In five decades of marriage, Joan Watte never saw her husband shed tears.
Until several years ago, when World War II veteran John Watte saw the movie “Saving Private Ryan.”
“That was the most accurate movie I had ever seen,” he said.
“I had never seen him cry in 50 years,” Joan said. “But at that movie, he pulled out a handkerchief.”
A veteran of D-Day and European service from 1943 to 1945, Watte said when soldiers came home, they had a saying.
“You have five minutes to talk about the Army,” Watte said. “But then shut up and get on with it.”
John, is 2002 Veteran of the Year for the Kitsap County Veterans Coalition and his wife is Queen of the Year. The Poulsbo couple is active in many veterans groups including the American Legion Post 245 in Poulsbo and Silverdale’s VFW Post 4992, where he is junior vice commander.
Watte, 80, is a small, polite and nattily dressed man. His sunny disposition belies the fact he wears a defibrillator.
John is a “100 percent Cherokee” born and raised in the Bronx, New York.
He joined the Army after Pearl Harbor Day 1941, took basic training in Louisiana and in January 1943 careened across the Atlantic on the converted luxury liner Queen Elizabeth II.
Why not the Pacific Theater?
“You had no choice,” he said.
Watte said his soldier’s life in England for 18 months was simple — “train, train, train.”
He was an infantryman, with a specialty in electricity, but his eyes often looked skyward.
“I wanted to be a paratrooper,” Watte said. “They told me I was too light and too small. I tried one jump. It was exhilarating. The wind caught me and put me in a tree. That was the end of that.”
Early one spring morning, Watte was trying to sleep, afloat in a bouncing landing craft, lying atop an ambulance to keep from getting wet.
This was no ordinary training.
No ordinary crossing of the English Channel.
No ordinary day in world history.
It was D-Day, June 6, 1944.
Watte estimates he went ashore in “the third wave” at a Normandy beach whose name he has long since forgotten. Bullets were still flying. He was grazed in the back of the head. His wife said his hair still won’t grow there. He also mashed the end of his finger, but can’t remember how.
“In those days, you had to practically be dead to get the Purple Heart,” Watte said. “At the end though, guys were cutting their fingers with cans and getting their Purple Heart.”
Watte’s job was behind front lines. As German forces retreated they cut all power lines and utilities. It was his job to rewire buildings Allied officers wanted for headquarters buildings or other uses.
By May 1945, the European war was over and Sgt. Watte left Le Havre harbor in France on a rickety Kaiser ship. Though the boat was plodding and falling apart, Watte was oblivious.
“We didn’t care, we didn’t sleep,” he said. “All we did was raise heck. I just wanted out and to forget about it.”
In 1947 he and his father moved to Massachusetts. He married Joan in 1953 after a long courtship. He became an electrician and then electronics expert at naval shipyards in Boston, Hawaii and at PSNS in Bremerton before retiring in the 1970s.
After World War II, Watte had joined a VFW chapter briefly, but found it unappealing.
In 1998 he got reinvolved in veteran’s groups. He attended a formative meeting of the American Legion Post 245 in Poulsbo and came home as the number two official — the Adjutant.
One his proudest accomplishments was being invited into the American Legion’s La Societe Des 40 Hommes Et 8 Chevauk (The Society of 40 men or 8 horses). The names refers to European rail cars during World War I that carried either 40 men or eight horses.
Watte is a born leader.
“I can organize. I can look at a man and tell you what job he will be good at,” Watte said.
Joan is also active as secretary of the auxiliary, District No. 3 of the American Legion and secretary of VFW Post 245, women’s auxiliary.
Meanwhile, Watte has never returned to Europe. He is content to watch travelogues on public television, recognizing scenes that evoke searing memories from a raging war of 60 years ago.
“I always had the desire (to go back), but I never had the wherewithal,” he said, rubbing his thumb and forefinger together. “But that was all when I was younger.”