Even now, almost eight decades later, Art Watson can still feel the sting.
He reaches for the right side of his face, pausing as he takes a moment, as if to make sure his memory is correct. It is, and while the pain is no longer real physically, it lives on in the sharp mind of the 103-year-old resident of Dancing River, an assisted living residence in Grapevine.
The memory is one of his Merchant Marines ship, the SS Oklahoma, being torpedoed by a German Nazi submarine in 1945 while on a mission to Aruba to gather fuel for delivery to Senegal.
“When it hit I was up on the bridge. It knocked my legs out from under me and I went flying,” Watson recalled, intensity still in his face after all these years. “It blistered this whole right side of my face.”
Watson doesn’t consider himself a hero, though many others do. But he does believe stories like his must be told. And while there is pain in the memories, there is also a satisfaction of knowing that each time he tells it — and he’s told it many times to young and old alike in gatherings large and small — someone might leave having learned something about the value of life.
He lost 50 of his shipmates in the explosion. He and 21 other survivors scrambled to lifeboats, realizing it was their only hope of survival.
Waiting for help
And survive they did, for 18 days at sea, floating in a lifeboat, with little rations and virtually no shelter from the elements. The sides of the boat were no more than a foot or two above the water, any big storm might have done them in.
Fortunately, no such storm came, but things were far from comfortable, nonetheless.
“A big wind would come up and blow the water in. That blister on the side of my face was constantly getting hit by salt water,” he said. “It was very painful and it was terrible.”
Watson said the nights were the worst time of all while lost at sea, waiting in the darkness, not knowing or being able to see what danger might be just a few feet away. And, of course, sleep is always a challenge when it might be the last time you close your eyes.
“I dreaded the nights. You’d finally get to sleep and then the waves would come crashing over you,” he said. “I remember during the day we didn’t have much sun, and that was a blessing.”
Each time an abundance of water would come into the small boat, the men would clamor to get it out, otherwise they’d sink.
Their nourishment was slim as they survived on minuscule rations. A cracker would suffice for an entire meal.
During their time afloat, Watson and his shipmates came across land. Once they dropped anchor and were waiting to go ashore the next morning, only to awake and find a strong wind had sent them back out. The next time the captain informed them that once they went ashore it would be about 75 miles on foot before they reached civilization and he did not believe many of them would make that distance.
“He allowed us to vote, though, and we voted to stay in the boat,” Watson said. “We wouldn’t have been any better off. It was a jungle.
“The captain had a good sense of sailing. He always knew how many miles we had gone each day and we all trusted him.”
A couple of the men couldn’t take the ordeal and lost most of their sanity, Watson recalled. As for himself, he credits an unwavering faith for remaining sane.
“I was a Christian, still am, and I thought God would help us, and he did,” he said.
He also said growing up on a farm helped give him the physical stamina needed to endure.
“We had a big farm and our dad made us work all the time. I grew up strong,” he said.
“I can’t imagine being out there, not seeing land in any direction,” said Watson’s son, Walt, who also lives in Grapevine. “But I don’t think Dad’s ever been one to worry, even then.”
Despite a couple of planes passing over them during the time, it wasn’t until they came close to another ship that they were finally rescued.
“I remember that first shower, washing all of that salt water off,” Watson said. “I really enjoyed that. Best shower of my life.”
He still reflects on the ones who didn’t survive. He takes a small breath, before saying somberly, “Two brothers are the ones I think of the most, and having to tell their mother and daddy that they lost their children.”
While one might think such an emotional trial might have been the end of young Watson’s time at sea, not so. He would sail out again.
“It’s all I knew,” he said. “That and working for my dad.
“If you sit and look the situation over, you’d be scared to get back on a boat, but I couldn’t let myself do that.”
Watson recalled his last mission in the Merchant Marines. They were carrying a load of wheat, he said, with plans to eventually end up in France.
“We went through the Panama Canal, and while we were on the way to our destination they dropped the atom bombs on Japan and ended the war,” he said. “When we got where we were going, no one needed anything.”
Before the blast
Watson, originally from Cleveland, Texas, was set to start his shift at the refinery where he worked on Dec. 8 when he learned of the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese the day before.
“He was told by the refinery director, ‘You’re not going to work, you’re gonna get drafted,’” said another son, Ed, of Arlington.
Instead, Watson joined the Civilian Construction Corps and was sent to Pearl Harbor, where he worked for two years. A carpenter by trade, Watson helped with reconstruction by building warehouses and storage facilities.
“They’d be 600 to 700 foot long and 100 feet wide, and they’d fill ‘em up as soon as we’d build ‘em,” Watson said. “It was very hard work and very long days.”
Following two years at Pearl Harbor, Watson joined the Merchant Marines. He said it was one of the most dangerous jobs someone could have in the military.
“Six ships might go out and maybe two would come back,” he said.
Ed noted that by the end of the war, Merchant Marine ships had more protection, but ironically, that is when Art’s ship was sunk.
“His case was just happenstance,” Ed said. “But being a Merchant Marine was a dangerous job all through the war.”
Life as a farmer
Watson would go on to start his own business, Watson Construction, which he ran for 36 years. He left his home of 125 acres in Winnie and moved to Dancing River to be closer to his children.
“He built every house he ever owned,” his son said. “He never had a house note in his life.”
He also followed in his father’s footsteps and became a farmer, living largely on organic products. He grew a 250-pound pumpkin once, believed to be the largest in Chambers County history.
“That pumpkin grew itself,” Watson said with a smile. “It was a big one, though.”
Watson said he believes it grew so big because his dad pulled all the other others and left that single one to grow by itself.
Watson is widowed twice. He has three children (including daughter Sharon Alsup in Corpus Christi), seven grandchildren and five great grandchildren.
“He’s a personal hero to all of us,” said his grandson, Will Watson, who lives in Mansfield and praised his grandfather’s healthy living. “He set up his own irrigation system, had his own cows, grew everything. It’s why he’s 103.
“As a kid I would stay with him all the time and I loved eating the vegetables. I’d go home and ask my mom, ‘Why can’t you have food like granddad’s?’”
‘An amazing life’
“He has lived such an amazing life and has so many fascinating tales. I could listen to them for hours, and I’m not the only one,” said Tina Mandrell, memory care coordinator at Dancing River. “Art is loved by so many people and he is a genuine hero.”
Watson had a lot of visitors at his birthday celebration on Aug. 25, including Grapevine Mayor William D. Tate.
“He is a survivor. Being out there so long, it’s a miracle,” Tate said. “Longevity of life is a blessing we should all appreciate, and he does. Every day is a treasure. Love life and enjoy as much of it as you can.”
One of Art’s fellow residents at Dancing River, Gaylord Grace, is one of those folks who said he could never tire of hearing Art’s life stories. He remains in awe that his friend survived that 1945 ordeal to be alive today to continue to tell them.
“I remember thinking, this is crazy, but he did it, he survived,” Grace said. “He’d be lying there and here comes a damn big wave. I don’t know if I could have taken it, a lot of people couldn’t.
“He’s a great individual, and not only because he is a survivor, but he’s just a great person and I’m glad I got to know him.”
Pausing from a bite of cake, Watson, wearing a blue cap that simply read “103” on it, said, “I’ve told the story a lot and I’ll tell it as long as I get a chance. It’s something that needs telling — but the pain stays with you, no matter how much time passes.”
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