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Jere Brittain: Sgt. Watkins was a WWII hero

A few months ago, I was introduced to the story of Staff Sgt. Robert Joseph Watkins by his daughter, Eileen Watkins-Navarro.

Sgt. Watkins was born June 21, 1920, and died Aug. 17, 2004. He was a World War II hero. Eileen loaned me a remarkable scrapbook compiled by her sister, Becky Watkins Custer. This meticulous collection of photographs, correspondence, news clippings, mission records, short autobiographies and eyewitness interviews reads like a page-turner novel.
Joanne and I have a long-running discussion about our many serendipitous encounters with people whose life stories are fascinating. She says, “It was meant to be.” I maintain that these things happen randomly. This story makes me wonder if she’s right … again.
Anyway, several months ago our retired Army son, Doug, was visiting us from Arizona. He invited his old Army buddy, Jim Hendricks, to come down from Pennsylvania for a short reunion here. Jim came with his friend, Eileen Watkins-Navarro, and we heard about her dad, Sgt. Robert Watkins.
Sgt. Watkins was ball turret gunner on a B-17 Flying Fortress, with a crew of ten, operating out of England on Aug. 17, 1943. This was the 21st mission for this highly decorated crew. Their primary target was a ball bearing plant near Schweinfurt, Germany. They were flying their second B-17, the Mary Jane II, named for the girlfriend of its pilot, Lt. Howard Koeppen. Their first plane had been disabled by enemy fire. Allied fighter escorts only had range enough to protect the bombers part of the way to the target.
Flying at 27, 000 feet over the Rhine River near Mannheim, Germany, the B-17 formation was attacked by Luftwaffe fighters. The Mary Jane II was fatally damaged by a Luftwaffe fighter flown by Lt. Wolfgang Heinert. Lt. Koeppen ordered his crew to bail out while remaining at the controls of his plane, sacrificing his life to save the crew. As the plane spun earthward, Sgt. Watkins discovered his crewmate, Sgt. Eugene Shadick, severely injured and without a parachute. Placing his own life at risk, Watkins managed to get Shadick into a parachute as the plane began to break apart. They were thrown from the plane at about 7, 000 feet and landed in their ‘chutes near the village of Abenheim.
Sgt. Shadick’s hand was mostly severed, dangling by a ribbon of skin. He borrowed Watkins’ knife to complete the amputation. They managed to apply a tourniquet and administer sulfa drug and morphine. Villagers soon arrived to take charge of the six surviving airmen. It appeared doubtful that Shadick would survive the walk to town for further treatment of his injury. Amazingly, Lt. Wolfgang Heinert, the Luftwaffe pilot arrived on the scene, having been forced to land nearby due to lack of fuel. He saluted the American airmen and insisted that Shadick be transported by a bystander’s horse and wagon for medical attention, a memorable act of chivalry that would be remembered by the American airmen during and following their two years as prisoners of war. Heinert himself later became a casualty of the war.
Pilot Koeppen and right waist gunner Jack Posemsky died in the crash. The entire crew was reported missing in action for several months before news of Watkins’ survival reached his family in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania. In the meantime, the Air Medal with Oak Leaf Cluster was presented to Sgt. Watkins’ mother, Mrs. Margaret Watkins, honoring her son’s “meritorious achievements, courage, coolness, and skill.”
Following several months in Stalag VIIB, the airmen were transferred to the infamous Stalag XVII in German-occupied Austria.
Journeying on …

Thanks to Ms. Becky Custer for her personal assistance with this story about her remarkable father, who was born 100 years ago.