It was 1968, and Sgt. 1st Class Pat Watkins was in South Vietnam. At least that was the official story. The truth was that Watkins' war was fought largely behind enemy lines, sneaking through the jungle take two steps and listen, take two steps and listen but no one knew that at the time. Even his wife didn't know it. She wouldn't learn about it until years later, when the medals began to arrive and she could read the medal citations. Watkins and his fellow Green Berets carried out missions so secret that it wasn't until last month that he received yet another Bronze Star for a valorous act he performed three decades ago. Finally, it was declassified.
I met Watkins at his office at Salt Lake's Veterans Administration Hospital, where he is employed as safety officer. For those of us who have never fought a war, who have never aimed a weapon at another man or stared down the wrong end of a barrel or fought hand-to-hand for our lives, we hold something approaching awe for those who have. What is it like? Could we meet the terrible challenge if it were presented to us? Watkins did. I couldn't help thinking that this ordinary-looking man sitting across the room from me once tackled an enemy soldier and killed him.
Having read of Watkins' tales of war, you aren't prepared for what you find when you meet him. You're expecting Rambo; instead you get Guy Next Door, a slender, polite, friendly man who weighs maybe 150 pounds. Yet inside this slight man there beats the heart of a warrior. He owns five Bronze Stars for valor, two Army Commendation medals for valor, two Purple Hearts and four Air Medals. For 2 1/2 years he stalked the jungle behind enemy lines, wearing enemy uniforms and carrying enemy weapons in Laos and Cambodia.
He survived firefights, bombs, napalm, ambushes, leeches, snakes and even a tiger and The Attack of the Monkeys. Some of his war adventures have been told in two books and three different articles in Soldier of Fortune magazine.These days he lives a quiet life, with his wife and four large dogs. After the war, he returned to the States, raised two daughters, threw himself headlong into the running boom and marathoning and never looked back. He retired from the military in 1980. At 62, he works a full day and then goes for a run and lifts weights. His peaceful life seems to balance the first half of his life, which was marked by poverty, danger and bloody violence.
It was hard to sleep. You had to sleep with one eye open. You were afraid someone would snore. When we did sleep, we slept in the shape of a wagon wheel, with our backs leaning against each other. We set up land mines in a circle around our camp; they were full of buckshot.One night we heard NVA crawling toward us. They set off "toe poppers." We blew the mines. We killed them. We never saw them, but we heard them screaming.
The official position of the United States was that no American soldiers were fighting anywhere but in South Vietnam. It was politics at its worst. Politicians sent soldiers to fight a war and then put handcuffs on them. U.S. leaders officially forbade them from fighting in neighboring countries, largely to appease the Chinese and Soviets. Meanwhile, the North Vietnamese were using Laos, Cambodia and North Vietnam as a haven to recuperate and resupply. The NVA supply routes came through those countries, specifically the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
"Those countries . . . were controlled by the NVA (North Vietnamese Army)," says Watkins. "They'd cross the borders and lick their wounds and rest, and our troops couldn't touch them."
Not officially, at least. The United States sent Green Berets on secret missions into those countries. The name of the program was Studies and Observations Group SOG. Watkins was with the Fifth Special Forces Group.
"Our job was to pester them," says Watkins. "We wanted them to be concerned about being attacked with our 'black operations.' We were supposed to keep them off guard, not let them rest or recover."
They also gathered information, rescued downed pilots, kidnapped enemy officers for interrogation, planted mines and wiretapped communication lines to provide information for aircraft overhead. They gathered intelligence and called in airstrikes when they stumbled upon "targets of opportunity" truck parks, anti-aircraft positions, etc.
SOG forces were nothing if not creative. They booby-trapped enemy ammunition caches so that bullets, mortars or anti-aircraft shells exploded when fired.
"It would either kill them or make them lose faith in their weapons," says Watkins. "We'd drop boxes of ammunition on the trail to make it look like they were accidentally dropped there, and the NVA soldiers would find it and use it. But it was booby-trapped."
SOG forces didn't carry U.S. weapons or wear U.S. uniforms. They didn't even wear dog tags. That way no one could identify them as Americans. Watkins' team rescued a downed American pilot, and the pilot never knew there were Americans in the group. Speaking in Vietnamese, Watkins ordered the pilot to remove his shoes, treating him the way the NVA treated American prisoners (Americans have soft feet) and forced him to march barefoot. The pilot never knew how lucky he was until they put him on a U.S. helicopter.
