When Jack and Sarah met in Durham in 1944

Sep. 14, 2013 @ 03:23 PM

Picture it: Durham in 1944, during World War II. Soldiers in training at Camp Butner often came downtown, including a young man named Merle “Jack” Hammersley. You may have read my story in Saturday’s newspaper about him receiving his Bronze Star in a ceremony Friday. But there’s another great story, too -- a love story.
Sarah Pendergraft and Jack Hammersley met in Durham and were married for 60 years, until she passed away in 2005. He speaks of her the way every wife should be spoken of – with love and devotion.
I’m going to describe them as Sarah and Jack, so you can imagine two young people getting together in a time of world tumult. I’m using information shared by Jack and their daughter, Jacqueline Hammersley.
So one day in 1944, Jack was walking through Woolworth’s in downtown Durham, just for something to do. A few other soldiers were bothering a group of young women. He told the women he’d distract and get rid of the guys, and he did. Several weeks later, Jack was back downtown and saw the women again, who invited him to a home-cooked dinner to thank him for his earlier chivalry. When Jack came to dinner, there was a woman he hadn’t met before – Sarah.
During their courtship, they spent a lot of time sitting on her mother’s couch and talking. When Jack went to New York before shipping out, he sent an engagement ring. Sarah considered his proposal and went to meet his large family. Jack was one of 16 children. She gave the ring to Jack’s mother. His mother told him, and Jack said not to worry about it. He wasn’t giving up. When he came back from the war in September 1945, he called Sarah. They had written letters to each other during the war, and by this time she had joined the Women’s Army Corps and was stationed in Rome, Ga.
“Want to get married?” he asked on the phone. She said yes this time, and by dinnertime the next day, he was in Georgia. They spent a week there and then went back up to Dayton, Ohio, where Jack’s father, a minister, married them. Sarah wore her Army uniform. They eventually settled down in Sarah’s hometown of Durham. He spent his career in automobiles, and she as a nurse at Watts Hospital and then Durham Regional Hospital. They raised a son, who died at age 45, and a daughter.
Jack said he and Sarah never had an argument, and when he tells that to other people, they say he’s lying or incredibly lucky. He doesn’t lie, he said.
Jack and Sarah might not be the only love story that started with a soldier from Camp Butner coming to downtown Durham, but it’s surely one of the best.
Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan may be reached at dvaughan@heraldsun.com or 919-419-6563.