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10 years later,  remembering A FALLEN AIRMAN

South Boston NewsSouth Boston News
A photo from the wedding of William and Melissa Watkins; background, Air Force Honor Guard members fold a flag during a funeral ceremony Aug. 29, 2003, for Lt. Col. William R. Watkins III and Capt. Eric B. Das at Arlington National Cemetery. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Melissa Allan)
SoVaNow.com / April 04, 2013
The widow and family of Lt. Col. William R. Watkins III approach the 10th anniversary of his death in combat in Iraq with the satisfaction of knowing he died doing something he loved — flying — and with a full appreciation for the values he held dear during his lifetime.

Watkins, who grew up in South Boston and was married in the town of Halifax, lost his life on April 7, 2003, on a bombing mission over Tikrit, just weeks into Operation Iraqi Freedom. The community was kept on edge for long days after Watkins’ plane went missing; yellow ribbons and bows went up on homes and businesses in the hope of his safe return.

“Bill would not want us to be saddened,” said his wife, Melissa Watkins, in a telephone interview from her home in the Goldsboro, N.C., area. His wake a decade ago was a party “because that is what he would have wanted.”

She and her two children continue to live in the last house the couple bought together. The children miss not having a father, but as a family they do not dwell on his death, she said.

Instead, Melissa chooses to honor her late husband’s memory by instilling his values in their children, especially his sense of loyalty. She also keeps a not-so-small memento around: his personal airplane.

“During one of our stints in Goldsboro around 1995, Bill bought a single-engine small plane. He sold it in 1999 when we were stationed in Japan.” After Watkins’ death and her retirement from the Air Force, Melissa was able to locate the plane: “It just so happens the owner was getting ready to sell it. So, I bought it back.”

Aside from family and service in the military, flying was one of the great loves of Watkins’ life. It led the South Boston native to a stint in the Navy, then, when his opportunities for flying appeared to diminish, to a transfer to the Air Force. As a USAF airman, Watkins headed to Iraq with the outbreak of war against Saddam Hussein in late March 2003.

The conflict began March 20 with a massive aerial bombardment of the Middle Eastern country by the United States and its allies. After the initial “shock and awe” phase of the war, ground troops moved against the Iraqi capital of Baghdad. In the skies, Allied air superiority was virtually unchallenged.

Yet there were formidable dangers: In early April, while flying a combat mission near Tikrit, Watkins and Capt. Eric “Boot” Das of Amarillo, Texas, died when their F-15E Strike Eagle aircraft went down. Watkins, the aircraft’s weapons system officer, was just 37 years old, the father of a young son and a daughter not yet born.

His funeral in South Boston in May 2003 was marked by a Missing Man flyover by Air Force jets. In August of that same year, a companion service for Watkins and Das, the F-15E pilot, was observed by both families and military officials at Arlington National Cemetery.

Additional remains from the wreck, which took place at supersonic speeds, were discovered after the May service in South Boston, and both men were interred together at the national cemetery. A chaplain read from “High Flight,” a poem familiar to Air Force families everywhere: “Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth, and danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings.”

Dancing on the skies: It’s an image that could describe William Watkins’ childhood dreams.

His sister, Mary Garrett Itin, a South Boston native now living in the Philadelphia area, remembers William evinced a love of flying at a very early age: “Not many people find their passion at age three or four, get a chance to do it, and are good at it,” she said in a interview this week.

Growing up, “I remember Dad and Uncle Tucker [the late Tucker Watkins] taking us to air shows, to see ‘Star Wars,’ anything that had to do with planes and flying.”

Itin also recalled her brother’s seventh birthday party, held at the William Tuck Airport in South Boston. Someone took a home movie of the event: “There’s all these small boys jumping around just wanting to have fun, and you can see William’s mouth moving, he’s trying to explain all aspects of the plane. He was very serious.”

As a testament to his abilities, Itin said, “William was in Iraq because they [the Air Force] asked him to go. His squadron was not there, only him. He was the top navigator in his squadron and graduated at the top of his training class from flight school in Pensacola.”

After a year of college at N.C. State, Watkins enrolled as a midshipman in the U.S. Naval Academy, where he earned a degree in aerospace engineering. He completed his flight training at Pensacola. He was in the Navy, stationed near Goldsboro, when he met his future wife, Mary Melissa Newlon.

Some thought the reason Watkins transferred to the Air Force after he and Melissa married, was to be closer to his wife, who at that time was a USAF intelligence officer. “Not true,” said Melissa Watkins. “The main reason Bill transferred from the Navy to the Air Force was so he could continue to fly.” As Watkins progressed in rank in the Navy, his opportunities to fly planes became more limited: “He did not want to be on a boat.”

Itin, however, lightheartedly disputes that assertion, suggesting Melissa had more to do with her brother’s decision to transfer than she lets on: “He adored his wife, and she was good for him. William had a zest for living and was very adventurous. She [Melissa] was always willing to join him. He wanted to be near her.”

Watkins’ life-changing moment, according to Itin, came with the birth of his son, William Tucker, who was less than a year old when his father died. “Bill loved being a father, more than even flying,” Itin said. It still saddens her when she remembers that he died before his second child, daughter Mary Allison, was born. Watkins died in early April and his daughter was born at the end of July.

“Bill always loved children. As teenager and even while in college and later while stationed at Quantico, he volunteered with children. That did not compare to having his own. I remember how excited he was after his son was born. That was all he could talk about. Being a father brought him such joy. He was and would have been such a great dad.”

Like Melissa, Itin recalls Watkins’ two most outstanding qualities as his loyalty toward friends and family, and his love of flying.

He was known among friends for constantly going out of his way to keep in touch, whether it involved connections made during his youth, through his college days at N.C. State, or during his military career.

A longtime friend, William Powell, speaking at Watkins’ memorial service in 2003, said of those in attendance, “Look at all the people in the William Watkins fan club.”

Aside from that, Melissa said, Watkins was really just “a normal, humble guy who liked to sing, loved Jimmy Buffett, outdoor activities like scuba diving, and flying.” “Bill never saw himself as something special,” she adds, “and he didn’t join the Navy [before transferring to the Air Force] to be a hero. He just wanted to fly.”

Watkins is also survived by a brother, of Richmond, his mother, of Danville, and other local relatives. Although he attended local public schools, including Halifax County Senior High School, he graduated from Woodberry Forest, a private school near Charlottesville, which has established a scholarship in his memory.

The family will quietly mark this tenth anniversary of Watkins’ death.

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WILLIAM WAS A TRUE FRIEND AND A GREAT FATHER.LOVE AND MISS YOU MAN.

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What a wonderful tribute. My thoughts and prayers are with the family during this anniversary.

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This is a very heart warming story about an extraordinary young man! Unfortunately, I did not personally know him but know many of his wonderful family. I celebrate his life with you and feel your loss !

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William was a great guy and classmate. Gone but not Forgotten RIP my friend

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As I recall, there was a suspicion that the F-15 flown by Major Watkins and Captain Das was shot down by friendly fire. Has the Air Force ever reached a final conclusion on what caused their fatal crash?


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