Staff photo by Tim Barber/ Bill Hammer, 87, stands with his 1941 Chevrolet antique automobile at his Harrison home.

This story was updated at 9:14 a.m. on Saturday, Nov. 9, to correct the location of Central High School in 1950.

Five months shy of his 18th birthday, Bill Hammer signed his mother's signature to enlist in the Marine Corps Reserve in May 1950.

"You had to be 18, so I lied," the 87-year-old said. "I forged my mother's name."

He had just graduated from Central High School in Chattanooga, liked the Marine uniforms and figured the $30 monthly payroll was "good money at a time when everybody was poor."

He gave up on an education his grandfather would have paid for, and in July of that year he shipped off to boot camp in San Diego.

He saw men die there before he even left the country.

Sitting in the commanding recliner of his living room in Harrison, Hammer, a retired telephone man, reached into the past for details. He was surrounded by imagery of the beach his artist daughter, Star, has painted for him.

As he recalled memories, he'd call out to his wife Brenda, who was sitting in the dining room, to confirm.

"Isn't that how it happened, baby?" he yelled.

"Yes, Bill," she called back.

(Read about other local veterans in our "21-Veteran Salute" series here)


Name: Bill Hammer

Age: 87

Branch of military: U.S. Marine Corps

Years of service: 18 months

Hammer was trained to be a forward observer during the Korean War. "That's somebody that goes way out in front and checks where the guns are shooting," he said. "The lifetime of one of those people was about eight days."

When somebody asked if anybody knew how to double-shift a truck, he held up his hand. He learned how while working at a grocery store when he was in high school. He vows that's the reason he's here today.

It was warmer, he said, than the foxholes he dug out and lived in at first. But his feet were still frozen. And since he was working with large guns without earplugs, his hearing waned.

"Back then, young people didn't care. It didn't really bother me then, but it bothers me now that I didn't go to sick bay. They told me not to. They would think I was trying to get out," Hammer explained.

He was in Korea for 18 months. When he got back in 1953, Hammer felt displaced. His friends had moved on with college and getting married. He got a job at Southern Bell, working in construction at first and eventually moving up to a supervisory role in the central office. The company paid for his education at the University of Alabama for a degree in mechanical engineering.

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Staff photo by Tim Barber/ Bill Hammer, 87, sits in his living room at his Harrison home.

When Hammer retired in 1991, a friend offered an all-expense-paid trip to Seoul, South Korea. "I had a chance, but I turned it down," Hammer said. "I had lost a few things over there. I hated it. It took me away from a lot of things."

Before being called to duty, he said his temperament wasn't so bad. He'd always been "a tough rascal," but something about him changed, he said. Brenda chimed in to blame it on being a telephone man, too.

The couple met in the 1990s, reconnecting after Bill's father died. Together, they moved to Florida for a decade. Though they were fans of the beaches and warm weather, they returned to Chattanooga to be close to Brenda's children and Bill's brothers.

In October, the Hammers celebrated Bill's 87th birthday with a trip to Las Vegas, Hoover Dam and the Grand Canyon. He'd never been before, and he's already itching to get back.

Hammer doesn't wear his Marine hats often, he said. He wants people to appreciate him for him, not for his service. But Brenda cuts in that he should be proud. He is proud, he said, but there's a lot more to it, to him.

Hammer doesn't get up to much nowadays. He meets with friends and fixes up go-karts and Mustangs. They live a quiet life now, Hammer said, and he's happy about it.

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