A farm boy from Maine, Donald H. Hamblen enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1950 and soon found himself on his way to join the 1st Marine Division, then fighting in Korea. In late November of 1951, Hamblen was assigned to a rifle platoon in D Company, 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines, and just before Christmas the company gunnery sergeant sent Hamblen to the division’s sniper school, where he sharpened his marksmanship skills and returned to his unit as a member of one of its two-man sniper teams.
On May 4, 1952, Hamblen was wounded in his left leg during a mortar barrage. A four-man litter team came out to get him; as they carried him back toward friendly lines, they were ambushed by a squad of Chinese infantrymen. Diving for cover, the litter team dropped the stretcher, and the Chinese shot Hamblen as he lay helpless on the ground. A rescue team finally picked him up and brought him to a battalion aid station, where two pieces of shrapnel were taken from his leg and a rifle slug was removed from his right shoulder. After spending only 10 days in the hospital, Hamblen returned to his unit and was made a squad leader. He left Korea in late November 1952 and returned to the United States wearing the chevrons of a corporal.
During the next 10 years, Hamblen saw duty at Camp Lejeune, N.C., at New London, Conn., and with the 1st Marine Brigade in Hawaii before being assigned to the weapons platoon of E Company, 7th Marines, at Camp Pendleton, Calif. In October 1960, Hamblen was transferred to 1st Force Reconnaissance Company and was assigned as assistant platoon sergeant of the pathfinder platoon. The unit’s dual mission was to make deep reconnaissance patrols and to conduct the terminal guidance of initial helicopter waves into landing zones. As a member of the pathfinder platoon, Hamblen had to qualify as a military parachutist, even though he had made 28 jumps as a civilian sport jumper prior to joining 1st Force. He was sent to Fort Benning, Ga., and completed the U.S. Army’s Air Transportability and Aerial Delivery of Heavy Equipment course before attending the Basic Airborne course. Four weeks later, Hamblen returned to Camp Pendleton wearing the insignia of a basic parachutist and assumed duty as the pathfinder platoon sergeant.
For the next year, Hamblen’s platoon trained at the Mountain Training Warfare Center in Bridgeport, Calif., tested parachutes at El Centro, Calif., and worked in the Philippine Islands with the Negritos–aboriginal natives skilled in hunting, trapping and tracking. Returning from the Philippines in 1962, Hamblen was sent to the Navy’s Underwater Swimmers’ School at Key West, Fla., and returned to 1st Force four weeks later as a qualified scuba diver. To be considered ready for their one-year deployment to Okinawa, all members of the pathfinder platoon were required to complete a number of parachute jumps from a variety of Navy and Marine aircraft, with and without equipment.
On the morning of September 21, 1962, Hamblen and nine members of his platoon were scheduled to take off at 10:30 aboard a GV-1 (a Marine Lockheed C-130) and parachute into the Camp Pendleton drop zone known as the Tank Park DZ. ‘Ten of us made up the stick, with myself positioned as the last jumper,’ Hamblen recalled. ‘We knew we had arrived at our jump altitude when our crew chief came back and set the hydraulics in motion to open the huge cargo doors at the rear of the aircraft. Receiving the signal from our jump master, 10 of us stood up, hooked up our static lines and moved in a penguin-like shuffle toward the rear of the plane. On the command ‘Go,’ I started pushing the Marine in front of me, and the momentum carried our stick forward. We cleared the plane in seconds.’
After exiting the aircraft, Hamblen waited for the tug of his deploying canopy; when he felt the jolt, he looked up to make sure he had a good opening. At 800 feet above the ground, he realized he was being blown toward high tension lines. ‘I tried to slip against the wind and get away from the lines by pulling down on my risers,’ he remembered. ‘My efforts began to pay off, but as soon as I stopped slipping, the wind blew me back toward the power lines, as though there was a magnetic attraction between me and those lines. I changed strategy and began slipping with the wind to get past the lines, and when I was about 50 feet from the ground I prepared myself to land and let up on my risers. As soon as I let up, the wind blew my canopy upwards and me back toward the high tension lines.
