Bottled Up War Experience Finds Outlet 50 Years Later
Written by Susan Plese of The Hartford Courant
Dec. 7, 1941: Bruce Watkins was a 20-year-old junior at Tufts University in Massachusetts. He was studying, radio playing in the background, when an announcement interrupted his work. The Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor.
He had known of the war in Europe, and was "dimly aware of Japanese incursions into China," but the broadcast had an air of unreality to it. Several days passed before the campus became alive with talk about the war.
From that time he would be swept up in the national wave of patriotism that would lead him to rush his graduation date and enlist in the Marines. Eventually he would see two years of bloody warfare in the Pacific, as a platoon leader, then commander in E Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Division.
A half-century has passed since then, but Watkins has finally written an account of those years. It is a sweeping portrait that takes the reader from that dormitory room in Massachusetts, 1941, to boot camp at Paris Island, and onward to Pavuvu, Peleliu, and Okinawa. It ends with his Thanksgiving return to New York and Connecticut in 1945, where he would be reunited with his family and the young bride he had married four months before shipping off.
"Obviously, these experiences, bottled up for years and burned into my memory, finally rose to the surface," he wrote in the epilogue of the book he titled "Brothers in Battle."
"I needed to tell it like it was," he wrote.
Watkins published 100 copies of the spiral-bound book himself, at the urging of his family. He wrote the manuscript in longhand and his daughter did the typesetting.
"I did it for family," he said. "That's what I had in mind. My daughter and wife got after me so much and said, "You've got to do this."
Some of his material came from letters, pictures, and clippings his wife June had kept. He consulted an official Marine Corps publication to ensure accuracy in time and place.
Much was written from memory so candid and precise that the images of war are preserved in all their horror: crawling through vermin-infested mud, listening to artillery shells' whine and the howitzer's thump, watching for shadowy figures -- the enemy? -- through bursts of warning flares. Blood and the stench of death are ever present, with the mournful cry of "corpsman" signaling yet another casualty.
Though writing the book was something of a catharsis, the work was not easy, Watkins admitted.
"I had trouble sleeping while I was writing it," he said. "I kept redoing the battles."
But he pressed on, dedicating the book and its title to his "brothers, the undaunted Marines."
"The title is indicative of the closeness involved," Watkins said. "There's a great deal of caring between people in that situation willing to risk their life for you. It makes a very deep impression, something you'll always remember.
"There was something very pure about what we did for each other," he continued. "We had fellows jump on grenades and take the impact" to save the others.
It's difficult for Watkins to choose a low point in battle, but a night spent holding a hill in Peleliu comes close. "We spent the whole night fighting, all night long," Watkins said. "We just managed to live through it."
As light came that morning, the Marines saw at their feet the bodies of at least 40 Japanese; the U.S. casualties were similarly devastating. They had landed at Peleliu with 54 men. Six days later only nine remained in the platoon.
Toward the end of the war, casualties piled up also at Okinawa. Watkins' company included 235 men; with replacements the roster swelled to 450. Only 55 remained at the end.
Watkins saw his best friend, Lee Height, die in Okinawa of a bullet wound to the head. They had often talked about what they would do together after the war.
"You didn't stop and grieve about it. You just went on," he said.
"I was just as scared as anybody else," he continued. "I had a close relationship with my people and that was rewarding. We knew that any one of us could be killed at any moment. We recognized it but we had to go on. You think about it later."
Watkins sat one long night on Peleliu with another comrade, Bucky Buckner, who was dying of an abdominal wound. He held his hand, administered morphine.
"He was very young, about 20, but he had a wife and baby," Watkins wrote. "...I tried to catch his fading words and give him what comfort I could. He wanted his wife to know how much he loved her. Finally he was still."
It was while they were at Okinawa that they heard of the death of President Roosevelt. Most of the men had never heard of Harry Truman.
Watkins himself was wounded at Okinawa, hit by mortar shrapnel.
"It scared me more than hurt me," he said. "It knocked me down and hit a muscle in my back. Pieces came out later." In face, a piece of shrapnel worked its way out by his collarbone a few years later; in 1972 another was removed from under his right eye.
But amidst the death and horror there were affirmations of life. In the darkness of Okinawa one night the Marines watched intently as about 30 shadowy figures advanced toward them. Though uneasy, they held their fire.
The figures finally emerged: all women, one of them about to give birth. The Marines hastily erected a pup tent, the woman and her attendants crawled in, and shortly afterward the new mother emerged, holding her newborn. The women continued on.
Watkins spent 36 years after the war working at the family business, Watkins Brothers furniture in Manchester, until it closed in 1981.
He and June raised four children. Today he indulges his love for woodworking repairing antiques in the basement at Manchester Hardware on Main Street.
It's been a long time since the battles in the Pacific. Watkins, dressed in work clothes, retains traces of his military bearing, body firm and posture unbent still at 73 years, hair cut in a longish "brush."
Bob Dorin, Watkins' employer, says the older man is a war hero, who "John Wayned it" that night atop the hill in Peleliu more than 50 years ago, carbine empty, Japanese at his feet. In fact, Watkins was awarded a Silver Star for gallantry in action.
A coworker says he's a "gentle man," emphasis on the two words. Whatever, Watkins is quiet and unassuming. He does not talk easily about himself.
He bears no anger toward the Japanese. His experience, above all, has taught him compassion, he said.
"If I can do something for someone else, that's the way to live," he said. "The giver gets as much as the taker."