Watson, who grew up in Carter County, is now 99 years old, but he still remembers the door of his landing craft sliding open and holding his weapon above his head as he waded through water up to his belly. He also remembers stepping over the bodies of friends.
“They always told us to never stop to help your buddy,” Watson said. Stopping, he said, would have made him an easy target.
Just one day shy of the 75th anniversary of the D-Day campaign, Watson sits in his room at the Community Living Center on the campus of the James H. Quillen VA Medical Center.
He’s surrounded by his family, including two of his three daughters — Karen Lane, the oldest child, and Linda Lyons, the middle child. He’s told them stories about the war, and they help him remember some of his experiences overseas. He wipes tears from his eyes.
Watson’s craft was supposed to land on Omaha beach, which was the scene of some of the day’s most intense fighting, resulting in about 2,000 U.S. casualties. Bad weather forced the crew to reroute Watson’s craft to Utah beach, a turn of events that he and his family believe likely saved his life. He ended the day without suffering a bullet wound. “We always attributed it to God watching over daddy,” Lyons said.
A few days later, on June 10, German soldiers captured Watson. They marched him and other prisoners of war across part of France, a trek that eventually caused Watson to pass out from exhaustion. Two of his friends carried Watson until he was well enough to walk again, a kindness that his daughters said likely saved him from being shot.
After holding them for days in tiny box cars, the Germans eventually transported the prisoners to a camp near Memmingen, which sits close to the country’s border with Switzerland.
There, Watson and other prisoners worked for nearby farmers and unloaded supplies from box cars, which occasionally included giant rounds of cheese that Watson said were the size of wagon wheels. On at least one occasion, Watson remembers one of those wheels of cheese falling out of the cart and shattering into pieces on the floor. The prisoners snatched the morsels up and divided them amongst themselves.
The prisoners would also eat plenty of dark rye bread, which they would toast by slapping it onto a hot stove pipe.
In captivity, his daughters said, Watson also had to deal with unsavory meals like potato soup containing sticks and rocks and worm-infested pea soup. To this day, Lane said her father can’t stand pea soup. He also hates seeing people waste food.
The Germans held Watson prisoner for about 11 months, his daughters said, before he was eventually liberated by soldiers in Gen. George Patton’s army.
“He’s my hero,” Lyons said of her father. “He’ll always be my hero. He’ll tell you, ‘I’m not a hero. I’m just a person that went.’”
When the Gulf War started, Lyons said her father was ready to join the service again.
“I said, ‘Daddy, what could you do?’ and he said, ‘I could put the bullets in the gun,’” Lyons said.
Close to the end of the war, Watson’s father would walk to the train station every day from his job at Summers Hardware to see if his son had returned home from Europe. Watson arrived at the station on June 12, 1945. His daughters said there weren’t any parades or fanfare upon his arrival. He met his father on the street as he was walking to the station from work.
“I said, ‘Daddy, what did that feel like?’” Lane said. “And he said that was the greatest feeling in the world.”
This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Linda Lyons’ last name.