Ceremony to recognize Oconee's only Medal of Honor Recipient

Submitted on March 23, 2017

BY Stephanie Jadrnicek

S/Sgt. Watkins

SENECA — It was Oct. 7, 1952, in the darkness of the early-morning hours. Staff Sgt. Lewis G. Watkins led his platoon up a hill in Korea to retake an outpost that the enemy had overrun earlier in the night.

At the crest of the hill, the enemy fired and painfully wounded Watkins. But he continued to lead his men.

"When a grenade landed among Staff Sergeant Watkins and several other marines … he immediately pushed his companions aside, placed himself in a position to shield them and picked up the deadly missile in an attempt to throw it outside the trench," Watkins' Medal of Honor citation by President Dwight D. Eisenhower reads.

When the grenade exploded in Watkins' hand, he was mortally wounded. Eisenhower awarded Watkins the Medal of Honor for his "conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty."

Retired U.S. Marine Corps Major and Lewis G. Watkins Marine Corp League member Clarence "Del" Williams said the Medal of Honor was created in 1861 and is the highest military honor. It's awarded by the president of the United States, in the name of Congress, for personal acts of valor above and beyond the call of duty.

Watkins received the Medal of Honor for his courageous acts in the Korean War. He's the only person from Oconee County to ever receive the Medal of Honor.

At 12:30 p.m. Saturday, a ceremony will take place at the Wolf Stake Baptist Church cemetery, Watkins' burial site, in recognition of National Medal of Honor Day.

"Congress designated March 25 as National Medal of Honor Day, a day dedicated to Medal of Honor recipients," Williams said. "This holiday should be one of our most revered. Unfortunately, all too many Americans are not even aware of its existence."

Watkins was born in Seneca in 1925, and after graduating from high school, he served one tour of duty in the U.S. Navy. When the Korean War began, Lewis was working as a police officer in Greenville and enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps in September 1950.

"His military obligation to the country was over," Williams said. "He would not have been drafted. He volunteered to go back on active duty and went into the Marine Corps the second time."

Williams said only about 3,400 people have received the Medal of Honor. The first medals were given to members of Andrews' Raiders during the Civil War in 1863. And since then, the U.S. has engaged in five major conflicts — World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam and the ongoing war against terrorism.

"These people gave it all — and when I say all, they gave their lives," Williams said. "Even the ones that survived and are alive suffered tremendous physical injury, and they did it for one reason and one reason only — they love their country."

Two veterans groups in Oconee County use Watkins' name in their charters — the Lewis G. Watkins Marine Corp League detachment 1131 and the Lewis G. Watkins chapter of the Disabled American Veterans.

Members of those organizations and their accompanying auxiliaries will participate in the ceremony, as well as state Sen. Thomas Alexander, R-Walhalla, Rep. Bill Whitmire, R-Walhalla, and Rep. Bill Sandifer, R-Seneca.

"Watkins was willing to give his life for his country and the freedom of his fellow citizens," Williams said. "That's how important that freedom was to him, that he was willing to give his life for it. And I think that he should be recognized and honored for having given the ultimate sacrifice."

stephanie@upstatetoday.com | (864) 973-6686

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