In Memoriam: His Finest Hour
One of the downsides of living to age 95 is that very few of the people who know all the things you did are still around. How many people know that William A. Hamilton, Jr., who left us on June 19, 2002, could play five musical instruments quite well, spoke Spanish as a boy, was a champion tennis player, was an excellent amateur magician, a crack rifle shot, a serious fisherman and a hero of World War II?
Sir Winston Churchill characterized the struggles of the British people in World War II as: “Their Finest Hour.” For William A. Hamilton, Jr., World War II was his “finest hour” as well.
After World War II began and both Europe and Asia were in flames, William Hamilton yearned to join his younger brother who was fighting out in the Pacific. But there were five obstacles in his way.
He was 36-years-old -- well beyond draft age. He was married. He had a child. He was occupying what was called a war-critical job. And, he was classified as 4-F -- physically unfit for active service. Four of these disqualifying factors could, however, be waived at the discretion of the individual. He waived all four.
But when he went to the Navy recruiting office to volunteer for active duty, he had to take a physical. When the physical was over he was told that, due to his sinus problems, he was classified as 4-F.
Bill Hamilton was not about to be 4-F for long. So, at his own expense, he had a surgeon cut open some passages in his sinus cavities. At the time, a very painful operation. But the result was good. And, after healing, he was able to change his physical classification from 4-F to 1-A and join United States Navy as a volunteer.
Because he was a college graduate, the Navy wanted him to enter officer training. But he felt the war would be over before he could graduate. So, he trained as a signalman and joined the fleet almost right away. In all, he served 21 months.
He served 13 months of sea duty on two different Liberty Ships as part of the Navy’s Armed Guard Program. Liberty ships needed to be protected from enemy attacks from the air and by submarine and they needed to be integrated into the Navy-escorted convoys. To do that, the Navy assigned signalmen and gun crews to protect these merchant ships. So, when William Hamilton was not on duty on the bridge making or receiving signals for the ship’s captain, he was the loader on the crew of a 40mm anti-aircraft gun. Off the shores of Iwo Jima and Okinawa, his crew brought down two Mitsubishi bombers.
During these kamikaze attacks, he was almost killed. Not once, but twice. One Japanese aircraft attacked the bridge with 20mm cannons, but he was saved from being killed by a heavy steel bulkhead. On another occasion, a Japanese torpedo plane broke through the anti-aircraft defenses and launched a torpedo that was headed straight for the middle of his ship. But the torpedo tumbled as it hit the water and did not run straight and true. Instead, it dove under the ship and disappeared. Had the torpedo not tumbled, it would have made a direct hit with disastrous consequences.
At war’s end, the Navy asked him to stay on as a commissioned officer. But his heart was at home with his wife and family and the people of Caddo County. So, he came home with a chest full of campaign ribbons and battle stars for his service in the Pacific. Some lesser men tried to avoid the war. But William Hamilton, Jr. overcame five obstacles in order to sail in harm’s way. That truly was his finest hour.
William A. Hamilton III, a nationally syndicated columnist and featured commentator for USA Today, is the proud son of the late William A. Hamilton, Jr.
©2002. William Hamilton.