A portrait of Quincy, Ill., soldier Lester Hammond Jr. is seen March 13 behind the Medal of Honor he was awarded on display at the All Wars Museum at the Illinois Veterans Home in Quincy. Hammond, an Army corporal who would have been 82 this month, sacrificed his life in the midst of the Korean War to save the remaining members of his patrol who were being overrun by hundreds of Chinese communists in North Korea in August 1952. (Phil Carlson / The Quincy Herald-Whig via AP)
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QUINCY, Ill. — The late Lester Hammond Jr. is a forgotten hero of the conflict that history has labeled the Forgotten War.
Hammond, an Army corporal who would have been 82 this month, is the only Medal of Honor recipient from the Quincy, Ill., area. He sacrificed his life in the midst of the Korean War to save the remaining members of his patrol, who were being overrun by hundreds of Chinese communists on a barren, faraway hill in North Korea in August 1952.
Already wounded twice and separated from the rest of his men, Hammond called in artillery support to protect the rest of the patrol — knowing that such a response would take his own life.
Hammond was 21 when he died.
Maj. Walter J. Klepsis was the officer who received Hammond’s transmission requesting the strike on Aug. 14, 1952. Hammond said he realized what he was asking.
“I wish ... every American could have listened in to hear how a brave man dies,” Klepsis wrote in a report describing the incident in a remote area of North Korea called Kumwha Valley.
The report provides great detail on an event that will never be found in textbooks or talked about by anyone not associated with the incident.
“I have never witnessed such a series of incredible events as I did on Aug. 14, 1952,” Klepsis wrote. “The most heroic and, for me, heart-rendering were the actions of Cpl. Hammond ... willing to give up his life for the rest of his patrol members. He did this with deliberate forethought that he would die.”
To this day, those words are difficult to read for Brad Richmiller of Quincy, a nephew of Hammond’s. In recent years, Richmiller has been looking into the life of his uncle, a man he never knew much about until he began examining old clippings, pictures and various family artifacts tied to Hammond and the Korean War.
Richmiller was 1 when Hammond died in Korea.
“We were never able to celebrate our uncle like we could have. We didn’t get the chance to really appreciate Lester like we should have,” Richmiller said. “My mom and grandma never talked about (Lester’s death).”
Richmiller said other members of his family also served in the armed forces through the years. He felt that older family members might have dealt with the effects war had on them by removing themselves from the memories as much as possible, and that included not discussing what happened to his uncle.
Richmiller recently started to wade through many of the keepsakes tied to Hammond placed in an old suitcase belonging to his mother, Twila Schultheis, who is Hammond’s sister. Schultheis is 83 and lives in Quincy.
“Now that I’m older, I have a greater appreciation of Lester,” Richmiller said. “I’ve been able to live a life that he ... could not. I appreciate what he did more than when I did when I was 25.
“Everyone who serves is a hero, but someone who gives his life ... is above and beyond.”
Hammond, a Quincy High School graduate whose family had roots in Northeast Missouri, was a corporal in the Army. He served as a radio officer in Company A of the 187th Airborne Regimental Combat team.
“What Lester Hammond did was beyond the call of duty,” Bob Craig said.
Craig is a Vietnam veteran and the curator of the All Wars Museum on the campus of the Illinois Veterans Home in Quincy. The museum boasts a huge mural of Hammond finished in 1998 by Craig, an accomplished artist. A display is dedicated to Hammond, at the heart of which is his Medal of Honor, encased and protected by an alarm system.
The Medal of Honor has been on display at the Veterans Home since 1979.
Craig, who has done extensive research himself on Hammond, said members of Hammond’s combat team — which was known as the “Rakkasans” — have visited the museum over the years.
“They talked a lot about Lester,” he said.
The emotion attached to the incident in Korea often filters through Craig’s voice when he talks of Hammond and his courage.
“Over time, some of Lester’s story has been lost,” Craig said. “Those who remember are the veterans and the families.”
Hammond’s body was moved from Greenmount Cemetery on Memorial Day 1983 and given a formal military burial in Sunset Cemetery on the grounds of the Illinois Veterans Home.
“(Hammond) gave his own precious life so his comrades could live,” Maj. Robert Dunlap, another Medal of Honor winner, said in a Herald-Whig account of the ceremony. “When his country called upon him, he left his loved ones and did more than he had to. He went above and beyond the call of duty.”
Other tributes were made that day, too.
“May we, the living, have the courage to live with what Cpl. Lester Hammond displayed in death,” Col. William Weber said.
Weber was president of the 187th Regimental Combat Team Association, the team Hammond was a member of in Korea.
Weber brought with him the colors of the 187th, which were dipped above Hammond’s grave on that day in 1983. That was the first time the team’s flag had been used to honor a soldier.
Weber also presented a plaque to family members in attendance that said Hammond “rests in honored glory.”
Few if any outside Hammond’s immediate family know that ballparks are named after him in South Korea and Japan. A housing project and recreational center are named for him in Fort Campbell, Ky.
Wayne Johnson was Adams County’s coroner when Hammond’s body was taken from Greenmount Cemetery to the Illinois Veterans Home. He assisted when Hammond’s casket was removed at Greenmount.
“He never got the honor the people of Quincy should have bestowed on him,” Johnson said at the time.
Craig hopes there comes a day when the area Hammond called home acknowledges him for the hero he is.
“People need to understand the scope of what Lester Hammond did,” Craig said.