It takes a lot of courage to make a decision in battle that you know will lead to your death. That’s something Army Cpl. Lester Hammond Jr. did when his unit was ambushed in Korea. He sacrificed his life to save the lives of his fellow soldiers. That uncommon valor earned him the Medal of Honor.
Hammond was born on March 25, 1931, in Wayland, Mo. His parents were Lester and Cora Hammond, and he had an older sister, Twila. At some point, the family moved to Quincy, Ill., where Hammond graduated high school.
Hammond joined the Army in 1948, then reenlisted three years later before being sent to Korea in January 1952 with the 187th Airborne Regimental Combat Team. Paratroopers of the 187th had already made a name for themselves in Korea by participating in the amphibious landings at Inchon and helping to liberate Seoul, an action that made them the only airborne regiment to receive a Navy Presidential Citation.
Within a few months, the 21-year-old Hammond was serving in the area of Kumhwa, Korea, as a radio operator with Company A. On Aug. 14, 1952, he was part of a six-man reconnaissance patrol that had penetrated about two miles into enemy-held territory. Suddenly, they were ambushed and partly surrounded by a much larger enemy force.
Hammond’s team opened fire to try to push the enemy back, but they were overpowered, so they quickly withdrew and tried to find cover in a ditch along a narrow ravine. According to teammate Cpl. William J. Liell, whose story was later told in a May 1953 article in the Kansas City Times, all six of the men were injured. Liell said he tried to help Hammond into the ditch, but he refused.
Instead, Hammond stayed exposed to the enemy so he could watch their movements and call for artillery fire to take them out. He was injured a second time during these airstrikes but managed to inflict heavy casualties on the enemy and kept them away from his fellow soldiers.
Liell and others who were there that day said they believed Hammond was hit by the artillery fire he directed, fully knowing it would end his life. Maj. Walter J. Klepeis was the officer who received Hammond’s transmission requests for airstrikes. When Hammond requested a strike right on his position, Klepeis said the young soldier knew exactly what he was asking for.
“I wish … every American could have listened in to hear how a brave man dies,” Klepeis later wrote in a report detailing the incident.
Thanks to Hammond’s courage and devotion, another platoon was able to reach his beleaguered patrol and evacuate them to friendly lines. His valor also earned him a posthumous Medal of Honor, which was presented to his family on Aug. 5, 1953, by Earl D. Johnson, undersecretary of the Army, during a Pentagon ceremony.
Hammond was initially buried in Greenmount Cemetery in Quincy, but in 1983, he was reinterred in the town’s Sunset Cemetery at the Illinois Veterans Home and given a formal military burial. The cemetery’s Medal of Honor Drive is dedicated to him and other Medal of Honor recipients.
Hammond’s sacrifice has not been forgotten. On the campus of the Illinois Veterans Home is the All Wars Museum, which has a huge mural of Hammond that was completed in 1998. The memorial also includes a display case that holds his Medal of Honor, which the family gave to the museum in 1979.
In 2018, Sycamore Healthcare Center, a nursing home for veterans in Quincy, was revamped and renamed Hammond Hall in his honor. Ballparks in Korea and Japan have also been named for him, as have a housing project and a community center at Fort Campbell, Ky.
Editor’s note: Medal of Honor Monday highlights Medal of Honor recipients who have earned the U.S. military’s highest medal for valor.