"He thought he was on his way to Hanoi," says Watkins. "He knew there were Caucasians in the group, but not Americans."SOG forces had the highest casualty rate in Vietnam. They were deep behind enemy lines, beyond the support of artillery and, in some cases, jet fighters, which were banned from Cambodia by U.S. bureaucrats. For that matter, they couldn't even fire their own weapons because it would alert the enemy to their presence. The only time they shot their weapons was when their position had been compromised, in which case they called the choppers to come get them and then held off the enemy as long as they could, badly outnumbered.
My best friend over there was Charlie Wilcox. I was at base camp getting ready to run an operation when we heard his helicopter had been shot down in Laos. They took my team in to see if there were any survivors. We rappelled into the crash site (from the chopper). It was still burning.
We set up a perimeter around the crash. It was a hot area. We had to wait for the chopper to cool down because the bodies were still in there. They burned up. And all the weapons inside the chopper blew up.
These guys were in parts. It was a mess. That was tough. It's something you don't want to think about. They dropped body bags to us and pulled us out with ropes. I carried Charlie out of there.The enemy was coming down hard on us. We were putting airstrikes around to keep them off us long enough to get them out. When we were coming out of there on ropes they were shooting at us. We could see the green tracers coming up at us.
While everyone else had been trying to find a way to dodge Vietnam, Watkins seemed to be looking for a way to get there. He grew up poor hungry poor. As the Indiana state half-mile champion, he was offered track scholarships to Purdue, LSU and DePaul but turned them down. "I was just a poor farm kid," he says. Even with a scholarship, he didn't have enough money to cover the other expenses of attending school. His divorced mother raised four children on tips as a small-town waitress; his grandmother helped by doing odd sewing jobs for extra money.
They lived for a time in a house without running water, and their only source of light was a kerosene lamp. Watkins and his sisters went to the local mill to gather corn cobs, which they sold door to door for five cents a bagful to be used in fireplaces.
"We took a biscuit to school with us," says Watkins. "That was our lunch. We went without a lot of meals."
It was this poverty, plus a proclivity for thrills, that drove him to join the Marines. "Part of it was three hots and a cot," says Watkins. "I never knew what three meals were till I went in the service. It was an escape from a meager existence. It was a place to go."
He joined the Marines out of high school in '56 and in his early years mostly competed in baseball and track for the Corps. He made the all-Marine team and was assigned to train with other members of the team, including a young Indian distance runner named Billy Mills and a funny high jumper named Bill Cosby.
After assignments in Guantanamo Bay during the Cuban missile crisis and Lebanon to calm tensions between Christians and Muslims, he quit the Marines so he could do something a little more exciting. He joined Army Special Forces. "I wanted to run more clandestine operations," he explains. "The Marines is basically conventional warfare." Watkins wanted to be a Green Beret so badly that he took a pay cut and a demotion to do it.The rest reads like a recruiting poster. He would be all he could be. He attended HALO school (High Altitude, Low Opening skydiving), where he learned to jump from an airplane at 25,000 feet with oxygen, a full pack and a weapon, and free fall to 2,000 feet. He studied karate. He attended scuba school, where he learned the art of underwater demolition. He attended special courses to study unconventional warfare clandestine raids, ambushes, training indigenous forces.
I flew to our headquarters in Da Nang once and spent the night. My old recon team was there, and we stayed up late talking. A friend went into town, so I gave him my 9 mm (submachine gun) for protection. You didn't want to go to town without a weapon. So all I had was a pistol, a .45.
I went to bed and later that night there were massive explosions. They blew out the windows. I hit the floor and flipped the mattress over me. I had my .45 under my pillow, like I always did. I crawled out in the hallway and looked in the rooms. I saw a guy run by the door. He threw a hand grenade down the hall and it exploded. The NVA were in our camp. They were all over the place.
I went out the door and saw a friend of mine, Bob Scully. He was screaming. He was hit. I started to crawl to him and saw a shadow he was silhouetted by the flares that were going off overhead. He threw a hand grenade at me. I rolled and got hit with shrapnel in the leg.
