Hero of Hill 875

Created: May 23, 2024
Category: General News

Medal of Honor recipient Father Charles J. Watters constantly risked his life to save others in Vietnam

By Joseph Pronechen



Father Charles J. Watters celebrated his last Mass on Nov. 19, 1967, on a bright Sunday morning deep in the central highlands of South Vietnam. Vested in a camouflage poncho liner, the U.S. Army chaplain stood at an altar constructed of C-ration boxes at the base of Hill 875 near the village of Dak To. A larger than usual number of paratroopers from the 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade — known as Sky Soldiers — were in attendance.

“It was an exceptionally good turnout,” recalled Robert Fleming, Delta Company’s radio operator. “Because everyone knew what we were getting into that day.”

John Berry, also of D Company, later described Father Watters’ demeanor: “He usually was in his typical East Coast fast-talk mode. [At] the services he performed the morning we went up on 875, he was unusually slow and deliberate. In retrospect it was almost like he had knowledge of what was going to happen.”

After Mass, approximately 300 paratroopers from Alpha, Charlie and Delta companies received orders to attack and seize Hill 875 from a regiment of 2,000 North Vietnamese Army soldiers. The fight for Hill 875 was the culminating encounter of the Battle of Dak To, a nearly monthlong series of engagements with the NVA for control of the region.

On Nov. 19, one of the bloodiest days for American troops in the Vietnam War, Father Watters repeatedly ran unarmed and exposed through front-line gunfire to care for and evacuate numerous wounded men. At dusk, a Marine fighter-bomber mistakenly dropped a bomb directly upon Company C’s command post and aid station halfway up Hill 875. More than 40 men were killed, including Father Watters.

For his actions that day, Chaplain Watters, who was a member of Regina Council 1688 in Rutherford, New Jersey, was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor — becoming one of only five chaplains to receive the accolade since the Civil War.


Charles Joseph Watters was born into a devout Catholic family in Jersey City, New Jersey, on Jan. 17, 1927. The youngest of three boys (a younger sister died of polio at age 6), he loved to play baseball with his brothers, Kenneth and Edward, and the other kids on the block. He was also drawn to the priesthood at a young age.

After two years of study at Seton Hall University, Watters entered Immaculate Conception Seminary in Darlington, New Jersey, and was ordained in 1953 for the Archdiocese of Newark. His first assignment as a priest was at St. Mary’s Church in Rutherford, where he joined the Knights of Columbus. He later served, among other assignments, at St. Michael Church in Cranford.

Ed Nestor, a member of Cranford Council 6226 who served Father Watters’ Masses as a boy, remembers him as quiet, humble priest who was “always active with the CYO kids in the gym.”

Father Watters’ love of flying led him to become private pilot. He joined the New Jersey Air National Guard in 1962 and soon became their chaplain.

When the Vietnam War ramped up in 1965, 38-year-old Father Watters volunteered as a chaplain with the U.S. Army. After completing the rigorous Airborne training, he was assigned to the Support Battalion of the 173rd Airborne Brigade and in June 1966 began a 12-month tour of duty to Vietnam.

His family recalls that the priest, who enjoyed photography, brought a camera on his deployment and joked that if he were ever in a battle, he would hold it up and yell, “Tourist!”

In reality, Father Watters regularly served the brigade on the front lines, where he believed he was most needed, and his reputation for staying with units in combat became something of a legend. On Feb. 22, 1967, he took part in the only mass combat jump of the war, parachuting to earth with the 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry, as part of Operation Junction City. Five months later, he received a Bronze Star with a “V” for valor for administering last rites to a fatally wounded man under heavy fire.

“When he came home from his first tour of duty, he couldn’t wait to get back to ‘his boys,’” his late brother Ken, a longtime Knight, once recalled.

Soon enough, Father Watters volunteered for a six-month extension and was back with the 173rd.

According to Wambi Cook, Alpha Company’s radio operator and currently president of the 173rd Airborne Association, Father Watters didn’t resign himself to staying in the base camps.

“He felt more comfortable out there with the troops,” Cook said. “I’m not Catholic, but I can assure you that half the attendees at any of his Masses were non-Catholics. I can hear his voice now, calling out. He walked through the lines beckoning all the guys to Mass — and he always had a good turnout.”

Twenty to 30 soldiers usually came to daily Mass, but on the morning of Nov. 19, nearly 100 men answered Father Watters’ call to worship.


As they fought their way up Hill 875 later that day, the battalion was soon immersed in a barrage of machine gun, mortar and rocket fire from the entrenched North Vietnamese Army. Disregarding danger, 40-year-old Father Watters constantly moved through the lines, on the lookout for those in need of help.

“He was omnipresent, always mobile,” Cook said. “How the Padre managed to embed himself in every conceivable location within our ranks is beyond my comprehension.”

