Eric Bruce Das
Captain, United States Air Force
William Randolph Watkins III
Lieutenant Colonel, United States Air Force
DOD IDENTIFIES AIR FORCE CASUALTY
The Department of Defense announced today that Major William R. Watkins III, 37, of Danville, Virginia, was killed in action April 7, 2003, while supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom. Watkins was assigned to the 333rd Fighter Squadron, Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, North Carolina.
Watkins was the weapons system officer of an F-15E that went down April 7, 2003, during a combat mission in Iraq. The incident remains under investigation.
The pilot of the F-15E, Captain Eric B. Das,
was also killed when the aircraft went down.
Bill Watkins was Eric Das's boss. Das's wife, Nicole, worked for Bill's wife, Melissa. Things don't get much closer in the tightly knit world of Seymour Johnson Air Force Base.
Yesterday at Arlington National Cemetery, though, the bonds joining the two families were made tighter still.
In a joint burial, some of the remains of Lieutenant Colonel William R. "Salty" Watkins III and Captain Eric B. "Boot" Das were laid to rest in a single casket, in a single grave. The pair were killed April 7, 2003, when their F-15E Strike Eagle aircraft went down in Iraq. They were members of the 333rd Fighter Squadron at North Carolina's Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, where their wives serve as intelligence officers.
Das and Watkins were the 27th and 28th casualties of the Iraq war to be buried at Arlington. The morning rain had stopped yesterday by the time their casket -- on a caisson pulled by six gray horses -- arrived at the grave site. The sun had burned a hole in the clouds and the white headstones of Section 60 cast knife-edge shadows on the grass.
The two were prototypical fighter pilots, those who knew them said -- born leaders who seemed to succeed in everything they did. Their nicknames hinted at their personalities: "Salty," for the yarns that the sailboat-loving Watkins spun; "Boot" -- a pun on the title of the German submarine movie "Das Boot" -- paid homage to the cowboy boots that Das, a Texan, wore when country dancing.
Watkins, 37, of Danville, Virginia, knew early on that he wanted to be involved with airplanes, said his uncle, Jeff Haley, in an interview this week.
"Not a lot of people can say they set their sights at a young age and accomplished it," Haley, 43, said. "He did exactly what he wanted to do."
Watkins graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1989. Although less-than-perfect eyesight kept him from a pilot's seat in the Navy, he became a bombardier/navigator on the A-6E Intruder and radar intercept officer on the F-14 Tomcat. He also earned a private pilot's license.
He switched services in 2001, transferring to the Air Force to be nearer to his wife, an Air Force Major.
Watkins was a Jimmy Buffett fan who, in true Parrothead fashion, donned Hawaiian shirts for the concerts.
"He was like a big kid in a lot of ways," his brother, Barksdale Watkins, 29, said this week.
Bill Watkins left behind a 15-month-old son, William Tucker, and a daughter, Mary Allison, who was born July 31.
Das, 30, was from Amarillo, Texas, the son of Christian missionaries whose work took them around the world. When he was in elementary school, the family lived in Colorado, near the Air Force Academy. Das would watch the academy's glider-piloting students as they were borne aloft on updrafts of warm air.
"That of course piqued his interest," his mother, Rosalie Das, 62, said this week. He graduated from the academy in 1995. He met his future wife while they were stationed in Alaska and proposed to her on a glacier.
At Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro, North Carolina, Watkins and Das were involved in training colleagues on the F-15E. When Das's wife, Captain Nicole Das, was deployed to Qatar in January, he volunteered to be among the pilots augmenting the F-15E squadron there.
"I was ecstatic that Eric was coming out to see me and to do what he was trained to do," said Nicole, 26.
Das and Watkins were bombing enemy positions in Tikrit when their F-15E went down. An Air Force spokesman could not say yesterday exactly why the plane crashed. He characterized it as a "combat loss."
Some of the officers' remains were buried in May -- Das's in Colorado and Watkins's in a family plot in South Boston, Virginia. More remains were recovered later, a not-uncommon occurrence when a supersonic jet crashes in a combat zone, officials said. The families decided to have the new remains buried at Arlington. At yesterday's ceremony, the chaplain, Captain John P. Kenyon, read from "High Flight," a poem hung in the dens of Air Force families the world over.
"Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth," it begins, "and danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings." After General John P. Jumper, Air Force chief of staff, presented boxes bearing folded American flags to the wives of Das and Watkins, three F-15Es from Seymour Johnson swept overhead in a "missing man" formation. As they flew off to the west, the roar of their engines slowly faded, replaced by the scratch of cicadas and the whisper of the wind in the trees.
3 September 2003 (AFPN) -- Two F-15E Strike Eagle crewmembers killed in action during Operation Iraqi Freedom were buried in Arlington National Cemetery with full honors August 29, 2003.
Captain Eric B. Das, aircraft commander, and Lieutenant Colonel William R. Watkins III, weapon systems officer, were killed April 7 when their aircraft went down during a combat mission over Iraq. They were assigned to the 333rd Fighter Squadron from Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, North Carolina.
Das, 30, was from Amarillo, Texas, and Watkins, 37, was from Danville, Virginia.
Air Force Chief of Staff General John P. Jumper presented flags to the widows of the two fliers, Major Mary M. Watkins and Captain Nicole C. Das. Four F-15Es from the 4th Fighter Wing flew in a missing-man formation as a final tribute.
DAS, ERIC B
WATKINS, WILLIAM RANDOLPH III
Captain Nicole Das, left, father-in-law Bruce Das, Major Mary Watkins and her mother-in-law
Anne Marie Haley Atkins and her father-in-law, Norman Atkins, attend the Arlington Cemetery funeral.
Photo By Robert A. Reeder -- (c) The Washington Post, Used By Special Permission
Photo By M. R. Patterson, 22 April 2004