I started shooting with my .45. I killed him, but I don't know how, because I can't hit anything with a pistol. I just emptied the pistol. I shot him through the heart. I searched him to see if I could get a weapon, but he didn't have one.
I carried Scully to the dispensary at the other end of camp. It was like Fort Apache. There were pockets of fighting everywhere. There were flares and explosions and mist and tracers and shooting.I went back to where I found Scully to see if I could find more wounded. I heard someone hollering: "Is anyone out there?! I'm pinned down!" It was Jerry Holland, a friend of mine. I went to look for him. I came around the corner and a guy stood up in the wreckage of the building. He was wearing a breechcloth and a bandanna and was holding an AK-47. He was 10 feet away. I was so close, I just ran at him and knocked him down. I lost my .45 in the scuffle. I shot him with his own AK. This guy was using Jerry for bait.
When Watkins was assigned to SOG, his first order of business was to train locals as soldiers. SOG teams consisted of up to 12 men, but only three were Americans. The rest were Vietnamese mercenaries hiring themselves out as soldiers. Watkins, like other patrol leaders, took rice farmers and hill tribesmen most between the ages of 14 and 20 and made them soldiers. In a matter of weeks they went from crossbows to M-16s and from breechcloths to army fatigues.
"They just did it for money, and their families were in our refugee camps being fed and taken care of," says Watkins. "We didn't have much time to get them ready. There was lots of pressure to get out there and run operations. It was hard enough teaching tactics to them, but we also had a language barrier. We had to train the hell out of them. We really relied on them. They were our guns while we did our missions."
The SOG teams were taken in and out of enemy territory by ropes or ladders suspended from helicopters. Often under heavy fire, they clipped themselves into harnesses dangling from helicopters to make a hasty exit. They swung at the end of a rope while bullets zipped past them.
SOG troops traveled light. They carried a souped-up M-16 with 21 magazines. A handgun. Hand grenades. A gas mask. Smoke grenades. Plus water and a little food. ("You didn't need food, you needed ammunition," says Watkins.)
They never traveled at night; it was too noisy. They moved in the day, slowly. "If we went a half-click (500 meters) a day, we considered it running," says Watkins. "You'd take two steps and stop and listen. You had to be quiet."The missions were supposed to last three days; only twice did any of Watkins' missions go the distance. The rest were discovered by the NVA and forced an early retreat.
One time we were accidentally dropped in the middle of an enemy base camp. Next thing I know the enemy is all over the ridge line. They had let the choppers land. We never left the spot we landed on. We were pinned down for two hours, and I'll bet I didn't move five steps until we made a run for it. I finally had to call in napalm and cluster bombs. I had to call it in so close that they (the jets) were almost on top of us. Four of our people were hit by friendly fire.The napalm set the LZ (landing zone) on fire. We had to move it about 50 meters. I carried one of the guys on my back trying to get out of there. He was bleeding all over me. A chopper was finally able to land and get us. I think the NVA let us get out of there just because they were tired of getting bombed. They were crawling to us so they wouldn't get bombed.
Before each mission, Army intelligence provided Watkins and the other SOG patrol leaders with information about a target area, as well as the mission objective, but they quickly learned to distrust it. "We learned it was a lie," Watkins says. "They wouldn't tell you everything. They were afraid you wouldn't go in there. They were using us as bait to see what we'd find. It's a lot better to have people in there because you couldn't learn everything from (spy) planes. We got smart about that. Intelligence was not telling us everything."
Watkins compensated for this by preparing his teams fanatically, a fact that is noted in his medal citations. Between missions, he kept his team sharp by practicing in South Vietnam. "We'd go on local ops in Vietnam and think this is a piece of cake because we weren't behind enemy lines," says Watkins. "It almost got us killed. One of the worst firefights we ever got in was when we were practicing. We walked right into a patrol of NVA. Five guys. We had trouble breaking contact with them."
If the fear of being discovered and shot wasn't enough, the living conditions in the jungle were another worry. There were ants everywhere and large bugs and cobras and vipers and leeches and mosquitoes.
"The thing that drove you crazy was the leeches," says Watkins. "You'd spend half the time you were stopped just picking off leeches. I had one in my nose. Leeches were crawling on you and ants were crawling on your butt. Everything either has stickers on it or something is crawling on it that could bite you. We wore gloves."
