The happy family
Gene home on leave in June 1945, with Harriett and Bob
Gene on deck
Most seniors in the United States have war stories to tell. In that regard, Harriett Watson is similar to her peers. However, the details of Harriett’s story are not ones you hear every day. Hers is a story of love and loss, of endurance and courage, of gumption in the face of life’s biggest giants. To truly understand her tale, allow me to take you back to where it all began.
When she was just a girl, Harriett moved to a new neighborhood. It was there she met Gene Batson. He lived on the corner, and Harriett walked by all the time. Perhaps it was during one of her many strolls or even at the church they both attended, but eventually, Harriett said, “He spotted me!” Their courtship began, and on January 1, 1941, they were wed. Less than one year later, Pearl Harbor was bombed, an event the changed the course of Harriett’s life forever.
In June 1942, the Watsons welcomed their son, Bob. The young family lived in Kansas City, Kansas and just 18 months after Bob’s arrival, Gene was drafted into the Navy. It wasn’t a surprise to the young couple, however. It was quite the opposite — they were expecting it.
He was at the naval station at Farragut for a year then went to radar school in San Diego. From there, he was assigned to the USS Indianapolis. The war raged on, and in late spring 1945, the men aboard the USS Indianapolis were given a one-month leave as the ship needed some repairs. Gene was home for the celebration of Bob’s third birthday but had to return to duty not long afterward.
Back on active duty in the Pacific, the USS Indianapolis made an important delivery to the island of Tinian: the parts for the first atomic bomb. After leaving their cargo behind for assembly, they reported to the Commander-in-Chief, Pacific, where they received orders “to join the battleship USS Idaho at Leyte Gulf in the Philippines to prepare for the invasion of Japan (U.S.S. Indianapolis).” During this solo sail, at 14 minutes past midnight on July 30, 1945, the U.S.S. Indianapolis was struck by two Japanese torpedoes and sunk within minutes.
Of the 1,196 on board, approximately 900 made it off the ship and into the water; four days later, when rescuers finally arrived, only 316 men remained after battling constant thirst, hunger, and shark attacks (U.S.S. Indianapolis). Among the lives lost was Gene Batson. Harriett recalls receiving two telegrams: one 10 days after the sinking to report Gene as missing, the other to tell her Gene was presumed deceased. Thinking back on that time, she said she had been upset for two weeks before the telegrams arrived. “I think I had a premonition,” she said.
Harriett had already submitted her resignation to her employer, TWA, when Gene’s ship went down. “We thought the war was over,” she said. After the telegrams came, Harriett did what she had to to ensure she and Bob survived. In a time when single-motherhood was uncommon at best, she worked to provide her household’s income. She raised Bob, with help from her mother, and learned how to adapt to her new reality, a reality without Gene by her side. Today, Harriett is a no-nonsense, tough-as-nails woman who fought for a good life and won. She’s an inspiration to me in even the toughest of times. If Harriett could make it through the war and the years that followed, I can, I must, do it, too.
The sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis is widely considered one of the worst maritime disasters in American history. It claimed the lives of over 800 sailors and forever altered US Naval history, the accounts of the Pacific Theater during World War Two, and the lives of Gene’s wife and son. Freedom isn’t free. The cost is so high it’s a wonder young men and women volunteer to defend it. Gene, Harriett, and Bob bought that freedom at an unfathomable price. This Independence Day, I am thankful for those brave souls who have and continue to protect American liberties and for the families of soldiers lost, for their sacrifice, too, is great, and often forgotten.
by Abigail Lancaster
Life Enrichment Coordinator
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