‘My canopy became entangled in the 69,000-volt lines, and I was suspended directly above a lower set of three 12,000-volt lines. The momentum of being carried between the lines caused me to swing out, and as I swung back I could feel myself drop. My left boot hit the middle 12,000-volt line and pushed it against the outside line. When the two lines made contact I was the only obstacle between the 12,000- and 69,000-volt lines.’
The Marines in the drop zone stood and watched as a bluish-white flame shot up from the lines and arced against Hamblen’s left boot. The bolt of electricity traveled up his body, and an orange ball of flame shot up from the power lines, causing his nylon canopy to smoke. When the canopy melted, Hamblen fell 40 feet to the ground. The broken electrical line also fell to the ground, igniting the dry brush in the drop zone. As the fire spread, Hamblen tried to ignite his signaling flare but didn’t have the strength to pull the flare away from his harness.
‘Our training had been so repetitive that it was an instinctive reaction to try and get my signaling flare ignited and let someone know where I was and that I was alive,’ he said.
The first Marine to reach Hamblen was a sergeant named Ratliff who had exited the plane ahead of Hamblen and had witnessed the near-electrocution.
‘Ratliff reached for my harness and tried to open my quick releases,’ Hamblen recalled, ‘but he jerked back his hands after getting burned from touching the hot metal clips. He was joined by another Marine, and by that time the metal had cooled enough to enable them to pop the capewells and pull me free of my smoking harness and away from the approaching brush fire.’
Within minutes, a Kaman HH-43 ‘Husky’ search and rescue helicopter landed in the drop zone, and Hamblen was loaded aboard and flown to the naval hospital.
The badly injured Marine’s unexpected arrival at the hospital had come at the worst possible time–lunch time. The corpsmen who met the chopper had been told they would be receiving a burn victim and had no idea as to the extent of his injuries. ‘I was given a spinal [anesthetic], and all sensation of pain left me,’ Hamblen remembered. ‘It was noted on my admission form that I had been badly burned on my left leg and foot, on my right side and just below my right hip. My Colt automatic had heated up and burned through its leather holster, causing the deep burn below my hip. Wherever metal had been closest to my skin, I was badly burned.’
Hamblen was moved from the emergency room to the intensive care ward. There, X-rays, photographs and samples of blood were taken, and he was examined by various doctors and nurses. Waiting for the arrival of the hospital’s chief of surgery, a Navy captain, Hamblen fell into a medicated sleep, to be awakened later by the chief surgeon, who said: ‘Good morning, Staff Sergeant Hamblen, my name is Doctor McCullum. I’m the head surgeon here at the hospital. I don’t know what you’ve been told since you arrived, but I want you to know several things right from the start. First of all, I have to say that you must be one lucky individual. Your physical condition has played an important role in your being alive, but there are some things that I’m going to tell you that will require a greater amount of strength on your part–inner strength.’
McCullum pulled a chair up next to Hamblen’s bed and told him what he had learned from his medical tests. He added that because of the unknown damage to the circulatory system in Hamblen’s left leg, it would take several days before he could make a complete diagnosis.
‘I guessed that McCullum must have been the doctor who had drawn the shortest straw,’ Hamblen said. ‘He came into my room three days later and told me that he would have to amputate my left leg in order to save my life.
‘The next morning several corpsmen came into my room and transferred me to a gurney for the trip to the operating room. The last thing I remember was the bee-like sting from the spinal. It was late in the afternoon when I finally awoke. I couldn’t feel that part of my left leg was gone, but when I focused my eyes and looked down toward the foot of the bed, the empty space below my knee–that place beneath the pale blue sheets where my leg and foot should have been–was flat and empty.’
Believing that his career as a Marine staff NCO was all but over, Hamblen had to decide on his future. Dr. McCullum told Hamblen that he’d have to remain in the intensive care ward until all signs of a staph infection were gone, and then he’d be transferred to an orthopedic ward where a physical therapy program would begin.
