Stories

Charles Watters

During the turmoil that surrounded the Vietnam War in the 1960s, the U.S. Army chaplains served their country as with other previous conflicts in America’s history. It was in the Vietnam War that Chaplain (MAJ) Charles J. Watters saved many of the lives of his own flock and sacrificed his own life for the greater good.

Born in Jersey City, New Jersey, on 17 January 1927, Watters was ordained a Roman Catholic priest in 1953 and served in parishes in Jersey City, Rutherford, Cranford, and Paramus. In 1962, he became a chaplain in the New Jersey Air National Guard. In 1964, Watters entered the Army as a chaplain at Fort Dix, New Jersey.

In July 1966, Chaplain Watters was assigned to the Republic of Vietnam and served with Company A, 173d Support Battalion, 173d Airborne Brigade. Although he was officially assigned to the 173d Support Battalion, Watters often accompanied the brigade’s line units into the field. In July 1967, after completing his twelve-month tour, he voluntarily extended his tour by another six months.

In November 1967, Chaplain Watters was with 2d Battalion, 503d Infantry, as the battalion took part in the bloody fighting for Hill 875 around Dak To. For Watters, the culmination of the battle came on 19 November. During that day, an intense fire fight broke out with the enemy forces. Without thinking of his own safety, Watters began to rush out on the battle field to help collect the dying and wounded and bring them to safety. Completely exposed, Chaplain Watters administered the Sacrament of Last Rites to his dying men. Every time his unit began to charge the front line, Watters was ahead picking up the wounded and administering the sacraments to those who had fallen. He also helped carry others to safety, including a paratrooper who was in shock and unable to move from his exposed position.

After hours of intense fighting and with the perimeter of the battlefield in a state of constant confusion, Chaplain Watters continued to maintain his composure in a time of severe crisis. For hours after the initial fighting, he kept venturing out between friendly and enemy lines picking up the wounded, providing the exhausted soldiers with food and water, administering the sacraments, and helping the medics give aid to the wounded. There were even efforts to try to restrain Chaplain Watters from his heroic and courageous deeds because of his vulnerability to enemy and friendly fire. Sadly, Watters himself became a victim of the battle raging on Hill 875 and did not survive the day.

Chaplain Watters deeds were not in vain. He helped to save many men from death and comforted those who were dying. For his own courage and bravery, he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor on 4 November 1969 “for his conspicuous gallantry…unyielding perseverance and selfless devotion to his comrades.” These simple yet somber words are found on his Medal of Honor citation. Chaplain Charles Watters was the first Army chaplain to receive the Medal of Honor since the Civil War. Only five Army chaplains have ever received America’s highest military decoration. In the years following Watters’ death, the U.S. Army Chaplain Center and School renamed its building Watters Hall. In addition, P.S. 24, a public school in Jersey City, Watters’ hometown, was renamed Chaplain Charles J. Watters School in 1988.

Chaplain Charles Watters is one of the best examples of how the U.S. Army chaplains serve their men and their country with gallantry and conspicuous courage. Chaplain Watters will always be remembered by the those he saved in a severe time of crisis. Because of this, he will also be remembered as one of the Army’s greatest soldiers.

Information Courtesy of the National Museum of the United States Army

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Charles Watters

Medal of Honor

Charles Watters was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions near the Dak To Province, Republic of Vietnam on 19 November 1967.