The citation for his Medal of Honor gives a sense of just how mobile Father Watters was that day. It describes him moving among, as well as in front of, the advancing troops — giving aid to the wounded, assisting in their evacuation and administering last rites to the dying. It also describes the chaplain risking his life repeatedly to rescue fellow soldiers:

“When a wounded paratrooper was standing in shock in front of the assaulting forces, Chaplain Watters ran forward, picked the man up on his shoulders, and carried him to safety. As the troopers battled to the first enemy entrenchment, Chaplain Watters ran through the intense enemy fire to the front of the entrenchment to aid a fallen comrade. …

“Later, when the battalion was forced to pull back into a perimeter, Chaplain Watters noticed that several wounded soldiers were lying outside the newly formed perimeter. Without hesitation and ignoring attempts to restrain him, Chaplain Watters left the perimeter three times in the face of small-arms, automatic-weapons, and mortar fire to carry and to assist the injured troopers to safety.”

As the sun began to set that day, Cook saw Father Watters ministering to soldiers within the tight perimeter: “I can recall him calling out, probably talking to guys personally. He was attending to the wounded. I know that was his modus operandi.

John Berry of D Company ran into Father Watters as he returned from the front lines.

“As he passed by, we asked him where his helmet was. His reply was ‘I carry my protection a little higher.’ With that he was off to attend the wounded. That was the last time I saw him.”

Among the last people to speak with Father Watters was radio operator Robert Fleming. He was digging a foxhole at the command post when Watters arrived just before 7 p.m.

“As he passed by, we asked him where his helmet was. His reply was, ‘I carry my protection a little higher.’ With that he was off to attend the wounded.”

“Father came in and said, ‘Hey, Bob, throw me my rucksack.’ It was right next to me, so I pitched it to him,” Fleming recalled. “Then he sat down and started eating his C-rations, because he hadn’t eaten all day, and I went back to my digging.”

“The next thing I heard was a loud bang, and I saw a flame front come at me that enveloped my whole body, and then I was unconscious.”

Fleming somehow survived the blast, caused by a 250-pound bomb mistakenly dropped on the command post by an American pilot. It was among the worst “friendly fire” incidents of the war, killing 42 military personnel and wounding 45.

Once word got out that Chaplain Watters was among the KIAs, paratroopers immediately started saying that he deserved the Medal of Honor.

“Probably 90% of those of us who survived and knew Father Watters submitted his name for the award,” Cook affirmed.


Army Maj. Charles Joseph Watters was buried with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery. Kenneth and Edward Watters received the Medal of Honor on their brother’s behalf from Vice President Spiro Agnew in Washington, D.C. on Nov. 4, 1969.

Other honors followed. The U.S. Army Chaplain Center and School at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, renamed its building Watters Hall. Fort Bragg in North Carolina — now Fort Liberty — named a building the Watters Family Life Center in honor of the chaplain. In the chaplain’s hometown of Jersey City, a public school was renamed Chaplain Charles J. Watters School. About a dozen K of C councils and assemblies are named in his honor as well.

With support from Cranford Council 6226, St. Michael’s Parish placed a granite memorial monument in front of the church honoring their former priest.

Eleven years ago, a parishioner suggested honoring Father Watters with a float in the local Memorial Day parade. The council borrowed a chasuble and a uniform and created a tableau on the back of a pickup truck that depicts Father Watters celebrating Mass before a kneeling soldier. The float has been a council tradition in every parade since 2013.

“Father Watters needs to be remembered for what he did, and in our small way here in Cranford we try to keep his memory alive every year with our commemorative float,” explained Past Grand Knight John Doolan. His sons, Johnny and Bill, now members of the council, portrayed the priest and the soldier several times.

A few days before the 50th anniversary of Father Watters’ death, a Sky Soldier from A Company, 2nd Battalion, named William Heath left a note for the chaplain on the Wall of Faces, a website sponsored by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund.

“I was at your final service on that eerie, quiet morning before going up Hill 875,” Heath wrote. “Your smile, positive attitude, and dedication to us has been a permanent inspiration for me. It will be 50 years this Nov. 19th since I received Communion on that deadly day. Father, for 50 years I have remembered you when I receive Communion. I thank God for you being with us when you did not have to be there.”

There is no doubt that the chaplain’s selfless actions that fateful day saved lives and saved souls. The news of his death was devastating for those who survived, according to those who personally testified to Father Watters’ bravery.

“Father Watters was a symbol of God and of good to the 2nd Battalion,” wrote a platoon leader in the 173rd Airborne Brigade. “We lost many good men on Hill 875, but we lost more than a man in losing Father Watters.”


JOSEPH PRONECHEN is a staff writer with the National Catholic Register and author of Fruits of Fatima (2019).