‘Just two days prior to the platoon’s leaving for Okinawa, I was surprised to see members of my platoon come into the intensive care ward and surround my bed to have a farewell picture taken,’ Hamblen said. ‘Their thoughtfulness was better for my spirits than any medical treatment I had received.’
Although he had been visited by every officer and Marine in the company, a surprise visit by Maj. Gen. Herman Nickerson, Jr., was the beginning of a personal and professional relationship. The commanding general of the 1st Marine Division, Nickerson told Hamblen that he had been informed of his daily progress by the doctors and invited him to watch a parachute jump the following week.
‘I was wheeled out of the hospital and brought to the general’s jeep for a three-mile ride to the drop zone,’ Hamblen recalled. ‘General Nickerson and I watched through binoculars as several sticks of 1st Force Marines exited a GV-1 and made their way down to the drop zone. As I was about to get out of his jeep, the general told me that the two of us had more in common than being Marines. General Nickerson explained that while I had been a squad leader in Korea, he had been on my right flank as the regimental commander of the 7th Marines. We shook hands, and he repeated his generous offer of personal assistance, anytime or anywhere.’
Hamblen spent the following weeks exercising his left leg, which was wrapped in a plaster cast and fitted with a steel O-ring in the foot. A line was attached to the O-ring and run over the top of the ‘monkey bars’ that surrounded his bed. By raising and lowering his leg, he also regained strength in his arms.
In November, Hamblen was given the opportunity to break away from the hospital routine. His commanding officer, Major McCallister, had asked permission for Hamblen to ride along in a Marine Douglas C-47 aircraft and observe as 12 Marines from one of the reconnaissance platoons made a static-line jump.
By January 1963, Hamblen’s condition had improved, allowing him to be transferred to the Oak Knoll naval hospital, outside San Francisco. At Oak Knoll, Hamblen learned more about himself and about other people who had lost their arms or legs; that education began with an event known as ‘The Freak Show,’ with all amputee patients assembled in one room, wearing only their bathing suits, for a physical inspection by the hospital’s staff. Three days after arriving, Hamblen was fitted for his first prosthesis, designed to match his right leg and built well enough to support the lifestyle of a 30-year-old Marine. The Navy and the Marine Corps were interested in Hamblen’s prognosis, but each for different reasons. The Navy wanted to know of any change in his physical status and whether or not he would return to duty. The Marine Corps took the opposite tack and wanted to know when he would be returned to full-duty status. Oak Knoll’s policy was to get patients properly fitted with their prostheses and return them to society as quickly as possible.
‘I knew that the key to a rapid recovery was more of a mental effort than a physical one, and I wanted to be able to show those men who would evaluate my condition that I could do much more than sit in a wheelchair and sew a pair of leather moccasins together,’ Hamblen recalled.
On March 28, 1963, only 58 days after Hamblen was admitted to Oak Knoll, several nurses helped him load his seabag and two ‘extra’ legs into his car, and then waved goodbye as he headed back to Camp Pendleton. During the seven months Hamblen had spent away from the company, changes in personnel had occurred that affected his chances of being considered for full-duty status. Major McCallister had relinquished command to Major Tom Gibson, and General Nickerson had also received orders and was slated to leave the 1st Marine Division with Brig. Gen. Fairborn in command. Concerned that the officers who knew of his request to be considered for full-duty status were leaving, Hamblen met with the company’s executive officer, Captain Patrick J. Ryan, and asked that he be given the opportunity to speak with General Nickerson.
‘When Captain Ryan and I entered the general’s office, the general came out from behind the desk to have a better look,’ said Hamblen. ‘The captain explained my current ‘limited-duty status’ and added that after seeing me run, swim, scuba dive, and instruct classes in PT (physical training) he, too, felt that a change in my medical status should be considered. He asked the general to allow me to take the physical endurance test used by the U.S. Army to determine if their prospective candidates for the Airborne Course were physically qualified. But that was not a good move. The general wasted no time in explaining: ‘Captain Ryan, before I agree to Hamblen’s request to be considered fit for full duty, he must take the physical readiness test (PRT). I know Hamblen, and I know how much he wants to be found fit for full duty, but I cannot and I will not lower our standards for any one Marine. If Hamblen can pass the PRT and also pass those individual training events required of a Marine platoon sergeant, then I will agree to recommend him as fit for full duty.”
