Veteran of three wars will visit national memorials

Friday, October 21, 2011 | 3:05 p.m. CDT

KANSAS CITY — His motorized wheelchair scoots between two posters decorating his room at the nursing home: A tiger representing the University of Missouri football team, and a black flag with a white silhouetted man and the acronym, POW/MIA.

Fitting bookends for the story of Bill Watson's life.

He's an 88-year-old great-grandfather who played college football at MU, served in three wars and spent more than two years as a prisoner of war in Korea.

In May 1951 Watson was captured by the Chinese Communist army in Korea. He survived 837 days — in the initial months marching from town to town, eating road kill and grass. He lived through a tale more gruesome than any slasher movie, sadder than any Hallmark drama and realer than any fiction writer could ever imagine.

But there's one thing Watson wishes he had done: visited the national memorials for all three wars in which he served.

Soon that wish will come true.

Chosen from a pool of 1,000 people with wishes, Watson will soon leave on an all-expense-paid trip to Washington, D.C., to see the memorials to those who served in World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.

New ears will hear his war stories — perhaps even President Barack Obama's.

Watson's trip is a gift from Jeremy Bloom's Wish-of-a-Lifetime, a group that honors senior citizens by trying to turn one of their life dreams into reality.

Watson is thrilled. But it reinforces a bit of wisdom he learned early: Talking about painful memories eases their sting. So he does a lot of talking now.

From his wheelchair in the Raymore nursing home, Watson's right hand dances along with his descriptions. When he talks of bombs, his hand swooshes up. When he talks about carrying fellow prisoners on his back, it grasps an imaginary prisoner buddy. When he talks about snatching a piece of rancid meat from his pocket, the hand follows his words, showing how he did it.

His descriptions are so vivid, you can nearly smell the rotting meat.

Watson and his military history is well-documented. A platoon leader in the Army's 2nd Infantry Division, he survived the May Massacre in Korea.

He arrived in that country as part of a group of experienced soldiers, deployed from inactive reserve status after World War II, because the U.S. government feared Korea was the beginning of World War III.

Watson was replacing someone, but that officer didn't greet him on arrival. He had been killed hours before.

Instead, he encountered the opening salvos of a massive attack from Chinese Communist and North Korean soldiers, a battle that historians would later name the Korean May Massacre.

Outnumbered, the Allies girded themselves in foxholes behind barbed wire, determined to survive.

Thousands of enemy troops died on the front lines that day. But thousands more Allied troops would die in the weeks after their capture.

"We watched as the Chinese generals ordered their men to lay down on the barbed wire," he said, describing how the enemy sprawled their bodies out like a human pyramid "16 men high." It allowed others to climb over.

"It was my job to make the radio call for air support," Watson said.

But at this, the smile on his face sinks away, as he sorts through what images of hell to talk about next.

"I called in asking for everything we had. From the Air Force, the Marines, the Navy. ... We strafed 'em, bombed 'em, napalmed 'em. ... All you could see was dead Chinese," he said.

But the corpses became shields for the next wave of enemy soldiers.

"Their commanders ordered still more men to lay down on top of them. Awful. I have never seen anything like that in my life."

Even after 60 years this memory gnaws Watson. He blinks away the sadness. He recounts how he told his men to escape the foxholes in twos and threes under the cover of darkness. Some made it. He didn't.

The days and nights of captivity would be brutal.

"I couldn't understand why some men gave up. I always knew I'd make it out of that."

At 6 feet 4 inches tall, Watson tried to carry anyone who couldn't go on. If a man fell from fatigue or illness, he was shot or bayoneted. The enemies left only corpses on their path.

Watson changes the subject, talks about his happiest moment, when he was reunited with his wife and children after his imprisonment. Watson was 100 pounds lighter, but scars went deep.

Still, he had survived.

But then he faced another battle at Fort Riley, Kan. Some surviving POWs alleged he was now a Communist. Watson had to defend his honor before a board of inquiry.

Attorney Robert C. Tilden, the officer who represented Watson, wrote about the case in his memoirs.

The prison camps were filled with rumors of favoritism, paranoia and a lack of leadership, Tilden wrote. At the camp, Watson was "employed" by Chinese officers because of carpentry skills he learned as a teen.

But in testimony, the whole world learned how many bunk beds Watson made for his fellow prisoners and how many of their lives he bargained for. All charges against him were dropped months later, and Watson was promoted to captain.

It took years, and the birth of another child, before Watson would ever talk about his POW experience. One of his younger daughters, Cindy Meyer, says now that she never tires of hearing them.

"My high school friends were transfixed whenever he started telling them about the wars," she said.

Watson was deployed once more — to Vietnam. He was part of a team of "advisers" helping in the jungle battles of the early 1960s. But after one very close encounter with a bullet, he felt his luck was running out.

After 25 years of military service, he retired.

Watson eventually moved his family to Peculiar, but he couldn't stay away from public service. Watson ran for mayor and served eight years in office, where he befriended another mayor — Emanuel Cleaver II from Kansas City.

Which is why a page from the Congressional Record is now stuck on his bedroom door. In a speech to Congress, U.S. Rep. Cleaver told the story of his fellow mayor and personal friend, Maj. William C. Watson.

It's about honoring Watson, Cleaver said in the speech, for his "tireless patriotism and unrelenting heroism."

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