Citation: For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty. Chaplain Watters distinguished himself during an assault in the vicinity of Dak To. Chaplain Watters was moving with one of the companies when it engaged a heavily armed enemy battalion. As the battle raged and the casualties mounted, Chaplain Watters, with complete disregard for his safety, rushed forward to the line of contact. Unarmed and completely exposed, he moved among, as well as in front of the advancing troops, giving aid to the wounded, assisting in their evacuation, giving words of encouragement, and administering the last rites to the dying. When a wounded paratrooper was standing in shock in front of the assaulting forces, Chaplain Watters ran forward, picked the man up on his shoulders and carried him to safety. As the troopers battled to the first enemy entrenchment, Chaplain Watters ran through the intense enemy fire to the front of the entrenchment to aid a fallen comrade. A short time later, the paratroopers pulled back in preparation for a second assault. Chaplain Watters exposed himself to both friendly and enemy fire between the two forces in order to recover two wounded soldiers. Later, when the battalion was forced to pull back into a perimeter, Chaplain Watters noticed that several wounded soldiers were lying outside the newly formed perimeter. Without hesitation and ignoring attempts to restrain him, Chaplain Watters left the perimeter three times in the face of small arms, automatic weapons, and mortar fire to carry and to assist the injured troopers to safety. Satisfied that all of the wounded were inside the perimeter, he began aiding the medics … applying field bandages to open wounds, obtaining and serving food and water, giving spiritual and mental strength and comfort. During his ministering, he moved out to the perimeter from position to position redistributing food and water, and tending to the needs of his men. Chaplain Watters was giving aid to the wounded when he himself was mortally wounded. Chaplain Watters’ unyielding perseverance and selfless devotion to his comrades was in keeping with the highest traditions of the U.S. Army.

 

Read more on the Congressional Medal of Honor Society Website
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Vietnam Chaplin
Chaplains

Chaplains in Vietnam

Since 1775, more than 25,000 chaplains from a multitude of religions have provided spiritual guidance and counseling to the men and women serving in our armed forces.  While chaplains were noncombatants, they often became targets as they put themselves in harm’s way to pull the wounded to safety or to administer comfort and last rites.

The Chaplain Corps of the United States Armed Forces has been active in more than 270 major combat engagements and more than 400 have died serving their country.

During the Vietnam War, chaplains were resolute in offering compassion and connection to all service members. They were responsible for holding memorial services for those killed, conducting religious services, raising troop morale, lending an ear, and offering spiritual counsel to service members under duress.

Peaking at 300 chaplains serving in Vietnam in 1967, this number alone is not representative of the amount of steadfast care and compassion these men were able to provide and the danger they often faced. There are 16 chaplains with their names inscribed upon the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and thousands more served their country and fellow man.

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Chaplains

Chaplains on The Wall

 

There are 16 clergy members listed on The Wall: seven Catholic, seven Protestant, and two Jewish.

Download a brochure of the chaplains on The Wall 

 

WILLIAM J BARRAGY

While meeting with troops of the 101st Airborne Division on May 4, 1966, Army Chaplain Barragy was killed when the CH-47 he was riding in crashed due to mechanical failure. From Waterloo, Iowa, he was serving the Roman Catholic Church. Panel 7E/22.

 

DON L BARTLEY

With less than one month left in Vietnam, Army Chaplain Bartley was assisting in the filming of a television program on Vietnam chaplains when he was killed after the explosion of a hostile mine. From Rockbridge Baths, Virginia, he was serving the United Presbyterian Church at MACV headquarters. Panel 23W/109.

 

ROBERT R BRETT

During the siege of Khe Sanh, Navy Chaplain Brett was killed during an artillery attack while caring for the wounded on February 22, 1968. Assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 26th Marine Regiment, Chaplain Brett served the Roman Catholic Church and was known to have provided up to ten masses per day. Panel 40E/58.

 

MERLE D BROWN

On Easter Sunday 1971, Army Chaplain Brown was calling upon soldiers of the 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry, AMERICAL Division when his helicopter was shot down by enemy fire. From Columbus, Ohio, Chaplain Brown was serving the Lutheran Church. Panel 4W/118.

 

VINCENT ROBERT CAPODANNO

While administering comfort and last rites to Marines, Navy Chaplain Capodanno was wounded by small arms and mortar fire while serving with 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines. Advancing to aid a wounded corpsman, he was killed by enemy fire in an act of heroism that would earn him the Medal of Honor. From Staten Island, N.Y., he is being beatified by the Roman Catholic Church. Panel 25E/95.