Captain Ryan and Hamblen took the general’s not-so-subtle hint not to press their luck and departed the division command post, but Hamblen had been given the one chance he needed to stay in the Corps. When the day of the test came, he was ready. He had increased his endurance with a routine that included a two-mile run wearing a field marching pack, a weight-lifting program, and a one-mile open-ocean swim. His first test was the fireman’s carry; he was required to run the full length of a football field, pick up a 170-pound volunteer who was lying flat on the ground and wearing a 40-pound field transport pack, and after lifting him onto his shoulders, run back to the starting point. Next, came the 20-foot rope climb, which didn’t prove difficult. The next event required Hamblen to run and jump across an open 8-foot ditch. The final event was a three-mile run wearing utilities and combat boots and carrying a marching pack, in 36 minutes.
‘I went to the starting line,’ Hamblen recalled, ‘and once the command ‘Go’ was sounded I set off, to the cheers and whistles of the Marines who had come to watch this one-legged Marine run for his life. I managed to finish the run with two minutes to spare and with a lot of encouragement from those cheering Marines. After the Marines who had witnessed the test walked away, I sat down and removed my artificial leg and poured out a cup of blood that had collected in the leg’s cup as a result of scar tissue splitting open during the run.’
Hamblen’s test results were forwarded to Marine Corps Headquarters, and he received a letter from the Marine Corps’ inspector general, informing him the commandant had been briefed on his case and recommended him as ‘fit for full duty.’ It was up to Hamblen to decide if he wanted to remain in the Corps, and if so, to inform his commanding general of his decision.
Hamblen’s next visit to General Nickerson’s office was even shorter than his previous one. The general asked, ‘Staff Sergeant Hamblen, all I need to know is what you have decided to do. Are you in, or are you out?’ Hamblen replied, ‘Sir, I want to stay in the Marine Corps, and that is all I have wanted to do since the day I joined.’
The division’s regulations on parachute operations required that any Marine injured in a jump could only resume jumping by first making a parachute jump with a body of water designated as the drop zone. On September 11, 1963, Hamblen and 10 other Marines took off in a Sikorsky CH-37 helicopter and made a static-line jump into Lake O’Neil from an altitude of 1,400 feet. ‘A little less than one year had passed since I had exited an aircraft,’ said Hamblen, ‘but with the help of a great many people–doctors, nurses, Marines, and some people whom I never knew but who sent cards and letters of encouragement–I was able to do what most people thought either foolhardy or impossible. To me it was neither. I knew that I had lost only a part of my body, but I had learned enough during my 13 years in the Corps to know that no goal was impossible to reach if you put your mind to it. By making that parachute jump into Lake O’Neil, I thought that I could clear the field of those narrow-minded skeptics who believe that handicapped people are something less than whole.’
Hamblen completed his requalification jump without incident and was again placed on jump-qualified status. During the following months, Hamblen participated in operations in Washington state, in the Philippine Islands, and at El Centro, Calif. One morning in late April 1964, Hamblen was handed orders to Washington, D.C., where he would be the honored guest of President Lyndon B. Johnson and attend his annual meeting with the Committee on Employment of the Handicapped. Hamblen traveled around the capital and met with Senators Edmund S. Muskie and Margaret Chase Smith, from his home state of Maine.
He surprised Senator Smith by reminding her they had met once before. ‘Senator Muskie and I had been talking for a few minutes when we were joined by the country’s first woman senator, Margaret Chase Smith,’ Hamblen recalled. ‘She was a very gracious and charming lady, and I’m sure that I really caught her by surprise when I said that this was not the first time that the two of us had met. I could tell by the quizzical look on her face that she was preoccupied in trying to remember when she had last been in the company of a one-legged Marine staff sergeant. I let her off the hook, explaining that her niece, Ann Saint-Ledger, and I had attended elementary school together in Winthrop, Maine.’
