Charles Joseph Watters was born January 17, 1927. After attending college at Seton Hall, he decided to become a priest and went to Immaculate Conception Seminary. Ordained on May 30, 1953, he served parishes in Jersey City, Rutherford, Paramus, and Cranford, all in New Jersey.
While attending to his priestly duties, Father Watters became a pilot and earned a commercial pilot’s license. In 1962, he joined the Air Force National Guard in New Jersey.
In August 1965, he transferred to the Army as a chaplain. At the age of 38, Father Watters successfully completed Airborne training and joined the 173rd Airborne Brigade, the Sky Soldiers. In June of 1966, Major Watters began a twelve month tour of duty in Vietnam with the 173rd.
Major Watters became a legend in the 173rd as he constantly stayed with units in combat. When a unit he was attached to rotated to the rear, he joined another unit in action. He believed that his role was to serve the men in the fighting units by saying mass, joking with the men, giving them spiritual guidance, and tending the wounded. The word quickly spread in “The Herd”, as the 173rd was called, about the priest who didn’t mind risking his life with them, a reputation Father Watters sealed when he made a combat jump with the troops during Operation Junction City on February 22, 1967.
During an interview in May 1967, Major Watters told a reporter, “I’m the peaceful kind. All I shoot is my camera. If they start shooting at me, I’d just yell “Tourist!”. Seriously a weapon weighs too much, and, after all, a priest’s job is taking care of the boys. But if we ever get overrun, I guess there’ll be plenty of weapons lying around waiting to be picked up.” During his first tour, he was decorated with an Air Medal and a Bronze Star with V for valor.
In June 1967, with his tour over, he signed up for another tour, rather than returning home. His boys needed him, and he wouldn’t let them down.
On November 19, 1967, he was with the second battalion, 503rd infantry, as it prepared to assault Hill 875 near Dak To, South Vietnam. Dak To, located near the Cambodian and Laotian borders, was a major infiltration point for North Vietnamese soldiers, supplies, and munitions entering South Vietnam from the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
The battalion advanced up the north slope of the hill with Delta Company on the left side of the ridge line, Charlie Company on the right side of the ridge line, and Alpha Company in reserve bringing up the rear. Although he could have stayed behind in safety, Father Watters was with the battalion as it advanced. Delta and Charlie quickly came under fire from North Vietnamese troops in concealed bunkers covered by foliage. Both companies were pinned under heavy enemy fire, including machine guns and mortars, as well as rifle fire. Wounded men began crying out for help and throughout that very long day, Father Watters rendered that help. Following is the official 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 2 forces in order to recover 2 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.”
Ironically, it was not enemy fire that took the life of Father Watters, but, tragically, a 500 pound American bomb. A Marine pilot, desperately trying to aid the battalion, dropped a bomb which killed 45 Americans, including Father Watters. It was one of the worst friendly-fire incidents of the Vietnam War. Click here to view the official battle report. Ultimately the 173rd took Hill 875.
The many men he had saved that day never forgot Father Watters and neither did the Army. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, one of seven Chaplains to be so honored. On November 20, 2007, Army Chaplain’s School was named Watters’ Hall in his honor. His name is on both the Vietnam Wall and on the Vietnam Memorial Virtual Wall. Schools have been named after him, a bridge in New Jersey bears his name, and multiple Knights of Columbus Councils and Assemblies (including Assembly 2688) honor Father Watters by adopting his name as part of their names.