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Private George Watson Medal of Honor, World War II

Private George Watson
Medal of Honor, World War II

Medal of Honor Citation Background Information Watson Painting
USNS WATSON – Ship Named After Watson

Private George WatsonMedal 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.

Background Information

Private George Watson was from Birmingham, Alabama, and a member of the 29th Quartermaster Regiment. Watson drowned rescuing others when his ship was sunk by Japanese bombers near Porloch Harbor, New Guinea, on March 8, 1943.

Private Watson was the first black solider to receive the Distinguished Service Cross during World War II. He was 28 years old, had been drafted into the Army and was assigned to the 29th Quartermaster Regiment.

Watson’s ship was damaged so badly by Japanese bombs that everyone was ordered overboard. Watson remained in the water and helped other soldiers who could not swim reach the life rafts. It is thought that Watson was unable to get clear of the turbulence when the ship went down, and he disappeared beneath the waves. Watson is remembered on a memorial at the Manila American Cemetery, a Memorial in the Philippines and by George Watson Memorial Field at Fort Benning, Ga.

Around 1.2 million African-Americans served in World War II, but none received the Medal of Honor during or after that war. In the late 1990’s the Army conducted a three year long review of  the records of 10 World War II black heroes to determine if they met the standards for the Medal of Honor. Of these, seven names were submitted to Congress and the President.

At a crowded White House ceremony on 13 January 1997, President William J. Clinton bestowed the Medal of Honor on these 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.

The honorees, as might be expected, mainly served with combat arms units – infantrymen, tankers, forward observers, and the like – with one notable exception. Private George Watson, of Birmingham, Alabama, was a Quartermaster soldier.   He was also the only one of the seven to earn his medal while serving in the Pacific Theater

Private Watson joined the Army in September 1942, completed his initial entry training at Fort Benning, GA, and was assigned to the 2d Battalion, 29th Quartermaster Regiment, bound for theUSAT Jacob Pacific Theater when he met his untimely demise. His unit was onboard the Dutch Steamer USAT Jacob near Porloch Harbor, New Guinea, on 8 March 1943, when suddenly they came under devastating attack by Japanese bombers.

After sustaining several direct hits, the ship had to be abandoned, even as enemy fire continued to rain down. For many of those left floating helplessly in the water, not knowing how to swim or too injured to help themselves, and paralyzed by fear, survival appeared unlikely. It was at that precise moment and under those very harrowing circumstances that Private Watson demonstrated the utmost courage under fire.

Watson Display at Quartermaster Museum
Since Private Watson has no known next of kin his Medal of Honor resides in the U.S. Army Quartermaster Museum, Fort Lee, Virginia.

Forsaking any thought of his own safety, 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.”

Private Watson’s selfless actions and extraordinary valor – in the famous words, “at the risk of life, above and beyond the call of duty” – certainly warrant his being awarded the Medal of Honor.

Henceforth, his name will be forever linked with those at the very top of the pyramidal roll of honor and remembered for all time by freedom-loving men and women.