Peter Watkins, of Golden Valley, was 12 years old when he first realized his dream to join the United States military.
For his birthday, he flew to Broomfield, Colorado, to spend time with his grandparents.
During the visit, they went to a fallen soldiers monument.
Watkins remembers the monument vividly.
There was a “huge” memorial statue of three soldiers, he recalled. Two soldiers were carrying their wounded comrade. Below the soldiers were stones that surrounded a water feature. Engraved in the stones were names of fallen soldiers from each branch of the military.
“I grew up with the whole story of my grandpa serving in the Navy,” he said.
Watkins then told his grandfather, Paul Murphy, that he was interested in joining the service because of his grandfather’s military experience. He said his grandfather sat him down and explained that joining the military was a privilege, not a right and that not many are willing to lay their life down for others.
“That’s when it really clicked,” Watkins said.
Watkins’ grandfather suggested he work toward becoming an officer because of his intelligence and athletic ability. His goal is to lead men.
“I did not learn until later in Peter’s life that he and Grandpa Murphy had a talk about Peter’s interest in the military,” said Watkins’ mother, Paula.
In middle school, one of Watkins’ history assignments was to dress like his favorite hero and share that hero’s story. Watkins dressed as his grandfather and talked about his military experience in World War II.
Murphy served in the Navy from 1943-1946 and survived the sinking of the USS Indianapolis, the ship that was ordered in July 1945 by President Harry Truman to deliver components of the atomic bomb to Tinian Island.
The young man followed his grandfather’s advice and during his junior year at Benilde-St. Margaret’s in St. Louis Park, he joined the Navy, Marine Corps Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps.
“I really liked it,” he said. “I liked the Marine Corps better than the Navy side.”
His senior year in high school, he received a Reserve Officers’ Training Corps scholarship and went on to attend Iowa State University.
He signed a contract with the U.S. Army Sept. 18, 2014.
“I chose the Army because I liked what they had to offer long-term and all the opportunities you can do,” Watkins said. “The atmosphere of the guys I met when I went to that recruiting station spoke more to me than the Marine Corps.”
In addition to daily physical training, weekly leadership labs and military specific classes, Watkins is working toward a bachelor’s degree in animal ecology at the university in Ames, Iowa.
“I love to hunt and fish,” he said.
Watkins said he could pursue a job with the Department of Natural Resources after his military career.
Furthermore, Watkins has a part-time job, participates in intramural sports when possible, is a member of Pheasants Forever, volunteers and is a member of the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity.After graduating in December 2018, Watkins will be a second lieutenant and serve eight years with the Army as part of his initial contract. He will either serve four years active duty and four years in the reserves or eight years in the reserves. As a lieutenant, he will lead a platoon of 20-40 service members.
“I am very proud of Peter and so value his determination and understanding of what is important to him,” Paula Watkins said. “Peter is a compassionate, caring soul. Brotherhood is important to him.”
He currently serves in the Cyclone Battalion, Apache company, 4th Platoon. After college, he will be stationed in a location depending on his rank and job choice.
Watkins’s grandfather did give him a hard time about the decision to join the Army, because Watkins did not choose to follow him into the Navy.
“Given the miles between our two homes … those two still created an incredible bond,” Paula Watkins said of her son and father. “Peter looked up to his grandfather and so enjoyed playing cards, or building puzzles and just visiting with both Grandpa Murphy and Grandma Lou. In his own loving, rough and tumble way, my father liked to tease Peter, and Peter took it well. It was clear they had a fondness for one another.”
She admits her first reaction to her son joining the military was not ideal.
“I have to be honest, my initial reaction was fear and disbelief or denial,” she said. “He was young, formidable. Feeling he would surely outgrow his desire to serve in the military, I didn’t respond much and given his age, I tried to be careful to not react too negatively. His father and I kept encouraging all his other strengths and interests, thinking something else would eventually light a fire of interest for him.”
However, nothing could sway the young man’s interest in military service.
“As each year passed, Peter’s interest never swayed. His ambition and goal to serve God and country became more steadfast,” his mother explained. “As his mother and biggest supporter, I had to let go of my fears of having a son in the military and support the man he is to become.”
Watkins was adopted from South Korea at 6 months of age. He is an only child. He said serving in the U.S. military is a way to give back to a country that gave so much to him.
“Serving now means getting to defend the country that I love,” he said. “Every state I go to, there are beautiful things and people I want to defend.”
He is also proud to serve as his grandfather did.
“It means the world to me (to be following in my grandfather’s footsteps),” he said.
Sadly, his grandfather, who died in February at the age of 91, will never see his grandson serve outside the university, but his values of service and patriotism will live on through his grandson.
Paula Watkins recalls that her father did not share about his service until later in his life.
“Growing up in Minnesota with my parents and four siblings, there was little talk of my father’s experience in the Navy, let alone of his survival of the sinking of the USS Indianapolis,” she said. “I knew my father had been a sailor, that was about it.”
With the encouragement of his second wife, Murphy talked about this part of his past.
“The two of them became intricately involved in the USS Indianapolis Survivor’s Organization and we, his adult children, started hearing more about the story, how dad felt he survived and how it impacted his life,” she said.
To date, the sinking of the Indianapolis remains the worst maritime disaster in U.S. naval history. After successfully delivering the components, the ship was headed to Leyte Gulf to prepare for the invasion of Japan when a Japanese submarine launched several torpedoes. Two torpedoes struck the ship.
The ship sunk within 12 minutes, leaving 890 individuals stranded in the Philippine Sea.
“Because the mission was so secret, they had no escort,” Watkins said.
No escort also meant no way to call for help once the ship sank. The individuals were stranded for four days and five nights before a plane, piloted by Lt. Chuck Gwinn, happened to fly overhead and spot them.
Within the four days, many sailors died from shark attacks or from the lack of food and water. Only 317 people survived, including Murphy.
A film about the disaster, “USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage,” was recently released and can be viewed online.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Paula Watkins said of the film. “There are only 23 remaining survivors still alive today. I wish that so many more of them could have viewed the film together and have the opportunity to review it together. My father missed the release of this film by less than six months. I would have given anything to watch it with him.”
The film is available on YouTube, iTunes, Amazon Video, Vudu and Google Play.
For more information about the USS Indianapolis, visit ussindianapolis.org.