Rich­land vet gets recog­ni­tion at last

Tri-City Herald (Sunday) - - Local News - BY WENDY CUL­VER­WELL wcul­ver­well@tric­i­ty­her­ald.com Viet­nam.

It’s been 53 years since Kirby Ham­mond woke to the sound of ma­chine gun trac­ers hit­ting his truck.

It was Veter­ans Day, 1965. Ham­mond had ar­rived with the First In­fantry Di­vi­sion in the Re­pub­lic of Viet­nam a month ear­lier.

The trac­ers marked the start of the piv­otal Bat­tle of Ap Bau Bang. Three units of the First In­fantry Di­vi­sion had es­tab­lished a makeshift camp in a peanut patch and rub­ber tree farm 30 miles north of what was then Saigon.

Three units — in­fantry, ar­tillery and ar­mored per­son­nel car­rier — were on hand to sup­port the Army of the Re­pub­lic of Viet­nam when they came un­der at­tack.

A mor­tar chief would later spec­u­late that a mis­un­der­stand­ing over cows set the stage for the bat­tle.

A day ear­lier, Amer­i­can sol­diers had fired warn­ing shots near an el­derly vil­lager who was driv­ing live­stock to­ward the Amer­i­cans. One grazed the man.

Medics patched him up and sent him on his way, ac­cord­ing to a 2002 ac­count in the mag­a­zine

The Amer­i­cans were out­num­bered.

His­tor­i­cans re­call Ap Bau Bang as the first ma­jor trial for Amer­i­can ar­mored forces and a suc­cess­ful test for the ef­fec­tive­ness of com­bined arms in jun­gle war­fare.

For Ham­mond, it was two har­row­ing days of com­bat, con­fu­sion and death. The con­fus­ing first sec­onds gave way to a fran­tic scram­ble to a nearby fox­hole.

Eigh­teen Amer­i­can sol­diers died and 81 were in­jured. Some were friends Ham­mond had trained with over the pre­vi­ous year and a half.

The Bat­tle of Ap Bau Bang, he said, was “some­thing you wouldn’t want to be in.”

Now a re­tired en­ergy ex­ec­u­tive liv­ing in Rich­land, Ham­mond, 77, is mark­ing his first Veter­ans Day as a dec­o­rated com­bat vet­eran, hon­ored for heroism at Ap Bau Bang.

In Oc­to­ber, the De­part­ment of De­fense in­formed Ham­mond it is amend­ing

his record to add three ci­ta­tions, in­clud­ing the Valor­ous Unit Award, the unit equiv­a­lent of the Sil­ver Star.

Ham­mond’s mil­i­tary ser­vice be­gan with a draft no­tice in 1964. A col­lege stu­dent in Jack­son, Miss., he could have sought a de­fer­ral but didn’t.

“I love my coun­try,” he ex­plained.

He re­ported to Fort Leonard Wood for ba­sic train­ing, then to Fort Sill in Ok­la­homa for ar­tillery train­ing. From there, he was sent to Fort Ri­ley in Kansas, where he was as­signed to the 1st In­fantry Di­vi­sion, 33rd Ar­tillery.

The unit knew it was go­ing to Viet­nam and spent nine months train­ing. It re­ceived Ranger­level in­struc­tion in es­cape and eva­sion, and logged nine weeks in Florida swamps.

Ham­mond’s unit de­ployed to Viet­nam on Troop Ship Daniel L. Sul­li­van. It ar­rived on Oct. 7, 1965, a lit­tle more than a month ahead of the bat­tle.

At 24, Ham­mond was one of the older sol­diers. His bud­dies called him “Gramps,” an in­sult tinged with re­spect.

Ham­mond grew up on a farm, where he learned to be a ca­pa­ble hunter. Fel­low sol­diers trusted his in­stinct for sub­tle move­ment and dis­turbed ground.

“When I got ner­vous, they got ner­vous.”

He served four months, eight days in Viet­nam.

