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Mystery of missing dog tags is solved

POSTED: March 30, 2008 5:01 a.m.
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These military dog tags belonging to former Gainesville resident and Air Force surgeon Dr. Jerald L. Watts recently turned up on the shores of Lake Lanier.

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Like a lot of other people, one of our grandchildren's favorite things on mild winter afternoons is scouring the expanded shore of Lake Lanier, hoping to find that special treasure.

Boat anchors and horns, fishing tackle, vintage bottles and assorted strange unidentifiable objects are among the finds. Even a rusted sentimental watch left to a grandson by his grandfather.

The other day, combing over a spot we'd walked numerous times, something especially shiny poked out of the sand. It could have been passed over for yet another beer can, but it turned out to be a set of military identification "dog tags."

Would this be the key to some mystery, some clue to some missing person? Perhaps a long-forgotten airplane crashed without anybody hearing it in the middle of the night in the middle of the lake, and the pilot's dog tags had been buried for decades. Or because the spot was near the main channel of the Chattahoochee River, perhaps a soldier or sailor on leave from an earlier war had lost them on a fishing trip.

When the mystery was solved, it didn't prove nearly as sensational. But it was a surprise to the owner of the dog tags and an interesting story nonetheless.

The name on the tags is Jerald L. Watts. A few computer keystrokes, a mouse click and a phone call tracked him down quickly at his present home in Peachtree City.

Dr. Watts moved to Gainesville after completing an orthopedic surgery residency at Grady Hospital in Atlanta in 1966. He settled his family in Sunset Heights subdivision on the lake off U.S. 129 north so he could sail his Flying Dutchman sailboat, usually taking along his Irish setter, Melanie. Sometimes Melanie would slip into the water, and Dr. Watts would have to reach in to haul her back into the boat.

He doesn't remember losing the tags, but guesses it was on one of those leisurely cruises. He was still on active Air Force Reserve status during his first year of practice in Gainesville.

Dr. Watts drove an ambulance for Grady before beginning medical school at Emory University, from which he graduated in 1959. He was on active duty as an Air Force captain in the early '60s as a flight surgeon and general surgeon.

After his military service and completing his residency at Grady, he and Dr. Charles Little became the first board-certified orthopedic surgeons in Northeast Georgia. He practiced in Hall County for 25 years.

During his Air Force duty as a flight surgeon, he flew all over the world, sometimes into tense situations. Twice in the early 1960s, he flew missions to the Congo ferrying food and military supplies. He was in Guantanamo Bay during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962.

Dr. Watts was on a plane that flew into Germany when the Soviets weren't allowing supplies to be flown into certain areas, a situation similar to the Berlin Blockade. The Soviets had shot down one plane, and it was dangerous for anybody to attempt to land. In addition, they were testing a new radar system.

It was a foggy night when Watts' plane flew in secretly, but without incident. However, the crew had to leave the plane on the ground for several days before the Soviets opened up a road that allowed their supplies to be moved.

His unit also shuttled in and out of Vietnam during the early days of that war. Snipers often were on the runway when his plane landed or took off.

When Dr. Watts was checking out of the active Air Force, he learned he had earned three combat stars. He didn't understand, thinking his service in Vietnam qualified him for only two. The Air Force had sent him on a secret mission to Cambodia, and he'd never known it.

His dog tags were in fine condition, easily readable with no rust on the chain or tags. He was happy to get them back after four decades. It brought back some pleasant memories of sailing with his Irish setter companion, and perhaps some of his military adventures.

Dr. Watts retired from medical practice in 1998 and is writing a book on his experiences in Atlanta area hospitals, including Grady.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. His column appears Sundays and on gainesvilletimes.com. First published Feb. 3, 2008.



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