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Column: Vietnam stories confirmed after visit to museum


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James ''Patches'' Watson posed with a veteran of the North Vietnamese army during a return visit in 1996 to the communist country where he served with the Navy SEALS. / Submitted photo
James ''Patches'' Watson posed with a veteran of the North Vietnamese army during a return visit in 1996 to the communist country where he served with the Navy SEALS. / Submitted photo


I came across the obituary for Jim “Patches” Watson by accident. At work earlier this month I was filing photos that had accumulated over several years in and on my desk. One of them was of Patches.

It had been several years since I had last seen him, sometime in the late 1990s. He was living in Columbus at the time with his wife, Lynda, who worked at Cummins Engine Co. He later moved to Florida, and I lost touch with him.

I wanted to put something on the back of the photo that would provide some of his background, but I was having difficulty remembering some of the particulars in his life.

I Googled his name, adding Navy SEAL at the end to narrow the search. His obituary was at the top of the list. He had died Oct. 26. I read the obituary and a long list of comments that followed it.

I went on to read some of the other stories in the directory. They told of his five tours in Vietnam, of his having been one of the original members of the Navy SEALs, of the two books he had written about his experiences in 11 years with the clandestine operations forces, of the 16 combat decorations (including four Bronze Stars) he had been awarded.

Patches was the real thing. Funny thing is, I had my doubts about him from our first meeting. That was back in 1996, a couple of years after he had moved to Columbus.

He had come to my office to talk about a visit he had made the month before to Vietnam. It was during that conversation that he talked about some of his activities while with the SEALs during the war.

“Mostly snatches,” I recall him saying in a matter-of-fact voice. “We’d grab key figures in order to extract information.”

He added that sometimes people were killed during these operations.

The return visit to Vietnam struck me as a little strange. Even though 20 years had passed since the end of the war, it seemed that memories still would have been fresh among the Vietnamese and not everyone would extend a warm welcome to someone who had snatched their countrymen.

I asked him about that, and he told me a story of a meeting with a former general in the North Vietnamese army.

“He said that they (the Vietnamese) were aware of a special unit that didn’t fight according to American convention. This unit operated in small squads and struck at night. The only thing they knew about them was that they were men in green faces.”

After hearing that story, the former SEAL leaned over and whispered in the general’s ear, “Sir, I was one of those men with green faces.”

At that the general’s jaw dropped, but instead of striking out at his former enemy the Vietnamese officer talked with him soldier to soldier. He even asked about the fate of a fellow soldier. Ironically, Patches was familiar with the soldier. He was one of the targets for snatching, but the mission went awry when a firefight broke out, and the soldier was killed. “I told him (the general) that we had buried him near a river.”

I’m not sure when Patches left Columbus, but it wasn’t long after that column about his visit appeared in The Republic.

I hadn’t thought about him until our family was on a vacation in the Fort Pierce, Fla., area. On one of our side trips we came across signs advertising the Navy SEAL museum and stopped in for a visit.

As we went through the exhibits we came across photos and stories relating to Jim Watson. We learned that he was the former curator for the museum and was one of those who got it started.

The stories that he had told me, the ones I had never really been sure about, were true. He even served as the model for the point man in the Dick Marcinko “Rogue Warrior” book series.

I asked one of the tour guides if Jim ever stopped by the museum, and he told me that we had missed seeing him by only a few minutes. I left a note for him with the tour guide, but I never heard anything back.

That’s all right. I had found out that Jim “Patches” Watson was the real thing.

Harry McCawley is the former associate editor of The Republic. He can be reached at harry@therepublic.com.

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