Marine celebrates 100th birthday in Meridian

Paula Merritt / The Meridian Star 

Kate Olexa hugs her father, Retired Marine Col. Robert Hammond, prior to his 100th birthday celebration at Aldersgate Retirement Community in Meridian on Friday. 

Every morning, Col. Robert Hammond, 100, raises the United States flag on his small apartment porch at Aldersgate Retirement Community in Meridian. Every night, he takes it down.

It’s not just a patriotic gesture.

Like his framed World War II commission from that “good fella” President Franklin Roosevelt, the photographs of Hammond alongside his Corsair plane and his pictures in uniform, the flag tells a personal story.

Hammond turned 100 Friday, surrounded by fellow Marines, friends and family.

Marine celebrates 100th birthday in Meridian

Submitted photoA young Robert Hammond in his Marine Corps uniform. 

He was born in Utica, Mississippi, in 1919 and has known poverty, war and triumph in the years since.

A farmer’s son, two of his earliest memories spring from the Great Depression.

“During the Depression … God, I was the most embarrassed,” he recalled, laughing. “I was in fourth grade, I guess. My girlfriend was sitting in front of me and the teacher sent me to close the classroom door.”

“I got up to close it, came down and my toes were hanging outside (my shoes). That was just how poor we were during the big Depression.”

To avoid unwanted attention from his young girlfriend, Mildred Carmichael, Hammond padded to the door sideways.

Hard times

Early on, he admired Roosevelt’s initiative in rebooting the economy. Already a poor, rural state, Mississippi’s hardship intensified under the Depression.

“Most of us in this area, we were based on farming,” said Hammond. “(Roosevelt) had to come in and get that going.”

Even in the midst of a broken economy and busted shoes, there were happy times.

“I can remember, when I was a kid, Daddy had a slight farm” he said. “We [got] a regular old light. One day, Daddy said, ‘I’m tired of not being able to see!’ We went to town and for four-dollars-and-a-half bought one of those Aladdin lamps.”

The Depression slowly dwindled. Hammond attended Mississippi State University and graduated in the spring of 1941. One of his courses was Army ROTC, and he finished it with an active duty commission in the Army, soon to be en route to Fort Jackson, S.C.

Marine celebrates 100th birthday in Meridian

Paula Merritt / The Meridian Star 

Retired Marine Col. Robert Hammond waits behind his birthday cake during a celebration of his 100th birthday at Aldersgate Retirement Community Friday. 

That was the plan.

But a special program where one student from Mississippi State was chosen for the Marine Corps changed it, and he became a second lieutenant Marine.

“I said, ‘Well, I don’t know a thing about the Marine Corps, but I’m interested,’” he remembered.

'The war was coming'

He went to Pensacola for a physical, passed and was sent to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania for base school. The country was about to enlist in a global war for the second time.

“The war was coming on and just about everyone knew it,” he said.

No one predicted the Japanese bombing Pearl Harbor, though.

“We were in school. Well, we learned real quick.”

Hammond and his comrades hopped on the heavy cruiser USS Astoria. Two weeks later, a “fresh lieutenant who didn’t know the (ship’s) stem from the stern” was launched headfirst into the decisive Battle of Midway, which put the Japanese on defense in the Pacific War. It was a turning point.

Hammond later gave gun support to on-ground Marines at the Battle of Savo Island, where his cruiser, Astoria—as well as two other US cruisers—was sunk.

“The Quincy, Vincennes and one Australian cruiser went down right away,” said Hammond. “They knew where we were, but we didn’t know where they were.”

He became a pilot the next summer, in July 1943. His longtime companion from then on was a Corsair plane. Models of it and variations dot his apartment today, along with a collection of photographs.

'It was terrible'

As the war came to a close, Hammond spent three months on duty and 11 in combat at Okinawa. The Japanese had lost but would not surrender.

“That was where the Japanese suicide people really got in,” he said. “It was terrible.”

One night on Okinawa, someone in a watch tower called out that Japanese were flying nearby.

“They landed wheels-up and slid along ... and this one fella was in the tower. He was giving a regular football round-up of what was going on. He said, ‘They’ve got 20 people coming out of that plane!’”

They crashed, ran out, took an axe to the plane’s gas tank and set it afire, immolating it and themselves.

 “They told all the Okinawans that we would kill all the civilians there, and they had women jumping off with babies,” said Hammond. “We had nothing to do with that. We didn’t kill anybody that I know of, unless he was in combat. But that was the way it was.”

As a pilot, Hammond shot down three Japanese planes. He also gave “bookoos of air support for the ground, mostly Marines.”

After the war

The war ended while he rested up at Midway, played volleyball and fished. He retired from the military in 1964, worked at the Marine Corps Headquarters in the U.S Capitol for three years, taught at the Naval Academy in Annapolis the same amount of time and served on a number of staffs and other duties at 21 stations.

Travels across the country—from California to Louisiana and everywhere between—let him see the states after he saw the world.

For years his wife, Mary, he and others from Marine Fighter Squadron 224 would reunite at Pensacola. Those reunions remain some of Hammond’s fondest memories.

Today he thinks the main lesson he learned over the course of a century was how to supply himself without depending on others. People offer support once you get there, he said.He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, seven Air Medals, the Purple Heart and various area ribbons.

“I look back, and maybe we should have had more depressions,” he said. “Everyone would get his feet on better.”

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