The Rev. George H. Watkins, 90, never told his family about his World War II service until recently.
Even his son, Donald, knew very little until they made a trip earlier this month to Veterans Affairs.
“They looked at his discharge papers, and they said, ‘You’re a Buffalo Soldier,’” said Donald Watkins, who lives with his father of West Dunbar Street in Whitesboro, Middle Township resident. “I never knew that. Suddenly, everyone around the VA office is saying ‘Buffalo Soldier.’”
The name is derived from the Buffalo Soldiers who served in the U.S. Cavalry in the 1860s after the Civil War, fighting Native Americans. Later it became synonymous with the all -black military units that followed.
Watkins served as a driver dispatcher in the 317th Combat Engineers Battalion, part of the 92nd Infantry Division — an all-black unit called “Buffalo Division,” that was distinguished by patches with buffalo on them. His unit saw combat in Europe.
Although the Buffalo Soldiers are synonymous with the days of segregation in the Army, many veterans and descendants of Buffalo Soldiers take great pride in the service they gave to their country.
“They were standing up for America when America wasn’t necessarily standing up for them,” Capt. Paul J. Matthews, founder of the Buffalo Soldier National Museum and Heritage Center in Houston, said Monday in a phone interview.
Fighting on arrival
Watkins was drafted into the military Nov. 4, 1942.
He was living in Philadelphia, but his parents were still in the Whitesboro section of Middle Township, Cape May County. When they received his draft notice, he returned home for it and then left for duty.
He trained throughout the country at bases that included Fort Dix in New Jersey, Fort McClellan in Alabama and Fort Huachuca in Arizona, before his division left for Italy on a converted cruise ship on Sept. 20, 1944.
Watkins fought in the North Apennines along the “Gothic Line” in Italy, the last line of defense formed by German forces during their retreat from the country. He also fought in the Po Valley campaign, which drove the Germans out of Italy and effectively ended Italy’s involvement in World War II.
Watkins had been trained to handle an M-1 rifle, yet he did not kill a single enemy soldier.
“God’s mercy kept me from having to do it,” Watkins said.
Combat in Italy wounded 2,187 soldiers in the unit and killed 616, according to the Buffalo Soldier National Museum Web site.
“The Lord brought me back,” Watkins said. “But there were times when I wasn’t sure if I was going to make it back.”
Watkins was surrounded by the war’s destruction, but he still has peaceful memories, too.
Watkins wasn’t supposed to interact with the civilians, but he remembers sharing his food with the local children. Even now, he remembers what some of them looked like, especially one he nicknamed “Mickey” because he looked like Mickey Rooney.
“I wasn’t supposed to do that,” Watkins said. “But these were children, and I knew that children couldn’t hurt me.”
Lost in transit
According to his papers, Watkins was honorably discharged from the Army on Jan. 5, 1946. He received the Victory Medal for serving, as well as ribbons for good conduct and serving in the European Theater.
To his son’s regret, no artifacts from Watkins’ time in the military — save for his discharge papers, which prove his service during World War II — have survived.
Watkins has moved several times between Whitesboro and Philadelphia, and he said it’s possible that one of his siblings might have disposed of the items or they may have simply gotten lost during a move.
Donald Watkins is documenting his father’s memories for future generations.
“This is an amazing story,” he said of his father’s war story. “People need to know about this.”
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