By Claire Goodson
Tom Brokaw coined the phrase “The Greatest Generation” to describe those who lived in one of the most crucial times in not only American History, but also the history of the world. Upon visiting Normandy for the research of his book, Tom Brokaw writes, “There on the beaches of Normandy I began to reflect on the wonders of these ordinary people whose lives were laced with the markings of greatness.”
Brokaw could not have been more accurate in his description of the people who lived through one of the most trying times this nation has ever faced. Among these people was a man named Jack Hamblin, Jr. who is of the quite ordinary and humble character that Brokaw would consider to be “laced with greatness.”
Hamblin is a man who has never sought after greatness, aimed to be honored, or thought of himself as an inspiration, and yet he is all of those things and so much more. He is a part of a patchwork of people who never went seeking to be remembered as “the Greatest Generation,” but earned this title for their resilience, bravery, and acts of humble heroism that will never be forgotten.
Hamblin was born to two young parents on a tenant farm in the deep delta of Mississippi just as the summer heat was beginning to set in on May 22, 1924. His mother, Gladys Hamblin, was just a girl of fifteen when she gave birth to Hamblin, her first son of five children. As crop prices fell, the young family made its move to Baldwyn. They would settle there for the rest of their lives.
Hamblin was mature beyond his years even at a young age. He helped raise his four younger siblings and stayed in school, graduating on May 10, 1942, a feat unaccomplished by many as the Great Depression raged onward and education was sacrificed for work so mouths could be fed.
“You didn’t have rich men and poor men. Every man was poor,” Hamblin said in describing what life was like as he grew up. “We ate cornbread for breakfast and got one pair of shoes a year, you put those up in the summer and went barefoot. Poor was just the way everybody lived so we didn’t know no different.”
However, life was about to change for Hamblin as Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7, 1941. This attack would be the great catalyst that catapulted America into the war efforts and lead Hamblin to receive his draft letter at only nineteen years old, along with thousands of other young men. According to “The Road to D-Day,” during this time, “11,000 every day” were inducted into the U.S. Army and Navy (Atkinson).
After receiving his draft letter, Hamblin knew wartime was unavoidably a part of his future. However, he still had to make a decision about which branch of the military he wanted to join.
“My daddy told me, ‘Son I’d go in the navy. I was in the Army and in the Navy you’ll have a dry place to sleep at night. You won’t be digging a hole, sleeping in the mud and rain.’ So that’s why I joined the Navy,” Hamblin said.
In 1943, he set out for Hattiesburg to have his full examination administered so he could proceed to boot camp. He passed and attended boot camp for six weeks, and afterwards went to the hospital corps school for another six weeks and finished an Apprentice First Class Pharmacy Mate.
After nearly twelve weeks of training, Hamblin finally shipped out to New York City, where a hospital ship, the LST 523, was being prepared that would take them to Foy, England. The trip from New York to Foy took thirty-one long days. When they arrived in Foy, they loaded the ship up with medical supplies and waited for further instructions.
“General Eisenhower, on the fourth night of June, came on the intercom and told us to prepare to leave. We woke up to the beaches of Omaha the morning of June sixth,” Hamblin said.
This would be the first of four trips Hamblin would make to the beaches of Omaha during his time in the war.
Hamblin vividly remembers the horrors he saw unfold before his very eyes on the beaches of Omaha and seventy years later these images are as fresh as if he had just seen them only yesterday.
“I watched as boys stepped off the LST’s in about eight feet of water with all of their gear on and some of those boys just never came back up. You could just see men shot as soon as they stepped off the boats; if they stepped on a mine you could see them be blown up. Men every which way were having their arms or legs blown off.”
As a medic Hamblin had ten of the 166 patients on board the LST to himself. However, not only did he treat wounded American soldiers, he also treated wounded German prisoners of war as well. One of these men was a German solider who was terribly injured and brought aboard the LST to be treated. He described one of his injuries as one of the worst he saw during the war.
“The man was SS: Private Army of the Third Reich, one of Hitler’s main men,” Hamblin said. “There was a picture of the soldier and Hitler in his pocket. The man had been shot in his stomach and his intestines were laying out everywhere. His teeth were all crooked and to one side from being stomped on and he stayed conscious the whole time. The man could talk English better than I could, said he’d been schooled in the states. We treated him the best we could, but he died on the way back to England.”
That German officer was just one of many of Hamblin’s memorable patients
“On the third trip we had a boy who had his leg blown off,” Hamblin recalled. “A medic that volunteered to come with us asked me, ‘Do you know how to amputate a leg?’ I said, ‘No, but I seen it once so I think I can do it.’ I took a knife and went around and cut the skin off. The boy said, ‘How you gonna cut the bone?’ I said, ‘Well I’ll just go up and get a meat saw from the cook.’ I went up to the kitchen and said, ‘Big Red I need a meat saw, I gotta cut a boy’s leg off.’ He went and got me one, so I went back down there and cut the boy’s leg right off. When we got back to England, they told me and the volunteer medic we had done a perfect job. I was proud of that.”
Fateful fourth visit
The fourth trip to Omaha Beach would not go as smoothly as the previous three.
On June 15th, LST 523 hit a mine that blew the ship in half. Hamblin described the event in the most intense detail.
“Me and my buddy were standing on the top deck. The explosion blew us up into the air. The Lord spared me because I was about two feet from where the explosion hit. Many of the men bailed ship and I stayed on as long as I could. As the ship sank, I saw a life raft and cut it from the ship and jumped in. I ran to the edge and pulled about ten or twelve soldiers out of the water and into the raft with me. Then I pulled up my best, good buddy Richard Black. He couldn’t swim, so I took off my life belt and gave it to him.
“We must have been in the water four or five hours and the waves were about thirteen or fifteen feet high. We drifted into a Greek merchant ship and they let me on. Those boys gave me clean clothes and food and I spent the night there, but none of them spoke English. I thought we were captured until they took us to another LST the next morning. We sailed back to England on the Queen Mary and they told me all my buddies ended up in Scotland. I made the trip up there by train and when I walked up they started hollering, ‘There comes that ol’ Jack; he didn’t get killed!’ We all thought a lot of each other in the war and we sure did have a good time together that night.”
Besides Richard Black, Hamblin pulled another soldier out of the water that day. According to fellow medic, William Allen, “It was Jack Hamblin who saved my life by steering that life raft close enough to take me on board.”
Of the three hundred and forty-five men on board LST 523, only twenty-eight men survived. Among that number were the few Hamblin pulled into the life raft he cut from the ship. Only two of the men out of those few survivors still live today. Hamblin and William Allen, both a part of a four- man prayer group, all miraculously survived the war.
As Hamblin finished speaking for this story, his words were full of humility that will engrave the heart of whoever is lucky enough to read them.
“I love America, and I’m proud of what I did but I’m not a hero,” Hamblin said. “The ones who gave their lives were the heroes. I’m a survivor. God saved me, so I’m just a survivor.”
If one were to meet Hamblin on the street, he or she would find a warm, friendly handshake and be offered a piece of Double Mint chewing gum. However, under such a seemingly commonplace exterior a hero lies, and if Hamblin is not counted among the number of great American heroes, then who should be?
Writer’s note: Jack Hamblin married Mrs. Erma Jean Hamblin after the war. He went on to raise two daughters and became a grandfather to five grandchildren and eleven great-grandchildren. He is my great-grandfather, and I have been thankful for him every day.