Hamblen’s trip to Washington included a visit to Marine Corps Headquarters, where he met the sergeant major of the Marine Corps, Sgt. Maj. Thomas McHugh, and the 23rd Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Wallace M. Green.
The next day Hamblen attended a banquet and met one of the legendary figures of the Marine Corps, General Graves B. Erskine, then the chief administrator of the president’s Retraining and Re-employment Administration. At 47, Erskine was known as one of the youngest and toughest generals in the Corps; during World War II, he had commanded the 3rd Marine Division in the Battle of Iwo Jima.
It was while standing with General Erskine that Hamblen was introduced to President Johnson. ‘The president shook my hand,’ Hamblen recalled, ‘and smiling the broadest of smiles, said, ‘Well young man, it’s so nice to see you here. Ya’ know the U.S. Marines are always welcome in this town, and I hope that you’re enjoying yourself as my guest.” Hamblen assured the president that he was in good hands with General Erskine and listened as the president addressed the 1,000 people who had come to the banquet.
After returning to Camp Pendleton, Hamblen was sent to the division’s intelligence (G-2) section to study reports that detailed the Marine Corps’ advisory role in operations being conducted by the Military Assistance Command Vietnam’s Studies and Observation Group (MACV-SOG), which was requesting replacement volunteers for a tour with the Naval Advisory Detachment in Vietnam. Marines from 1st Force had been used as military advisers in Vietnam since early 1964, and their classified reports, which came into the division’s message center, painted a clear picture of the hazardous duty being performed.
Hamblen returned to the CO’s office and told him he didn’t think duty in Vietnam could be any more demanding than it was at Camp Pendleton. He volunteered for SOG duty and was assigned to an advisory team. Besides Hamblen it consisted of 1st Lt. Jerome Paull, Corporal Gene Graffenstein and Sergeant Johann Haferkamp. After attending Vietnamese language school, the group loaded their gear into a Navy aircraft and arrived in Saigon several days later.
Following briefings, they were outfitted with khaki uniforms and armed with sanitized weapons (foreign weapons not readily identifiable as belonging to Americans). Hamblen flew north to Da Nang to meet with the members of his SOG team, code-named Romulus. The team’s primary mission was to conduct nighttime prisoner snatches of North Vietnamese officers, village or hamlet chiefs and other key political figures known to be living in the coastal villages that dotted the North Vietnamese coastline. The method for conducting these raids was unique. With the assistance of the South Vietnamese navy, the team was taken north aboard a patrol torpedo boat (PT-boat) to a target area; then, using inflatable rubber boats powered by silent-running motors, the men would execute their plan, return to their hidden boats, and rendezvous with their PT-boat for a fast trip back to Da Nang.
Six of the 37 men who made up Team Romulus had been born in the Da Nang area, one was a native of Cambodia, and the 30 remaining team members had come to South Vietnam from villages along the North Vietnamese coast. Discouraged by Communist rule in the North, they had fled south and joined the South Vietnamese marines, hoping to later return home to live in a unified democratic country. Their backgrounds were what made the members of Team Romulus so valuable as an intelligence gathering force; these men knew the land, people, dialects and coastal waterways better than anyone else. Their dedication was underscored by the tattoo team members wore inscribed above their hearts–the phrase ‘Sat Cong’ (kill the Viet Cong).
Dressed in the traditional pajamas of the VC, and armed with silenced weapons, Hamblen and his advisory team participated in more than 80 SOG missions during the 30 consecutive months that he served in Vietnam. While the normal length of tour had been six months, the short duration had caused problems; the Vietnamese had little regard for American advisers who were not as committed as they were in the war against the Viet Cong and soldiers of the North Vietnamese Army.
In October 1966, General Nickerson reassumed command of the 1st Marine Division, which he had first commanded four years earlier, and his presence in the tactical area of responsibility again made a difference in Hamblen’s life. Three months earlier Hamblen had been promoted to gunnery sergeant, and in November he received orders to leave Vietnam for further assignment. For Hamblen, who had extended his stay twice before, there was no place he wanted to be more than in Vietnam with his SOG team.