His dis­charge came in the form of a kick on his bunk and a flight home. In just 24 hours, he went from sol­dier to dis­charged vet­eran, wan­der­ing into the con­fus­ing streets of San Fran­cisco.

Ham­mond re­ceived a stan­dard dis­charge. Reen­try into civil­ian life was bruis­ing, but in time he got on with his life, mar­ried, had chil­dren and be­came an engi­neer and pi­lot.

Af­ter a di­vorce, he fol­lowed his for­mer wife from Cal­i­for­nia to the Tri-Cities to be close to his chil­dren and grand­chil­dren.

Ham­mond said he had a stan­dard dis­charge in 1966. His DD 214 only said he went to Viet­nam.

An in­ci­dent sev­eral years ago at a lo­cal school as­sem­bly for veter­ans cast doubt on whether he’d ac­tu­ally seen com­bat. Ham­mond de­clined to elab­o­rate, say­ing he doesn’t want to em­bar­rass any­one over a few thought­less words.

Still, the mis­un­der­stand­ing stung.

Ham­mond pur­sued com­bat com­men­da­tions, fig­ur­ing there are more veter­ans like him, ar­tillery sol­diers who weren’t el­i­gi­ble for the Com­bat In­fantry­man Badge.

So he ap­pealed to the mil­i­tary to amend his record to re­flect his ex­pe­ri­ence and that of other com­bat veter­ans who didn’t re­ceive com­men­da­tions.

“Most of the medals that should have been dis­charged were not dis­charged,” he said. “I want peo­ple to know there are prob­a­bly peo­ple in the same shape I’m in.”

U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Sun­ny­side, praised Ham­mond for draw­ing at­ten­tion to en­sur­ing veter­ans re­ceive the medals and com­men­da­tions they have earned.

“The of­fi­cial recog­ni­tion re­ceived by Mr. Ham­mond was long over­due, and I ex­press the grat­i­tude of our com­mu­nity for his hon­or­able ser­vice,” Newhouse said in a state­ment. His of­fice as­sists veter­ans who are nav­i­gat­ing the process.

Be­fore Ham­mond de­ployed, his fa­ther asked him to send home pho­tos. He com­plied, send­ing home three roles of 36 ex­posed frames.

His mother was the first to see the pic­tures. She’d mis­tak­enly ex­pected the kinds of grin­ning kid pho­tos most sol­diers sent home. Ham­mond’s im­ages were grit­tier.

The war zone im­ages up­set his mother so much that his fa­ther dis­carded all but 12. Those are pre­served in an al­bum with Ham­mond’s let­ters and later im­ages.

The Valor­ous Unit Award, a red rib­bon bi­sected by a field of blue, red and white stripes, is given to units that dis­play ex­tra­or­di­nary heroism in ac­tion against an armed en­emy.

Ham­mond will dis­play it on the vest he wears to veter­ans event, next to the patch with a golden lion, his unit’s mas­cot, and the fig­ure “5724.”

That’s how many days elapsed be­tween his dis­charge — Jan. 27, 1966 — and when he was first thanked for his mil­i­tary ser­vice — Sept. 29, 1981.

He has vivid me­mories of the lat­ter day. He’d flown ex­ec­u­tives to North­ern Cal­i­for­nia for a busi­ness meet­ing, then waited in the small air­port’s din­ing area un­til the ex­ec­u­tives were ready to leave.

A man and a woman were talk­ing nearby. The woman asked the man where he was in 1965. “Chicago,” he an­swered. She turned to Ham­mond and re­peated the ques­tion.

When he replied “Viet­nam,” she stood and hugged him.

Like many re­turn­ing from Viet­nam, Ham­mond took the anti-war protests and hos­til­ity dis­played to re­turn­ing sol­diers per­son­ally.

Sol­diers don’t start wars. They fol­low or­ders.

“Sol­diers shouldn’t be blamed,” he said.

NOELLE HARO-GOMEZ Tri-City Her­ald

Kirby Ham­mond will re­cieve medals for his ser­vice at Ap Bau Bang in Viet­nam, a bat­tle that be­gan Nov. 11, 1965.

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