Obituary: Jack Watkins / Retired Air Force major general 'was always larger than life'

Aug. 11, 1928 - July 31, 2013

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Jack Watkins, a retired Air Force major general from Pittsburgh who rose through the ranks to hold key positions with the Strategic Air Command, died July 31.

He was 84 and lived in Santa Maria, Calif.

Gen. Watkins grew up in East Liberty and spent his entire career in the military, moving from base to base as he was promoted.

In his last post, he commanded the 1st Strategic Aerospace Division of the Strategic Air Command at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, where he was responsible for directing missile combat crew training and missile testing, among other duties. He retired in 1986.

"He loved the Air Force," said his widow, Mary Ann Watkins, who grew up in Johnstown. "He could not wait to get there in the morning. He was the last one to leave at night."

Born in Russellton, the son of a coal miner, Gen. Watkins moved to Pittsburgh as a boy. He and his two sisters were raised by their mother at various East End addresses. He always wanted to fly; as a boy, he set up the ironing board as a launch pad for his paper airplanes.

After graduating from South High School in 1946, he joined the Army to become a paratrooper and glider pilot. He left the Army in 1948 to attend the University of Pittsburgh, then was recalled to active duty in 1950 for the Korean War.

He served in the U.S. and Germany during the Korean War, serving with anti-aircraft units as a battery executive officer and commander.

After two years he returned to Pitt. He met Mary Ann in 1952 -- "he was the handsomest man I ever met" -- and the two married in 1955.

Gen. Watkins graduated in 1954 with a degree in political science. He then joined the Air Force, graduated from pilot training in 1956 and served with the Tactical Air Command and Military Transport Service. He participated in airlifting cargo and troops to the Middle East in support of the Lebanese government in 1958; flying airlift missions to the Far East during the Taiwan Straits crisis that same year; and transporting troops during the Belgian Congo crisis of 1960.

Gen. Watkins next held various staff positions at Air Force headquarters in Washington, then served for a time in New Mexico conducting bombing tests before returning briefly to Pitt as an ROTC professor of aerospace studies. His family said he doubled the enrollment in the ROTC program at the height of the Vietnam War protests.

Mrs. Watkins said that when young students came up to his office intent on causing trouble, he invited them in to talk to them instead of having security escort them out.

He was so effective at Pitt that he was put in charge of ROTC programs across the country after his next move to Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama.

After a stint at Sawyer Air Force Base in Michigan, Gen. Watkins moved to Griffiss Air Force Base in New York, where he commanded the 410th Bombardment Wing. In 1975 he transferred to Pease Air Force Base in New Hampshire and took command of the 45th Air Division, where he was in charge of two B-52 wings, among other units.

Gen. Watkins was next assigned to Strategic Air Command headquarters at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, where he became deputy chief of staff for operations in 1978.

His command noted several achievements in those years, including the first Exercise Global Shield, the largest SAC readiness exercise in two decades in preparation for possible nuclear war.

Gen. Watkins then became vice commander of the 15th Air Force at March Air Force Base in California, in charge of all SAC aircraft and missile operations in the western U.S. and Alaska.

In 1980, he took command of the 1st Strategic Aerospace Division at Vandenberg.

By then, he had logged more than 10,000 flying hours in 20 different kinds of planes. From 1975 to 1986, he also flew regularly as commander of the airborne command post nicknamed Looking Glass, which flew around the clock, every day of the year.

On trips back home to Pittsburgh, his family recalled, he was the consummate Air Force man.

"He was always larger than life," recalled his niece, Diane McDaniel of Monroeville. "He was a really handsome man, kind of charismatic. He was a military guy all the way."

Although Gen. Watkins had no hobbies and was devoted to the Air Force, he did maintain ties with the civilian community. While at Vandenberg, he served as campaign chairman and board member for the United Way. In retirement, he served on the Santa Barbara County Tax Assessment Appeals Board.

Gen. Watkins had been in good health until suffering a kidney infection about 15 months ago. He died at a convalescent home.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by a son, Mark Watkins of Las Vegas.

Gen. Watkins was cremated.

Mrs. Watkins said she will have his ashes scattered on the grounds of the former Epworth Woods Camp in Butler County, where her husband was a counselor as a young man and where he proposed to her in 1955.


Torsten Ove: or 412-263-1510.


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