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Veteran celebrates birthday at Lawrenceville museum

Makenna Grace Jones, 4, pins a birthday button on her great-grandfather, Charles Watkins, a World War II veteran who celebrated his 91st birthday at the Gwinnett County Veterans Memorial Museum on Saturday morning. (Staff Photos: Meghan Kotowski)

Makenna Grace Jones, 4, pins a birthday button on her great-grandfather, Charles Watkins, a World War II veteran who celebrated his 91st birthday at the Gwinnett County Veterans Memorial Museum on Saturday morning. (Staff Photos: Meghan Kotowski)

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Photos of Charles Watkins as a young man in the military. (Staff Photos: Meghan Kotowski)

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Director of the Gwinnett County Veterans Memorial Museum Paul Pickard gives Charles Watkins a commemorative coin for his military service. (Staff Photos: Meghan Kotowski)

LAWRENCEVILLE — Charles Watkins and his family stopped by the Veterans Memorial Museum on Saturday morning for a few hours of history. The gallery occupies several rooms on the first floor of the Gwinnett Historic Courthouse.

But it wasn’t a regular weekend outing — Watkins was celebrating his 91st birthday with family members who flew in from both coasts to spend the day with him.

“He’s so proud of being a World War II vet,” said son Paul Watkins of San Diego. “It’s an aspect of his life, personality and history that he’s very proud of, but he’s a very humble guy. It formed him into who he is … with deep strong character.”

The WWII vet lives in Lawrenceville with one of his daughters, Mary Beth Jones, who is a recreational therapist. She helps him with his multiple sclerosis that has his confined in a motorized wheelchair, but he frequents the museum when he can.

“He comes to some of the meetings when he’s up to it,” Paul Watkins said.

On Saturday, four generations gathered for Watkins’ big day. The youngest of the bunch was his great-granddaughter, Makenna Grace Jones, 4, who greeted her elder with a big hug and a birthday button to pin on his Army T-shirt.

Family from San Diego, Jacksonville, Fla., and New York City flew in to listen to stories about Watkins’ past. The group was joined by volunteers at the museum who called Watkins “a hero” after hearing some of his tales from war.

On Feb. 20, 1943, Watkins joined the Army. By March 1, 1945, he arrived in Europe.

“Since he was tall and mature for his age, he did some drill instructor training for the troops before he flew over to Europe,” Paul Watkins said. “When in Europe, he was in the later stage of the European Campaign where they were basically doing the final assault on Germany.”

Watkins returned to the United States on June 17, 1945 only to be shipped off to the Pacific on Aug. 21, 1945 to help secure Corregidor Island in the Philippines.

In total, the Lawrenceville veteran served three years and 13 days in the Army — nine months and 25 days overseas.

“After the conclusion of the war in the Pacific, there was a lot of cleanup work, there were Japanese who didn’t know the war was over, a lot that refused that the war was over — so they had to basically make sure the whole island was secure,” Paul Watkins said. “They would have the Japanese go into tunnels to talk to their comrades and bring them back before they could secure the tunnels.”

One day on duty, one of the tunnels collapsed. Without thinking, Watkins and another buddy risked their lives to dig out the two trapped men.

“He was very proud of that,” Paul said.

His family has heard some stories about this time of his life, but not much.

“They’re pretty quiet,” daughter Kay Watkins said of the soldiers’ stories. “The fun ones you’ll get out of them. The war is hell (stories), you don’t get out of them. It’s unique that little slice of life from way back emphasizes the rest of your life.”

With his military background and dedication to his country, the volunteers of the Veterans Memorial Museum wanted to give something to Watkins. On his birthday, the director of the museum, Paul Pickard gave him a commemorative coin.

“You’ve been a part of our group for a while and we’re so glad that you came to visit us,” Pickard said in front of the group. “We want to make you an honorary volunteer. I know you’re not going to work, but we’ll expect a little bit out of you every once in awhile. We have a commemorative coin that we have here at the courthouse museum that we want to present to you. It’s a great pleasure to have you and to meet you.”

With a laugh, Charles Watkins said, “I wish it had been about 30 to 40 years ago.”