, but the bombing attempts were ineffective due to the heavy jungle canopy. Chaplain Watters, ignoring attempts to restrain him, left the perimeter three more times, under intense automatic weapons fire, to bring back wounded comrades.
The fighting was so intense that ammo supplies, food and water were almost depleted. Several attempts were made by helicopters to bring in the supplies, but they received such intense fire from the enemy they were unable to drop their loads. Finally, one chopper was able to complete the drop.
Late in the day a jet dropped 500 pound bombs as close to the perimeter as possible to try to push back the enemy who were about to overrun the paratroopers. One of the bombs exploded in the trees above the Americans killing 42, including the chaplain, and wounding 45 others. It was one of the worst friendly fire incidents in the Vietnam War.
Chaplain (Major) Fr. Charles Joseph Watters was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously for his courageous actions on Hill 875 that day.
We don't often think of chaplains, but their presence among the troops is as vital as that of the medics. So many have served our men and women both at home and abroad, in times of peace and in times of war. They are the unknown heroes of our military units. It is our honor to shine a little light on what they do by telling the story of this one heroic chaplain, Fr. Charles Joseph Watters. We send our thanks to all those chaplains of every faith who have given so much, so willingly and so quietly. Thank you for your unique and caring service to the men and women of our armed forces and to the country.