A Bronze Star, 68 years after World War II
U.S. Army veteran Merle “Jack” Hammersley, 90, fought in World War II from Omaha Beach, through the Battle of the Bulge and to the end in Germany. He drove a Jeep carrying guns and ammunition on the front lines as the 134th Infantry Regiment of the 35th Infantry Division battled its way across Europe.
On Friday afternoon, he stood in front the 30th Brigade Special Troops Battalion of the North Carolina National Guard and said he was reminded of those he served with nearly 70 years ago. Hammersley was the honoree at a ceremony at Durham County Stadium to award him the Bronze Star Medal. He had already received a Combat Infantryman Badge for his WWII service, which qualified him for the medal, presented to him by U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) and Brig. Gen. James Ernst.
Maj. Larry Coleman, commander of the National Guard brigade, said that Hammersley embodies the ideal American fighting man. “Jack’s story is America’s story,” Coleman said, describing Hammersley’s service in WWII, return home to work and a long marriage.
Hagan said Hammersley represents the very best of our country and called him brave and selfless.
“You make North Carolina strong, and I want you to know we will never forget your service and your sacrifice,” Hagan said.
After receiving the medal, Hammersley saluted the members of the Guard and thanked them for their service.
A day earlier, Hammersley sat in the living room of his Durham County home and talked about World War II. The fighting toward the end of the war was the worst, he said, when rather than guns and ammunition, his Jeep was used to transport bodies.
“We had to pick up all the dead people,” Hammersley said. “The snow was three-feet deep. After it was over, we had to pick up our dead friends, take them back, and figure out who they were.”
Hammersley lifted his dog tags from his chest. “I wear them all the time,” he said.
He turned the pages in a history book about the 134th during World War II, pausing on the black and white photographs of his fellow infantrymen. His cane rested against his chair. He got to the page showing the rubble of St. Lo, France.
“I’m not going to tell you about the bad parts because I can’t stand it, not even to think about it,” Hammersley said.
The book gave a timeline of the 134th Infantry from its landing on Omaha Beach a month after D-Day, and then on to many other battlegrounds, including Mortain, Nancy, the Battle of Ardennes, Ruhr Pocket and the Elbe River. One time he ran into two of his buddies from home. “Where have you been?” they asked. “Same place you’ve been. Running for my life,” Hammersley told them.
After he came home from the war, Hammersley saw nary a one of the men he fought alongside, he said. He went right to work and spent his career in automobile mechanics, working at Carpenter Chevrolet and eventually owning his own auto shop in Durham. But the first thing he did when he came home was to propose to and marry Sarah Pendergraft, the Durham woman he met while training at Camp Butner. She was a med tech in the Women’s Army Corps during the war and was stationed in Georgia, where Jack Hammersley quickly drove. They returned to Ohio, married, and after a few years settled in Durham and had two children. She spent her career as a nurse and died in 2005. It doesn’t seem like they were married 60 years, Hammersley said, and it doesn’t seem like he’s 90 years old. His brothers, who also fought in WWII, have since died, but a sister, 98, still lives in Ohio. He mentioned them during the ceremony Friday.
Hammersley told those gathered that on the side of the Jeep he drove during the war were these words: “Prayer changes things.”
“I was willing to give my life,” he said.