In hopes of getting his orders modified, Hamblen went to General Nickerson and explained his situation. The general said: ‘It seems to me that every time you and I get together, I learn something new and you get what you came for. I was briefed on your request before you arrived, and I’ll tell you this: As long as I’m here in Vietnam, you’ll be here, too, but now I want to ask a favor of you. Gunnery Hamblen, I want your help, and I’m asking that you come with me when I make those hospital visits. Your presence and your example of having overcome your injuries would be powerful medicine for those men.’
Hamblen did accompany General Nickerson on his visits to the military hospital and to USS Repose, a U.S. Navy hospital ship. It was on one visit to Repose that Hamblen was asked to visit with a wounded Marine sergeant who was in the intensive care section. Alerted to the sergeant’s condition–he had lost both legs, his right arm and both eyes in an enemy mine ambush–Hamblen entered the darkened compartment only to discover that the two of them had been left alone. ‘I had been told that the last of a person’s senses to go was hearing,’ said Hamblen, ‘and fearing that this Marine would hear me cursing my own stupidity in having promised that I would come and visit with the seriously wounded, I kept my mouth shut and thought about what I could say to him. He must have felt my presence in the room, because when I moved, he turned his bandaged head in my direction, and when he did that I spoke to him. I told him who I was and that I had come to let him know that he would be okay. My words came quickly, and I realized they were meaningless. He and I both knew that he was in very bad shape, and I decided at that moment not to continue to insult his intelligence by telling him that he would be okay. I think that if he had been able to ask me to kill him, I would have done it. I would not have wished this Marine’s misery on another living person.’
In March 1966, Hamblen was wounded in a firefight when a piece of shrapnel hit him beneath his right armpit and entered his chest. Although the wound required only minor surgery to remove the shrapnel, it served as a reminder of how easy it was to get hit.
In March 1967, Hamblen accompanied 11 members of Team Romulus on a mission into North Vietnam to kidnap an officer reported to be living in a coastal village. After traveling more than 70 miles north of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) by boat, the team went ashore to execute their mission armed with silenced Swedish-K submachine guns and carrying rucksacks of timed explosives. They moved inland, and the snatch team was soon involved in a firefight. As the entire team tried to make its way back toward the boats, Hamblen was struck in the left arm by a .32-caliber bullet. Three of the 12 team members were wounded seriously enough to require hospitalization.
General Nickerson heard about Hamblen’s wound at the same time that two newspaper reporters arrived in Da Nang wanting to do a follow-up story on the one-legged Marine who was leading a SOG team. This led to another meeting between Hamblen and the general. The general told Hamblen that the SOG operation could be compromised by the publicity. He added that having now been wounded four times, Hamblen should think about going home.
‘To make matters worse,’ said General Nickerson, ‘if you should get yourself killed on a mission north of the DMZ, there will be real hell to pay. The American public will think that the Marine Corps has been forced to scrape the bottom of the barrel and has allowed amputees to do its fighting, and that would not look good for our Corps.’
General Nickerson told Hamblen that he could select any Marine Corps post or station for his next duty assignment. Hamblen left Da Nang in November 1967 for Camp Pendleton, where he served as the operations and training chief for 5th Force Reconnaissance Company. Hamblen stayed with 5th Force until May 1968, when he was assigned to a joint tour at McDill Air Force Base, outside of St. Petersburg, Fla. The Operations Division (J-3) of the Strike Command had requested his services as they prepared plans for joint airborne operations in the United States, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East and Korea.
In 1969 Hamblen was promoted to first sergeant and left McDill to once again serve with 5th Force Reconnaissance Company, this time as the company’s first sergeant. He retired from the Marine Corps on March 1, 1970, and felt honored in having been allowed to ‘wear the Greens’ for more than 20 years of dedicated service.
The article was written by ‘Doc’ Norton and originally published in the June 1996 issue of Vietnam Magazine.
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