 

MEIR ENGEL

A veteran of World War II and Korea, Army Chaplain Engel died of a heart attack shortly after admitting himself to a hospital in
Saigon on December 16, 1964. Chaplain Engel was born in Israel and immigrated to the United States. Based at MACV Headquarters, he served service members of the Jewish faith. He left behind two sons. Panel 1E/77.

 

WILLIAM N FEASTER

Army Chaplain Feaster was injured by artillery fire on September 18, 1966. Only after helping other wounded was it learned he had also been wounded. He died several weeks later of an infection. From Portsmouth, N.H., he served Congregational Christian Church while serving with the 196th LIB. Panel 11E/109.

 

WILLIAM J GARRITY JR

On October 26, 1966 in the Gulf of Tonkin, a fire engulfed the USS Oriskany killing 44 crewman and injuring another 156.  While attempting to provide last rites and comfort to those injured and dying, Chaplain Garrity was overwhelmed by the heat and smoke.  He was from Havre, Mont. and was serving the Roman Catholic Church. Panel 11E/110.

 

AMBROSIO S GRANDEA

While conducting a church service on May 25, 1967, Army Chaplain Grandea was wounded by a hostile mortar round. Evacuated to Clark AFB in his native Philippines he died several days later from infection. He was serving the Methodist Church with the 1st Battalion, 14th Infantry. Panel 21E/97.

 

ROGER W HEINZ

While serving the 5th Special Forces Group, Army Chaplain Heinz was killed when his helicopter crashed into a hillside in poor weather on December 9, 1969. From Coventry, Conn., he was serving the Lutheran Church (Missouri Synod) and left behind a wife and two daughters. Panel 15W/42.

 

JAMES J L JOHNSON

As a passenger aboard a Navy VC-47 airplane on March 10, 1967, Army Chaplain Johnson died with 14 other service members when the wing failed during a flight. He was serving the Baptist Church in the 4th Infantry Division. Panel 16E/53.

 

ALOYSIUS P MCGONIGAL

On February 17, 1968, Army Chaplain McGonigal joined the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines in the final assault on the Citadel in Hue. While administering comfort and last rites, he was killed by small arms fire. A former physics teacher from Washington, D.C. he was serving the Roman Catholic Church. Panel 39E/75.

 

PHILLIP A NICHOLS

Known for his clean green uniforms and guitar playing, Army Chaplain Nichols was killed by an enemy booby trap while travelling
between units in the field on October 13, 1970. Serving the Assemblies of God Church, from Kalispell, Mont., he was attached to the 1st Battalion, 52nd Infantry, AMERICAL Division. Panel 7W/133.

 

MICHAEL J QUEALY

Against the advice of leadership, Army Chaplain Quealy flew to a battle site near Saigon on November 8, 1966. While administering last rites and comforting the wounded, he was killed by enemy machine gun fire. From New York, N.Y., he was serving the Roman Catholic Church with the 1st Infantry Division. Panel 12E/43.

 

MORTON H SINGER

Army Chaplain Singer had been in Vietnam for one month when killed while flying aboard a C-123 plane which crashed after takeoff en route to perform Chanukah services on December 17, 1968. From Flushing, N.Y., he served service members of the
Jewish faith and was attached to the XXIV Corps. Panel 36W/37.

 

CHARLES J WATTERS

While assisting medics and providing spiritual assistance on November 19, 1967, Army Chaplain Watters was killed by fragmentation wounds. For his actions, he posthumously received the Medal of Honor. From Berkeley Heights, N.J., he was serving the Roman Catholic Church with the 173rd Airborne Brigade. Panel 30E/36.

 

 

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Charles Watters

Additional Resources

Articles

Fr. Charles Watters — The Chaplain Was a Sky Soldier: Archdiocese of Washington District / Knights of Columbus

Chaplain (MAJ) Charles J. Watters: The National Museum of the United States Army

A VETERAN’S STORY: Military man of the cloth saved lives, souls: The Rockdale Citizen

The Secret History of a Vietnam War Airstrike Gone Terribly Wrong: The New York Times Magazine

Destroyed Chaplain Kit: U.S. Army Center of Military History

Watters, Charles Joseph:  Congressional Medal of Honor Society

 

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