Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan

World War II veteran’s story was ‘America’s story’

World War II veteran Merle “Jack” Hammersley salutes Brig. Gen. James Ernst after Ernst and then U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan. D-N.C., presented him with a belated Bronze Star on Sept. 13, 2013 at Durham County Memorial Stadium.
World War II veteran Merle “Jack” Hammersley salutes Brig. Gen. James Ernst after Ernst and then U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan. D-N.C., presented him with a belated Bronze Star on Sept. 13, 2013 at Durham County Memorial Stadium.

In September 2013, 90-year-old World War II veteran Jack Hammersley dressed in uniform and came to Durham County Memorial Stadium for a ceremony at which he was awarded his long-belated Bronze Star.

The U.S. Army veteran 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. As the war in Europe ground its way through its final winter, his Jeep was used to transport bodies through the snow.

At the ceremony in 2013, Maj. Larry Coleman, commander of the 30th Brigade Special Troops Battalion of the North Carolina National Guard, said Hammersley embodied the ideal American fighting man.

“Jack’s story is America’s story,” Coleman said then.

That same week, I talked with Hammersley at his Durham home about the war and how he met his late wife. He showed me a book with a timeline of the 134th Infantry from its landing on the Normandy, France coast at the code-named Omaha Beach a month after D-Day, and then on to battlegrounds that included Mortain, Nancy, the Ardennes, the Ruhr Pocket and the Elbe River.

One time he ran into two of his buddies from back home in Ohio. “Where have you been?” they asked.

“Same place you’ve been. Running for my life,” Hammersley told them.

After the war, Hammersley married Sarah Pendergraft, whom he met in Durham when he was in training at Camp Butner in 1944. He proposed before he shipped out, but she turned him down. When he came home in 1945, he asked again and she said yes. She wore her Women’s Army Corps uniform for the wedding ceremony. They settled down in her hometown of Durham. He spent his career in automobile repair, working at Carpenter Chevrolet and then his own auto shop.

They were married 60 years, until her death in 2005. They had two children, a boy and a girl. Daughter Jacqueline was the one who shared details about her parents’ love story with me in 2013. Jacqueline was also the one who called and left me a message a few weeks ago.

Jacqueline Hammersley wanted to let me know how much her dad liked the stories of his life I shared in this newspaper. It meant so much to him, she said. She was also calling to let me know that her dad had passed away.

I decided to retell Jack Hammersley’s story to you because his story is indeed “America’s story.” It’s a Durham story, but a universal one, too.

Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan: 919-419-6563, @dawnbvaughan

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