Saturday, December 7, 2013
(Continued from page 1)
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
“Once the Marines like you, you’re one of theirs,” he said. “They have to have a good reason, if you’re willing to stay, for them to not let you stay.”
Smimmo, who has spent hours on the phone with him, said Hamblen had to prove he could continue to serve as a Marine. The tests Hamblen had to endure, as first outlined in a 1996 story in Vietnam Magazine and retold on Historynet.com, included running the length of a football field and picking up a 170-pound man carrying a 40-pound pack who was lying flat on the ground. Hamblen had to lift the soldier across his shoulders and run back to the starting line. Hamblen also had to climb 20 feet of rope, jump an 8-foot ditch and run three miles wearing boots and carrying a marching pack in 36 minutes.
When it was over, Hamblen removed his prosthetic and poured out a cup’s worth of blood that had oozed out the scar tissue ripped open during the ordeal.
Hamblen was cleared for active duty and given a choice to retire in full standing or continue to serve. Hamblen stayed in.
Three years after his accident, in 1965, Hamblen went to Vietnam. He would spend the next 30 months leading a team of 37 Vietnamese and Cambodian soldiers behind enemy lines to grab North Vietnamese officers and political figures.
Hamblen was hit by shrapnel in 1966. It was a minor injury, and he was allowed to return to duty quickly. A year later Hamblen was shot in the arm. He still carries that bullet.
“It harasses me at the airport,” he joked.
At one point Hamblen broke his wooden leg and had to fly back to the U.S. to have it fixed. He returned to Vietnam within five days. The foot, made of wood to look real, did not react well to the wet Vietnam conditions.
“If it got wet too many times, it would just crack the wood,” he said. “If I had the legs they have today, I would have gotten myself killed.”
Gen. Herman Nickerson Jr., who had struck up a friendship with Hamblen after the amputation, asked Hamblen to leave Vietnam after his second injury when United Press International announed plans to do a story on Hamblen. Nickerson feared the attention would threaten the covert operations and worried about the bad press that would accompany an amputee soldier getting killed behind enemy lines.
“He said, ‘There’s no way in hell we can let them run a story,’” Hamblen recalled.
He returned home in 1967 and retired as a first sergeant in 1970. He spent the next 20 years working as a guide leading bear and cougar hunts into northern California.
Hamblen still feels deep affection for the Vietnamese and Cambodian soldiers with whom he served. A good number were killed. He recalled a funeral for one that was delayed until Hamblen could arrive.
“They waited for me to put the first shovel of dirt on the body,” he said, his voice pregnant with emotion. “They were like brothers to me.”
Hamblen’s sister, Gloria Sylvester, of Manchester, said she still has trouble grasping the difficulty her brother endured and the determination he showed to live out his dream.
“I couldn’t imagine how you could go through all that,” she said. “He was always kind of a daredevil. He would do things an ordinary person wouldn’t.”
Craig Crosby — 621-5642