Most remember Charlie Waters as a tireless advocate for veterans’ rights, and for his work in opening the Fresno Veterans Home.
Yet before he began his career in advocacy, Waters was himself a Marine, serving in the Korean War. This experience would define him for the rest of his life.
Waters shipped off in 1951 as a green Marine to Japan and then Korea. Waters was immediately sent into combat, a North Korean artillery barrage threw him from his transport into a minefield. This jarring start would become a constant rhythm, as Waters’ work as a front line mortar observer was perpetually dangerous.
Waters survived more than one close call and harrowing situation, before a near-crippling spinal injury ended his combat career. Returning home, he pursued other work, including his time as a rancher in Fresno. His true pride after the service came from his work fighting for American veterans, as well as American allies around the world, including his advocacy for the Hmong in Laos.
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Waters died in September. What follows are excerpts from two interviews conducted in 2012 and 2013 as a part of the Central California War Veterans Oral History Project.
On service and philosophy: “I just want to share that man can do better. Politicians can do better, other than to their own power. We elect the person to serve us, not to go against us, not to inure themselves to wealth or power, and then leave. That’s the way it was set up. You go in, serve the best you can, but you serve the people. You don’t serve yourself. You don’t worry about police escorts and ‘I’m this and that’ all this no, no. In our stuff, we serve. We give of ourselves. Which is a pleasure. It is a pleasure to serve other men and women. To help. The gratification just from that, far, far supersedes anything else. I still work for a living, I have a company that I serve day and night. But my veterans, the people come first. Other than the company that makes my living. I’ll never retire. It’s far more gratifying than anything you can do. Just to be there, and to lead your people if you can. And if you’re doing the right thing they’ll follow.”
On what can be learned from military service: “You learn what life’s about. You learn what happens in the real world. You learn to serve your own country. You also learn how far will your country go, does it treat other people humanely? And yes, we do, when we capture we don’t torture. We don’t starve to death. We even medically take care of them. If they’re dead on the field we take them off and give them a burial. Other countries, on the other side, they let ’em rot. There’s a whole difference in mentality. We do not put people behind fences and let them starve to death or go out in the morning and shoot a whole bunch. Every now and then you’ll get a bad egg who’ll shoot someone or something but that’s part of life. And we punish them when we catch them. They court-martial them and put them in jail.”
On the brotherhood of soldiers: “We had Hispanics and Afro-Americans, yes. In the Marine Corps, we were broken up into squads, and they didn’t, how should we put it, they didn’t even evaluate what color or nationality or anything. They were a body. They were a Marine. I hadn’t been exposed a lot, I was raised in that part of Northern California [Tomales], but we always had three or four [African-Americans and Hispanics] on the football and basketball teams so you’d know them, but I had never been that close. But you learn that they’re your brothers. They’re covering your butt and you’re covering theirs. That’s the only way to survive. You see someone taking aim at them you take care of them. And the Hispanics were ferocious fighters. Ferocious. And they’re all your brothers. And that helps in later life. You treat them a whole lot different. After a while if they’re on your squad or they’re in the Corps, they’re your brother. You protect them like they protect you.”
On combat: “You’re always tense. In fact, with me, I was more nervous, and some of my friends were the same way, they took us off periodically to change because we were a mess. Especially in the winter time when you got wet you’d freeze pretty quick ’cause you didn’t run around with huge coats. They didn’t have them for us yet. So you got frostbite. I still have some problems with one of my feet, but that’s just natural from that. But I don’t know. I felt safer seeing what was going on and being there, than when I came down to regiment to get some hot food or something and someone else was up there replacing me. I felt I wasn’t comfortable. I needed to be there. I needed to be where I could call something in or see what was going on. It’s something that happened to us, and that happened to me. I felt that I wanted to be there. If I was over there I wanted to be where I could do something if those idiots broke through or something. I dunno. It was a feeling of comfort when I could be involved.”
On the horrors of war: “As a young man the only thing I was exposed to was, we would butcher a cow or a pig or chicken on the ranch, but this [war] was brutal. This was so much. So much. And I didn’t think, until later in life, I didn’t think about it and now I do, they had family, maybe children. They belonged to somebody, you know? And they were exposed to brutality, those soldiers. They had no choice but to come. And of course in war, if you don’t fire back they’re going to kill you because that’s what they’re there to do. So I was, I used to be as bad as I could be, I’d throw as much fire as I could. Because if we didn’t eliminate or cause some mass confusion in front or stop them or slow them down, our guys couldn’t shoot fast enough. That’s a fact.”
