1969 had its share of memorable events, such as the Moon Landing and Woodstock. Another event that year is not as well known as the two mentioned above. On November 4, 1969, United States Vice President Spiro Agnew made a posthumous award of the Congressional Medal of Honor to one of the highest ranking U.S. military chaplains to die in service during the Vietnam War- U.S. Army Major Charles Watters or, as the soldiers in Vietnam knew him, “Father Charlie”.
New Jersey born, Watters became a priest in 1953 serving several parishes in that state. He joined the New Jersey Air National Guard as a Chaplain in the early 1960’s. In 1964 he entered Federal service assigned to Company A, 173rd Support Battalion, 173rd Airborne Brigade. He was in Vietnam by July 1966, earning a Bronze Star and an Air Medal. At the conclusion of his first tour one year later, he volunteered for an additional six month stay in Vietnam.
On November 19, 1967 he and his unit were in the Central Highlands of Vietnam involved in the Battle of Dak To where the 4500 troops of the 4th Infantry Division and the 173rd Airborne Brigade contended with the numerically superior force of 6000 North Vietnamese troops. By the end of the first day, enemy forces had lost 1500 men, approximately twenty five percent of their number. American casualties were 285 dead, less than one percent of the total number of American forces in that battle. Among the American dead was Father Charlie.
His Congressional Medal of Honor citation recounts the deeds of the courageous chaplain on that day. On multiple occasions, he willfully exposed himself to enemy fire to help the wounded and administer last rites to the dying. At one point during the battle, a wounded paratrooper was frozen in shock at the advance of enemy forces. Father Charlie braved enemy fire to carry this wounded man to safety. During the lull before the second wave assault, he retrieved two more wounded soldiers. Once a new perimeter was established, he left it three times to bring in more wounded troops. That task complete, he continued to help the medics and then helped distribute food and water as well as spiritual support to American forces. While helping the wounded, Watters suffered a mortal wound from the enemy. His remains rest in Arlington National Cemetery.
This patriotic priest has been honored in several ways. His native state named a bridge and public school in his honor. The U.S. Army named a building for him at the U.S Army Chaplain Center and School at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. His name is also found on the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial in Washington D.C.
The Chaplaincy Corps motto is Pro Deo et Patria (For God and Country). Father Charlie and other Chaplains in military service are no less soldiers or veterans because they may not have bore arms while in national service. They, too, served both God and country, by serving the soldiers and their needs in places where death could be an ever present daily reality.
On this Veteran’s Day, remember that the freedoms we enjoy as American citizens did not come freely. The American veteran of yesterday paid for these blessings, sometimes with their lives, and their heirs in uniform, the active duty military personnel of today, continue the unbroken line of uniformed deterrence against those who would harm America and her citizens.
William E. Plants
URG Chaplaincy Coordinator