SEAL still stands proud.
Four decades and a few years ago, James Watson was a member of the original Navy SEALs, a special forces branch created by order of President John F. Kennedy.
Watson would go on to win four Bronze Stars fighting in Vietnam, where he caught shrapnel in his arm, shoulder and legs from an exploding mine. He retired from the service in 1974 as a chief petty officer.
On Saturday, Watson - looking a little grayer and a bit thicker around the middle at age 69 than in his fighting days - shook hands and signed copies of his autobiography, "Point Man," for admirers at the Oregon Knife Collectors Show at the Lane Events Center.
He was here visiting Creswell knifemaker Bill Harsey, with whom he designed a commando knife now being manufactured by Gerber. You can probably find him at the knife show today at Harsey's booth, near the front door of the exhibition hall. Admission is $5; hours are 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Watson grew up in a blue-collar family in New Jersey. He loaded trucks and helped run an apartment building as a teenager and young man. He had planned to go to college on a football scholarship before an injury ended his sports career.
Then he saw the Richard Widmark movie "The Frogmen" and knew what his future would be. He enlisted in 1954 and it took him three years to get into the Navy's Underwater Demolition Team training.
One-hundred-twenty-five young men started in Watson's UDT class. When he graduated, six months later, all but 18 had quit or washed out of the program.
"The only way they were going to drive me out was to kill me," he said. "And that was against government regula- tions."
Watson spent the next few years as a commando without a war, taking one intensive military course after another. In 1962, Kennedy, who was enamored of guerilla-style fighting, created the SEALs - the acronym stands for sea, air and land, referring to the commandos' ability to fight anywhere.
When he became a SEAL - he was in SEAL Team Two, but he insists it was formed ahead of SEAL Team One, which was activated the same day, because of a time zone difference - no one was quite certain what they were training to do.
"The scuttlebutt was that they were putting together a special operation to go down south and play with Uncle Fidel," Watson says.
But the SEALS didn't go to Cuba. Instead, Watson and his fellow SEALS - with not a combat veteran among them - found themselves stepping off a plane in Can Tho, Vietnam, one muggy afternoon, holding their weapons ready for a fight.
The soldiers already at the base laughed and handed out cold beers. "Take it easy," one said. "The war doesn't start until after sundown."
That night, and every night, they were shelled by mortars.
The new commandos quickly became experienced in war and its craziness.
In Watson's book, he recounts what happened when his helicopter was shot down in the jungle during an attempt to rescue American prisoners of war.
The SEALs and several South Vietnamese soldiers, along with a captured Viet Cong serving as their guide, survived the crash without injury but were surrounded by enemy soldiers.
In a hilarious scene that seems straight out of `M*A*S*H,' an American colonel in another helicopter orders them back to the crashed copter, despite the fact that the enemy soldiers were closing in on the wreckage and firing at it.
Watson refuses the colonel's direct order in a burst of profanity, and by the time he and his crew are rescued by another chopper, there are officers and SEALs pointing guns at one another over whose orders to follow.
"All the SEALs are good men," Watson dryly concludes. "Some just excel a little bit more than the others."
The chief went back to Vietnam in 1996 and visited the site of one of his battles, finding the exact place he had stood when he killed a Vietnamese soldier.
"To my surprise, I find I'm wondering about that guy's wife and kids," he said. "He only got one shot off. If he'd had his AK-47 on full automatic, he would have cut me in half."
Watson, not surprisingly, is a big supporter of the American military in Iraq. Especially the special forces units. He would like to go to Afghanistan to see them in action.
"Those young men today are so superior to us," he says. "They're better equipped. Their training is longer and harder. They are doing a hell of a job. I don't think the national media is allowing people to see how good a job they're doing."
His favorite war movie, and about the only one he much appreciates, is "We Were Soldiers."
"If they could have piped the odor into the theater, that's the closest thing I've seen."
He and his surviving fellow SEALS still get together regularly. Most survived Vietnam, including all of the SEALs in Watson's unit. "I never lost a man," he says proudly. "And never had a man get a Purple Heart."
James Watson and Creswell knifemaker Bill Harsey designed a knife being used by SEALs today.
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|Title Annotation:||General News; James Watson helped a Creswell man design a commando knife and makes an appearance at a collectors show|
|Publication:||The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)|
|Date:||Apr 9, 2006|
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