On arriving overseas: “And we got to Korea, we got there in the afternoon, late in the afternoon. They didn’t want any [enemy] aircraft or artillery going after us, [so] we got off the ship in the dead of night. Some of our Marines never saw the sun come up. We got in the trucks, and we got [enemy] artillery following us up even though it’s in the dead of night, dark. They [the enemy] knew, because they had spotters. We were headed toward the 1st Marine Division, and then to the 5th Marines, when we had an artillery barrage come in on us. They made us evacuate the trucks, a couple trucks got hit and blown. But the guys, we ended up in a minefield. Yeah. And I remember some of them going off, and the guys yelling, and they never saw the sun come up. And the next morning, I was there, and we had to feel our way around with a bayonet, and the guides were guiding us, telling us what to do. And I made it out, naturally, or I wouldn’t be here. But a lot of guys, most of them, made it out, but a few of them weren’t so lucky, and they never got to see the sun come up.”
On being injured in combat: “I had a situation one time: we were overrun, and I was carrying ammo from downhill and back up to the top because we were in a full attack, and we were firing, and I was calling fire in, and our tubes, during the course of battle, the mortar tubes heated up and they couldn’t do any good. They were having what they call premature emissions; they were going off when they were sending increments down with the mortars in the tubes, so they had to cool. And they were waiting for some resupply from the Army. So I was with the artillery info and the air info, and they said, ‘We need every man we can get to help bring some more ammo,’ because the troops on the front were running out. So I naturally volunteered, and I jumped over and was carrying a case of ammo for the M1s and I slipped – we were being fired on – and I didn’t make it to the trench in time. So I was diving just to drop the ammo and to lay down ’cause they had some rounds coming in on us, and they were everywhere, and I went down in the trench with the case of rounds on my shoulder and I jammed my back.
“And in the Marine Corps they said, ‘Oh, it’ll be fine,’ so they put me, I couldn’t move, so they hauled me back to the first aid and the regimental and they stretched me, they laid me on a cot, and for about 10 days they had these things around my feet and they kept putting things on my feet and they kept pulling and they said, ‘It’ll be fine, it’ll be fine,’ and they of course put some heat stuff on my back, and gave me some pain shots, and then back to the line I went. But on that incident, soon as I got out of the Corps I had back surgery. I had four vertebrae removed. But they, you know, it wasn’t a flesh wound, so – I suffered a lot from that. But I had a few nicks, like everybody did, from something flying around, you don’t have any idea where the hell it was from even, when there’s a lot of action. But I survived for 13 months.”
About the author
William Chapman is a graduate of San Joaquin Memorial High School and Fresno State (Smittcamp Family Honors College, cum laude 2013) with a strong background in history:
- Master’s in oral history from Columbia University, May 2015
- Freelance oral historian with The Oral History Collective, LLC, since 2014
- Adjunct professor of civilizations at Fresno Pacific University since August 2015
Oral history project
The Central California War Veterans Oral History Project was started in spring 2010 at Fresno State.
Since that time, students in the Department of Mass Communication and Journalism and other departments have completed hundreds of oral histories of veterans who have served in conflicts from World War II to Iraq and Afghanistan.
The recorded interviews and transcripts are kept in a permanent collection at the Henry Madden Library where they are accessible to the public.
The project is directed by journalism professor Gary Rice.
Veterans Day events
Tuesday, Nov. 10
Sign a Veterans Day card of appreciation
Visalia Branch Library, 200 W. Oak St., Visalia, 559-713-2745. Through Nov. 14
Wednesday, Nov. 11
Fresno Veterans Day Parade
Begins at Tulare and P streets, downtown Fresno, www.fresnovdp.org/route.php. Pre-parade ceremony begins at 10:30 a.m.
Hubbard-Baro Memorial Golf Tournament and Ceremony
Fort Washington Golf & Country Club, 10272 N. Millbrook Ave., Fresno, www.hubbardbarogolf.com, $175, $75 dinner only. 11:30 a.m.
Lemoore Veterans Day Parade
Merced Veterans Day Parade
Porterville Veterans Day Run and Parade
Downtown Porterville, 559-782-7521, www.portervillechamber.org/events/details/veterans-day-run-73, $10-$20. 7:15 a.m., parade begins at 10 a.m.
VFW Post 3225 Veterans Day pancake breakfast
Clovis Veterans Memorial District, 808 Fourth St., Clovis, $7. 7-11 a.m.
Saturday, Nov. 14
Visalia Veterans Day Parade
Know of an event that’s not listed here? Email us: email@example.com