One Fewer of the Greatest American Generation

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“They answered the call to save the world from the two most powerful and ruthless military machines ever assembled, instruments of conquest in the hands of fascist maniacs. They faced great odds and a late start, but they did not protest. They succeeded on every front … As they now reach the twilight

James “Bob” Alexander Hammons – February 8, 1922 – April 27, 2014

of their adventurous and productive lives, they remain, for the most part, exceptionally modest … In a deep sense they didn’t think that what they were doing was that special, because everyone else was doing it too.”

— Tom Brokaw, The Greatest Generation

World War Two veterans are dying now at the rate of over 600 per day with less than 9 percent of those that served still alive today.  One of these great men, James “Bob” Hammons, crossed the dark river on April 27th, 2014.

His obituary in the Winston-Salem Journal reads

Mr. James “Bob” Alexander Hammons, 92, passed away Sunday, April 27, 2014 at the Kate B. Reynolds Hospice Home. He was born February 8, 1922 in Forsyth County to the late Pierce and Amanda Hunter Hammons. Mr. Hammons was a veteran of the U.S. Army serving during WWII and fought at the Battle at the Bulge receiving the Bronze Star. He was a fireman with the Winston-Salem Fire Department for 15 years and later joined the Winston-Salem Police Department as Officer Friendly now known as the D.A.R.E Program. Mr. Hammons enjoyed watching the Atlanta Braves. He was involved with the youth for Christ and he coached Pop Warner Football for many years. Mr. Hammons was a former longtime member of Calvary Baptist Church and a current member of Center Grove Baptist Church. Throughout his life he was a humble man maintaining a sweet and simple demeanor that won the trust and hearts of many, who even now are being changed by his witness of constant nurturing, love and faith. His signature gift of joy shown through his constant smiling, are the love of his country, family, faith, and friends will never be forgotten.

Attending my college graduation, May 1987

I first met Bob when a Freshman at Wake Forest University. My parents had joined a new church in Winston-Salem and Bob, with his wife Helen, also had recently joined and they became good family friends. Bob and Helen never had any children so I think he took a shine to the four George kids. After I transferred to Bob Jones University we continued our friendship as I would visit home and attend church periodically on the weekends (my real motivation was primarily to see my future bride) as well as get-togethers and meals with them during the summers. They attended my college graduation along with my parents, maternal grandparents, siblings and fiancé. We continued to see each other periodically for several years after graduation but with the busyness of life: working 50+ hours a week, having three children and living several hours away, to my own discredit, I somehow lost contact with him. My younger brother Jeremy became a fireman in Winston-Salem so Bob remained a mentor and friend to him to the very end.

Mr. Hammons visiting me while at college with some of my other family members

What I remember most about Bob was his kindness, gentle spirit, soft spoken words and his fierce protection of Helen. He also loved the Lord Jesus Christ and was a faithful example to anyone that ever met him through the testimony of his life. One summer while home from college, living with my parents and working for tuition money – I found a stray dog. It was a small terrier mix that was well trained and with a sweet disposition which promptly took up residence in my bedroom (and on my bed) for several weeks as we diligently tried to find his rightful owner. Several weeks later the Hammons visited for a meal and as a result were introduced to this little dog who promptly became their “child” for many years. I remember visiting their home several months later thinking that this pooch absolutely had it made living with Bob and Helen!

3″ Anti-Tank Gun similar to Bob’s weapon.

My other fascination with Bob was his service in the American Army during the Second World War. He was a Sergeant in the 825th Tank Destroyer Battalion (towed) and was stationed in the cold and snowy Ardennes Forest along the German – Belgian border on December 16, 1944 and ended up at the ‘tip of the spear’ when the Germans launched their last ditch effort to end the war during what is now commonly known as “the Battle of the Bulge”.

Bob wrote a short story of this event, including his short time as a POW during the German attack –

A Night in the Potato Bin
Sgt James A. HAMMONS, A Company, 825th TDB

Location of Stavelot where the 825th Tank Destroyer Battalion was defending the bridge across the Ambleve River. Americans defensive positions in blue and the German attack in red.

