The Viet Cong soldier stood in the doorway, ready to throw a satchel full of explosives into the building where Staff Sgt. Patrick Watkins had been sleeping.
Through the darkness, Watkins fired his .45-caliber pistol twice. The bullets struck and soon killed the Vietnamese soldier, but first he rolled a grenade toward Watkins.
Da Nang, Vietnam
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Watkins yelled, "Grenade," ducked and covered his head. Shrapnel peppered Watkins.
"I tried to get up, and I fell down," the 76-year-old Watkins explained Tuesday. "I knew I had a concussion."
But Watkins would get to his feet, pick up his gun again and organize a rescue for other U.S. soldiers pinned down and buried underneath debris by the Viet Cong who attacked their camp that night near Da Nang, Vietnam. Next week at a ceremony in Florida, Watkins will receive the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions.
The Distinguished Service Cross is the second-highest honor for a member of the U.S. Army — behind only the Medal of Honor.
Watkins is believed to be the only Utahn from the Vietnam War to receive the medal. And the honor might solidify Watkins’ place as the state’s most highly decorated living veteran. He already has five Bronze Stars, two Army Commendation Medals, two Meritorious Service Medals and three Air Medals.
He also has two Purple Hearts, one of which he received for his wounds in the attack that night in Da Nang at Forward Operating Base 4.
Watkins was assigned to the 5th Special Forces Group and spent much of the war in counterinsurgency operations in Cambodia and Laos. Forward Operating Base 4 was considered a top-secret facility. But it was not well guarded, according to Watkins and written accounts. There was some barbed-wire fencing patrolled by South Vietnamese security — or, as Watkins called them, "rent-a-cops."
The1968 attack began late Aug. 22 or early on Aug. 23. The Viet Cong sent about 250 soldiers from an elite unit called "Sappers" that specialized in attacking bases. Battle accounts suggest the Viet Cong were aided by Vietnamese working with the Americans inside the base.
"They didn’t come in to control the compound and keep it," Watkins said Wednesday during an interview at the Gallivan Center in downtown Salt Lake City. "They came in to kill people."
Watkins was asleep in a room with another staff sergeant and two recently arrived second lieutenants when the Sappers attacked. At first, Watkins woke to the sound of incoming mortar fire. He and Staff Sgt. Joseph Conlon covered themselves with their mattresses.
Watkins then heard a neighboring building explode, followed by AK-47 fire. He realized the enemy was inside the camp.
One of the lieutenants went to the window. A bullet struck him. Another building exploded, collapsing some of the ceiling on top of Watkins and his roommates.
Watkins knew their building would be targeted. He ordered Conlon to cover the rear with his rifle. Watkins covered the front, where he encountered the Sapper.
After the grenade went off, Watkins, told the healthy lieutenant to secure the building. Watkins and Conlon went outside. The Sappers had overrun the base. Intense gun battles raged.
The only light, Watkins said, came from muzzle flashes and explosions. About an hour into the battle, a C-47 flew over and dropped flares.
Watkins tried to organize the U.S. soldiers to create a perimeter around their section of the camp and to search for survivors.
"We basically, the rest of the night, went trying to find wounded," Watkins recalled. Fighting the Sappers was secondary.
Many of the soldiers Watkins organized had just arrived in Vietnam. Others were radio operators or had other jobs that — until then — had kept them out of combat, Watkins said.
Decades later, a group of survivors submitted affidavits in support of Watkins’ medal. Conlon told how Watkins saved lives when the headquarters was attacked.Next Page >
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