From the Journal Inquirer, October 2, 1999
'It was something I had to do'
WW II Vet Makes Return Trip to South Pacific Island Battlefield
By Chris Dehnel
R. Bruce Watkins sorted through a stack of pictures. He was back at his job restoring antique furniture at Manchester Hardware, but his recent trip to the South Pacific was still fresh on his mind.
"See that tank?" Watkins said as he came to one of his favorites. "A friend of mine had a flame thrower, but the tank came on top of him in a hurry. He wound up under it, being straddled, but the thing went right over him. He popped up and got the thing from the back.
"We also found the tank I took out," he continued. "We had this new anti-tank grenade launcher, and I can personally say it worked."
Now, Watkins can say he has been to hell and back. The 78-year-old Manchester resident who currently lives in Hebron was a lieutenant in the 1st Marine Division during the battle on Peleliu, one of the harshest campaigns the Corps ever took part in, not only in World War II, but in the history of the struggles to preserve the free world.
He returned there last month as part of an American contingent of veterans, their families, and researchers, and walked the old battlefield, a little overgrown these days, but still bearing the scars of those days in September 1944.
"When I had the opportunity to go back there, I thought about it," Watkins said. "I realized it was the chance of a lifetime. I don't lke spending money like that" - the trip cost him more than $2,000 - "but I guess I felt it was something I had to do."
Watkins felt similarly when, as a junior at Tufts University in December 1941, he listened to the news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor."
"I have no idea what I was studying when the radio interrupted its program with the now familiar announcement," Watkins wrote in his book, "Brothers in Battle," a memoir on his wartime experiences he published himself several years ago. "...After absorbing a few minutes of the broadcast, I went to see who else was around. When I discovered Joe on the next floor, I told him to turn on his radio. We listened for perhaps the next hour, completely thunderstruck...
"By Monday, the attitude on campus was quickly changing."
Watkins said a Marine recruiting team came to Tufts a short time later, under the command of Lt. Ralph Hornblower. He signed up, and was to be called upon graduation.
He came out of boot camp and officer candidate school as a second lieutenant. It was off to the South Pacific and his initial battle with E Co., 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Division, on New Britain Island. The name sounded familiar to the Connecticut native, but it was far from home.
On a stopover at Pavuvu, Watkins missed a visit from Bob Hope after volunteering for officer of the day duties. He didn't exactly miss the action on Peleliu. The island had a large air strip Gen. Douglas MacArthur deemed strategically important, and the waiting Japanese troops were on the minds of the Marines as they began to land.
For about a month, the Marines struggled to control the island. Starvation and disease were as formidable a foe as the Japanese. And when it was over, Watkins left behind about 20 pounds and many friends.
"I thought about returning, but never took it seriously," Watkins said. "Finally, Eric Mailander talked to me at a reunion. He told me what he wanted to do, and I decided I would go."
Mailander is a California native who has been researching the island of Peleliu for years, and is working on a book on it with Joseph Alexander, a retired Marine colonel who served in the South Pacific. Watkins commissioned his son Dave, a minister in Deep River, to go with him, and the two set out. The trip began in Providence and took them by air to Los Angeles, Honolulu, Guam, and the isle of Koror, before he and the group boarded the boat for the final 20 miles to Peleliu.
"When you're in the air for 19 hours, you have a lot of time to think, but I did most of it when I realized we were coming in on that boat, very close to the spot we landed in 1944," Watkins said. "People told me I was supposed to be emotional, but I just stood there and looked. We did what we had to do there, and I was going back to remember."
He certainly found reasons to remember, and Dave received a history lesson. They climbed the hill top which Watkins and a fellow Marine spent the night under fire -- and behind a hastily constructed rock wall. They went to the spot where he fought off a Japanese officer who waved a sabre at him, and the place where they endured heavy shelling, artillery they later found out was from their own Navy.
The American delegation also met a group of veterans and their realtives from Japan, led by the granddaughter of former Premier Hideki Tojo. He helped the Japanese contingent retrieve the bones of its nation's soldiers, many who died in caves. The Japanese commissioned mining experts to dig the caves on the island, then set up their defenses from them. He participated in ceremonies honoring the dead from both sides.
"We found a bunch of old saki bottles in one of them," Watkins said. "It was as if they knew what was going to happen, and they were having their last party."
Oh yes, and they found the tanks.
"I was fascinated," Watkins said. I did not know how hard it would be to find stuff like that, but there they were, intact. That was a close call."
Perhaps the most moving experience of all for Watkins was standing on the spot where he nearly lost his head 55 years ago.
"A large piece of shrapnel came flyling toard me, like a propeller on an airplane," he said. "It clipped the strap on my helmet. I guess I was pretty lucky."
"We fought hard," he said. "But we also left a lot of guys behind. The son of an Army sergeant came with us, and we found and stood at the spot where his father was killed. I've been OK with what went on there, as bad as it was, but I'm also glad I went back. It was fascinating to see it again, 55 years after that battle."