In December, 1944, we were singing Bing Crosby’s “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” thinking the war was just about over. But December 16th it was a different tune as we were moving under cover of darkness over mountainous terrain to plug a hole in the line at Stavelot, Belgium. We arrived there at 0400 hours and suddenly, hearing tanks being revved-up on the other side of the hill, Lieutenant Jack Doherty, our platoon commander, ordered two units to proceed across a bridge, up a hill to investigate. Sergeant Armstrong’s unit was first up the hill and we followed, with Sergeant Jonas Whaley in charge. We paused momentarily to check a soldier in a jeep that had been shot but he was dead and we continued up the hill.

Ambleve River Bridge at Stavelot in 1944.

Ambleve River Bridge at Stavelot, Belgium in 1944.

In just a few minutes as we reached the top, a flare went up from a trip wire and the Germans opened up with fire power. Our town troops back across the river began to shoot and we were caught in the cross-fire. We tried to retreat but the Germans had pulled a tank or an ’88 in a curve and began to shoot, hitting Sergeant Armstrong’s unit, setting it on fire. We were behind them and trapped so we had to leave our unit for cover. I was handed a 30 caliber M.G. from the pedestal mount and four of us took shelter inside a tin shed. Momentarily, the German infantry came in droves and we ran into a house and upstairs by a window. The only weapon we had was the machine gun and a carbine with the barrel filled with mud. Naturally, we had to hold our fire as we were out-numbered by the Germans. We watched as they used a burp gun to kill Sergeant Armstrong and part of his crew, trying to get out of the burning unit.

The 825th TDB was a towed unit so more than likely M3 Halftracks were the prime movers that pulled their anti-tank guns

Realizing there was nothing we could do, we retreated to the basement where there was a potato bin and got inside. Later a German soldier came down and took a position just outside the open potato bin, and we waited for him to toss in a hand grenade or shoot us with his burp gun but evidently they wanted to interrogate us. All day long we waited while our own outfit, the 825th Tank Destroyer Battalion, knocked out several Tiger tanks and one Royal. Lieutenant Doherty’s jeep was hit at that time hit at that time and he and his driver Earl Shugart were blown out, but Lieutenant Doherty continued to direct fire against the oncoming German army. In the evening at about 2000 hours, after it had gotten dark, the German soldier went upstairs to eat, I guess, and we took advantage of his absence to escape. We ran down a hill, silhouetted by a burning building, when the Germans opened up with machine gun fire. We managed to get to the river as three mortar rounds landed on the other side of the cold, swift river we tried to cross. We crawled several miles to a dam and skimmed across, finally making it to the 119th Infantry Regiment of the 30th Infantry Division where we were shot at but were quickly identified as GI’s and were taken in and given warm clothing and “K’s.”

American soldiers of th3 289th Infantry Regiment during the Battle of the Bulge

American soldiers of the 289th Infantry Regiment moving to plug the gaps during the Battle of the Bulge

Next morning the four of us, Willie Banes, Leonard Walsh, Ike Echorn and myself, were taking two German prisoners back to the C.P. when we met Lieutenant Doherty and Sergeant Wester Lowe looking for us. We were so elated when we saw them, we let the prisoners go, jumped into the jeep and were taken to Malmedy where we were attacked the next morning by the Germans at a road block using captured American vehicles. There were no prisoners taken because we had already heard about the massacre of Americans just outside of Malmedy toward Stavelot.   While in Malmedy we were bombed three days straight by our own planes whose pilots were told the Germans held Malmedy – but they didn’t. Fortunately, we escaped with only vehicles destroyed and no loss of life, but much shaken by that experience.

Captured American soldiers massacred on December 17, 1944 at Malmedy, Belgium

Captured American soldiers massacred on December 17, 1944 at Malmedy, Belgium

[Very little has been said about the battles in Stavelot and Malmedy because there was no news media there; however, Company “A” 825th Tank Destroyer Battalion under the leadership of Lieutenant Doherty and Sergeant Lowe, and other army units, delayed and repelled the Germans and a major breakthrough was halted until reinforcements could come. As I look back now, I don’t see how we survived the onslaught and the bitter cold, icy and snowy weather we had to contend with during those historical days of December, 1944. Maybe it was because we were well trained, disciplined and proud young men.]

Now a days we throw the word “hero” around way to much and it is usually misapplied in describing most individuals.  Bob Hammons was the real thing.

All photos public domain unless otherwise noted.