Col. Bill Hammack meets President Ronald Reagan. While working at the Pentagon, Hammack served on Reagan's inaugural committee. COURTESY PHOTO
Ret. Marine Col. Bill Hammack stands in his Front Royal home during a recent interview. Alan Lehman/Daily
Col. Bill Hammack and Sgt. Maj. Ted McClintock met at Camp Lejeune. McClintock died in Vietnam. COURTESY PHOTO
Daily Staff Writer
Some things stay with you forever.
Retired U.S. Marine Corps Col. Bill Hammack remembers his fear of ground fire when, as a major with a young family, he arrived in South Vietnam at Da Nang for the first time.
"The first time going in you're thinking about the ground fire and everything. It's just a psychological thing," he said.
He remembers that from Da Nang, in the northernmost region of South Vietnam -- the region deemed I Corps -- he went on to Dong Ha.
It was at Dong Ha, Hammack remembers, that he first realized that he was mortal.
"When I arrived in Dong Ha ... I got off the military airplane and there were body bags, I don't know how many, and I'll never forget," he said.
"You want to survive, you want those close to you to survive, but ... you accept your mortality," he said.
Hammack grew up in the Northern Shenandoah Valley and attended Massanutten Military Academy in Woodstock.
"I think I always tended toward the military thing," he said during an interview at his Front Royal home.
Hammack always revered the Marine Corps as the best. In his eyes, the Marines offered the complete package.
After graduating from the College of William and Mary, which he attended on a football scholarship, he started at the Marine Corps Officer Candidate School in September 1957.
At times he's wondered if he would have gone the same route if there hadn't been the pressure of the military draft, but today he thinks he would have done it regardless.
"If it were today, I'd be going to OCS next month, I think," he said.
The school was a yearlong strenuous physical and mental challenge, Hammack said. Instructors strip candidates of everything, he explained, and build them back as Marines.
"You emerge as indestructible, some kind of superman," he said.
Even though Hammack had it in mind to become a Marine, it wasn't until he completed Officer Candidate School that he decided to make a career as one. Even then, he tried the civilian side of life in the Reserve for about a year, and after that, he said, he knew.
In the years that followed he served at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina and in Okinawa, Japan, where he also was a football coach.
When the United States went to war in Vietnam, Hammack was in Charleston, S.C. He volunteered to go.
As a career officer, it was expected.
"That's what it's all about," he said. "I didn't join to see the world, I joined to be a Marine."
Even after four decades have gone by, Hammack can explain the terrain around Camp Carroll, where he was stationed in the I Corps region of South Vietnam, as well as if he was giving directions to his home.
After stopping first in Da Nang and then at Dong Ha, Camp Carroll was where Hammack would spend first a month, then another month, followed by six consecutive months, during 1967 into 1968.
From Camp Carroll, an area called the Rockpile was located to the west. Further on was Khe Sanh, the site of one of the symbolic battles of the Vietnam War, Hammack said.
Mountains were in front of Camp Carroll, he explained, and the Cam Lo River was not far away.
"Vietnam was hot, humid, but it was beautiful," Hammack recalled. "That was the dichotomy of beauty and death."
During his time in Vietnam, Hammack was one of only a few fire support coordinators. His assignment was with the 3rd Marine Regiment. His job was to coordinate gunfire, flights and other operations between all branches -- artillery, air and naval -- to prevent U.S. troops from hurting each other.
"If there's a mistake, you have a .45 to shoot yourself," he said.
Nevertheless, Hammack didn't face as much danger as those in the infantry. He never saw "eyeball-to-eyeball" combat, he said.
Early in his career, Hammack tried to switch into a military occupational specialty that would put him in more of a combat role, but it never worked.
"I really wanted to be an infantry guy," he said.
He doesn't consider himself a hero, either.
"I thank people I was able to serve," he said. "It was more of a privilege for me to serve. It is a privilege to serve, I think."
Hammack, who only retired from the Marine Corps in 1988, has a sharp mind and body.
He exercises two to three hours a day, he said. He has a scrapbook full of photos and documents, highlights of his career, and other pictures and mementos adorn the walls of his Front Royal home.
Still, some things are lost with time.
He cannot remember the exact date he arrived in Vietnam, or the kind of aircraft he was riding on the journey from Dong Ha to Camp Carroll. He does not remember much about the food he ate, other than it most often came in a can.
But other things stick out in his mind.
Whereas others serving in Vietnam might have gone a month without the luxury of a shower, Hammack and others at Camp Carroll had one rigged up. Tugging on a chain brought a much-appreciated stream of cold water.
Work days lasted 18 to 20 hours, and the time for sleep was usually from 2 or 3 a.m. to 6 a.m., he recalled.
And he remembers the day that there was cottage cheese in the mess hall. It wasn't something common in the less-civilized region where Camp Carroll was located, according to Hammack.
"We were out there," he said. "I'll never forget it."
After his deployment to Vietnam ended, Hammack came home to a different kind of danger.
Returning to the states, Hammack's first destination was San Francisco, where anti-war protesters abounded.
"They were everywhere, they hated us," he said. "It was just a bad, bad time.
"I really felt safer in Vietnam than I did in San Francisco. I was afraid to leave my room."
Hammack spent the next several years stationed in Hawaii. It was there, safely away from the rocket fire, that what was happening in Vietnam affected him the most.
About a year after Hammack left Camp Carroll, a dear friend, Sgt. Maj. Ted McClintock, who he first met at Camp Lejeune, was killed in Vietnam.
It was a hard day, Hammack said, and one of the only events from his military career that is emotional and difficult to talk about.
McClintock took Hammack under his wing when they met, and they became very close, Hammack explained.
Before leaving for Vietnam, McClintock visited Hammack in Hawaii -- and even after saying their goodbyes, McClintock showed back up at Hammack's doorstep so they could spend his last evening together, Hammack remembered.
"Maybe he had a feeling," Hammack said, tears in his eyes.
He was unable to attend McClintock's funeral, and for that reason, he said he's never felt closure about the death of his friend.
"I still don't know he's dead."
Hammack went on to serve in many other areas, in many other roles, after his time in Vietnam.
His career, he said, is not defined by his time at war. It might have been more intense, he said, but it was less than a year of a 31-year career as a Marine.
For a time, he was stationed at Marine Corps headquarters in Washington. He served on the inaugural committee of President Reagan -- a president that, he believes, immediately boosted morale and support for the military.
Today Hammack keeps in touch with many of his comrades, and sees support for a military that he believes is stronger, smarter, more dedicated and more fit.
"I think the people who are presently serving are phenomenal," he said. "I never knew we had that kind of people. I'm a colonel, and I'm still in awe of these guys, and they make me proud, and they make me wish I could be that when I grow up," he said with a laugh.
After a full career, though, the loss of his friend McClintock still haunts Hammack.
"I'm going to have to go out there and go to the grave site ... So my career's not over," he said.
NEXT WEEK: A young farm boy sees action in Korea as a National Guardsman.
* Contact Jessica Wiant at firstname.lastname@example.org