Wednesday, December 11, 2013
WINTHROP — The toughest soldier you’ve never known grew up on his family’s farm in Winthrop.
After a ceremony honoring Marine Corps First Sgt. Don "Woody" Hamblen, his sister, Gloria Sylvester, left, and daughter, Sherry Parkinson, have their picture taken in front of a plaque by Frank Smimmon on Thursday at the Winthrop Town Office. Hamblen, who lives in California, didn't attend.
Staff photo by Joe Phelan
A plaque honoring Winthrop native Marine Corps First Sgt. Don "Woody" Hamblen was hung on Thursday at the Winthrop Town Office.
Staff photo by Joe Phelan
He helped his father run the farm off Narrows Pond Road, terrorized his sister with pranks and left high school when he was a sophomore so he could get a jump on proving to himself he had what it took to make it as a Marine. He survived being wounded in the Korean War, only to return home to lose half of his left leg to a freak skydiving accident.
Donald “Woody” Hamblen took that one good leg and the wooden prosthetic that gave him his nickname and spent 30 months in Vietnam leading operations behind enemy lines. In so doing, according to Marine Maj. Bruce Norton’s 1993 article in The Bulletin newspaper, Hamblen became the first known Marine amputee to go into combat.
“It was just the training,” Hamblen said, who treats praise the way a tin roof treats a raindrop. “I could move a hell of a lot better than I can now.”
But reviving Hamblen’s story has been the passion of Winthrop resident and fellow Korean War veteran Frank Smimmo since May, when he read the book Hamblen co-authored, “One Tough Marine.”
“Three days I couldn’t put it down,” Smimmo said. “It was the greatest book I’ve ever read.”
He mentioned the book to a number of elderly residents and was surprised to learn most had never heard Hamblen’s story.
“Thus I began what I have deemed my mission to make him known and thanked by us,” Smimmo said.
The most recent result of that effort came Thursday, when town officials hung a plaque honoring Hamblen inside the Town Office. A similar plaque will be hung at American Legion Post 40 in Winthrop, and an engraved stone has been placed at the Veterans Memorial at Norcross Point.
“I know my dad would think it’s a bunch of hoopla,” Hamblen’s daughter, Sherry Parkinson of Winthrop, said with a smile. “He did his job and we’re all really proud of him.”
Hamblen, 81, settled down near Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton in Oceanside, Calif., completing his 20 years of service in 1970. He said he has not returned to Winthrop since the 1980s but said he is honored that Smimmo and the town wanted to recognize his service.
“That’s why I promoted him to sergeant major,” Hamblen joked. “I’ve adopted him as a brother.”
Hamblen, who was unable to attend Thursday’s ceremony, joined the Marines in 1950 and a year later was sent to Korea with a rifle platoon. Hamblen was wounded by shrapnel in 1952. As he was being carried to safety on a stretcher, his group was ambushed and Hamblen was hurt again, this time by a bullet to the shoulder.
He returned to duty and left Korea six months later.
Hamblen served at various bases in the U.S. over the next 10 years. In September 1962, Hamblen was making a training jump over Camp Pendleton when a gust of wind carried him into high-voltage power lines. Hamblen was left with third-degree burns over much of his body when the lines arced, and he fell 40 feet to the ground. His left foot and calf suffered the most extensive damage. Doctors amputated the leg, just below the knee, shortly after the accident.
Hamblen was urged to retire and receive three-fourths pay for the rest of his life, but Hamblen always had planned to serve 20 years and retire.
Hamblen underplays his effort to return to active duty. He said only that he was liked by those in charge.
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