Sometimes nature provided bigger problems. During one mission, Watkins and his team were discovered, not by NVA, but by monkeys. His team was stalking the enemy, trying tomaintain silence, when suddenly gibbon apes high in the trees started "screaming at us and throwing things at us. We were afraid they were going to give our position away. We had to get out of there."
Once we were sneaking through a pristine jungle in Laos. My Little People (Vietnamese mercenaries) got tired, so we stopped to rest and all of a sudden we heard this wild scream like a Banshee. One of the Little People ran over and started jabbering at me, but I couldn't understand what he was saying. Finally, he pantomimed it: tiger. We could hear it crashing back and forth in the bushes. It was marking its territory, I guess.We caught glimpses of it. I'll bet it was 8 feet long. There could have been an NVA division and we wouldn't have been more scared. We couldn't do anything. We couldn't shoot it because we'd give away our position. It went on and on. This tiger was going back and forth. Finally, I thought, 'We can't stay here.' We moved out of there, and the tiger didn't follow us.
One of the most dangerous missions that Watkins undertook was in Laos, where the team was sent to a notoriously hot target that had already claimed five aircraft. It was the control center for the Ho Chi Minh Trail System, heavily guarded by anti-aircraft and SAM missile positions. Watkins was told almost none of this. His team took heavy fire just as they hit the ground. The chopper tried to land again to pick them up, but the shooting was too intense. A gunship was shot down. Two members of Watkins' team were wounded. Eventually, Watkins' team sneaked out of the area in the tall elephant grass and escaped.
At this point their sole objective was survival, but then they ran into a truck park and a road. They spent the night squatting in the trees, observing enemy movement. The next morning they unwittingly walked into several enemy positions, somehow unseen. Some NVA were sleeping. Some were cooking rice and smoking cigarettes.
Watkins' team was able to avoid discovery until they stumbled upon still another small patrol that was eating rice, with their rifles out of reach. "We would've gone around them if we could have, but they saw us and we killed them," says Watkins. "Then things got real hot. The M-16 makes a distinct sound. We hid in a bomb crater."
While he was coordinating a new LZ, Watkins was asked if he would direct airstrikes with the promise that choppers would pick him up in 10 minutes. It was risky. If the choppers didn't show up, they were in trouble."Our aircraft would drop a phosphorus rocket to put up smoke, and then we would radio how much adjustment they needed to make for the airstrikes," says Watkins. "The minute you did that, the enemy knew someone was in the area directing it. And that's what happened. They sent patrols looking for us and found us. Charlie could've overrun us at any time, but they used us as bait. The Army tried to pick us up, but they kept getting shot. They gave up on us. They weren't coming back. I had to call in A-1Es (fighter-bombers), and they put down napalm. No one wanted to get burned. It gave us time to get in a South Vietnamese chopper. It lasted one day, but it seemed like an eternity."
I lost two roommates over there. I packed up their stuff and sent it home. That was hard. . . . I saw my family four days in one year. That was hard. I'm not sure that was a smart move to see them even that much. People who were thinking about home were dangerous. I didn't want to be around them. They were a liability. You're trying to stay alive. You can't worry about what's going on at home.
Watkins made a smooth transition back into life in the United States. He reintroduced himself to his wife and young daughters. He left the war behind and got on with his life. "He left his job at work," says his wife, Carol. "When he came home he was a husband and dad. He was just a natural-born soldier. He loved Special Forces and being a part of that team."
For a while, Watkins had trouble sleeping; he was used to catnaps in the jungle, with his back to his buddies and a machine gun in his hands. He was jumpy, too. He was walking down the street one day when a car struck a garbage can, making a loud bang. Watkins was on the ground in a split second. "What are you doing?" Carol asked him.
It was only a couple of years ago that Watkins was watching "Saving Private Ryan" in the theater and found himself calling out warnings to the actors on the screen: "Look out!" "Get your head down." "Don't go into that open field!" All these years later, he is ever the patrol leader. But that's as bad as it got after he returned to civilization.
Looking back, Watkins says, "I'd do it all over again."
Why?"Because I've lived. Every day was an adventure in life and death. And I believed in what we were doing."