Wednesday, May 16, 2012

A memorable Midway meeting: Bob Watson, veteran of Omaha Beach

While walking through the interior of the massive USS Midway this past weekend in all its stunning glory, admiring the vintage and modern planes and the cavern-like interior of the hangar deck, I came upon an elderly gentleman in fatigues sitting in front of a collage of photos. On his head was a familiar black cap sewn with gold lettering, the kind worn by members of the military to commemorate either the branch of the service in which they served or the engagement in which they fought. These hats always get my attention.

Truth be told I didn't even notice the man's battle ribbons at first, nor the Purple Heart on his chest. I was too busy gaping at the two words on his cover that chill the soul of anyone with even a passing knowledge of WWII: Omaha Beach.

Bob Watson , U.S. Sixth Naval Beach Battalion, was among the first waves of U.S. soldiers to hit Omaha Beach on D-Day, June 6 1944. He was just 18 years old. When I saw him on the Midway he was just finishing up speaking with another gentleman and his wife. Passers-by occasionally glanced his way, perhaps pausing to look over his photos of Omaha, once and a while stopping and thanking him for his service. He should have been swarmed by thankful citizens. Take a look at his story on the site I've linked to. His landing craft hit a teller mine on the top of a submerged wooden obstacle, a devious construction that was part of Hitler's famous Atlantic sea wall. The ensuing explosion blew off the front door of the craft, killing more than half of the crew. Dazed and injured Watson somehow made it to shore where he was thrust immediately into the Army firing line. Later he helped to clear the beach of obstacles with a bulldozer while still under German fire. It's amazing stuff. I got to hear Watson's story and much more, speaking with this kind old warrior for the better part of an hour.

Watson's collage includes photos of him shaking hands with Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, taken on the eve of the debut of Saving Private Ryan. One of the more interesting bits from our talk was when Watson relayed his conversation with Spielberg, who had asked Watson what he liked and disliked about Ryan. "The landing scene was accurate, though not quite as bloody as what really happened that day," said Watson, noting that body parts and mangled corpses were everywhere while the ocean seemed on fire with exploding shells and burning gasoline. In general he thought it was an excellent film and a compelling portrayal of the war. His major criticism of the film? "I told Spielberg: 'Who were these guys (actors)? They're too old. All the guys I knew were almost all 18, 19 years old.'" Watson was just 18 when he hit the carnage on the beach. The thought of a bunch of 18 year olds whose first experience of combat was Omaha is sobering and horrifying. After almost an hour I shook his hand for the last time, thanked him profusely for his heroism and service, and was on my way.

I'm tempted to leave this post at that but I can't resist a bit of moralizing.

The same day Jessica Sanchez from American Idol was invited out to the Midway for a special performance  for her hometown fans. On the top deck Sanchez was surrounded by easily a thousand-plus screaming fans with handmade signs and cameras, hoping for a glimpse of a 16-year-old whose claim to fame is a good voice and some face time on a mediocre television program. Now, I have absolutely no hard feelings toward Sanchez, she seems like a nice kid, and I wish her the best in her singing career. I just found the whole cult of personality mentality a bit disheartening when the real celebrity was below decks. I couldn't help but feel that the incongruity of the situation is a rather sad reflection on the current state of our culture. Our heroes are in the history books--or in the case of Watson, living history. Not on TV. We have it all backwards.


6 comments:

Paul R. McNamee said...

What a fantastic encounter, Brian. Thanks for sharing.

The Jessica Sanchez footnote is indeed disheartening. I agree, our cultural icons & hero worship is all backwards.

Charles R. Rutledge said...

You met a bit of living history there Brian, and you handled it great. Thanks for sharing that with us.

Brian Murphy said...

Thanks guys. It was an amazing chance meeting that I won't forget!

David J. West said...

Fascinating, I had to ponder a moment how old my grandfather was that day when he hit the beach - Huh, I guess he was an old man on the beach at 25.

Brian Murphy said...

Hi David, is your grandfather still with us? I hope you have or have had a chance to talk about that day.

David J. West said...

No Brian, he passed away in august of 99'. But I was the only grand child that asked about the war and that by that later date he felt comfortable talking about it with. He never told my Dad anything-he wasn't ready.

I asked his opinion on D-Day and Saving private Ryan and he said it was pretty close.

I have taken notes and have intended to compile them into a legible format for some time-it will get done, I'm just not sure when yet. I need to do it sooner than later for my Dad's sake.