LTC John W. Hammett Sr., known by his family and friends as Bill, born in Shreveport, Louisiana passed away at age 89 on Wednesday, Nov 30, 2011. Bill will be remembered by all as a consummate southern gentleman. His courage, natural mischievousness and legendary sense of adventure and daring defined his demeanor and were readily captured in his childhood nickname “Wild Bill”. Bill Hammett lived large. Yet despite his larger than life escapades, Bill was a kind and gentle man – generous with his affection and quick to extend a hand. He walked through life with equal ease and confidence, finding lifelong friends in every step. He was one of those rare men so comfortable in his own skin that his very presence made everyone around him comfortable too.
At just 17 years old with a signed permission slip from his father in his pocket, Bill traveled to Montreal, Canada to enlist in the Royal Canadian Air Force prior to the U.S. entrance into World War II. Once he qualified to fly Lockheed Hudson Bombers, Hurricanes and Spitfire fighters, Bill flew with the British Royal Air Force in the Battle of Britain over France and was shot down and rescued in the English Channel during the Battle of Dunkirk. From 1940 to 1942, he was credited with shooting down 3 German planes.
After Pearl Harbor in 1942, Bill returned home to serve in the U.S. Army Air Corps flying light aircraft in combat over Africa and Italy. As an artillery spotter, Bill would fly over enemy lines deliberately drawing fire in order to identify and direct return artillery fire on enemy positions.
At the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, his education was interrupted when he was recalled to service attending Instrument Flight School in Kansas; Helicopter School in Texas; and Advanced Helicopter School in Oklahoma. Bill served 18 months in combat in Korea – first with the 25th Infantry Division; then assigned to the MASH in Korea as their Air Officer; and ultimately as Commanding Officer of Korea’s first Helicopter Ambulance Detachment which hauled over 6,000 critically wounded soldiers during the fighting. As a solo pilot, Bill was a member of an elite group of military aviators who brought rotary wing ambulances into a battlefield environment. Known for their courage, commitment and innovation, Bill was among a handful of pioneer aviators who flew solitary missions in primitive helicopters lacking navigational aids and limited to external litter carrying capabilities. Being a solo pilot meant flying at low altitudes over mountainous terrain to land at unlighted, unmarked sites within range of enemy fire. Flying at night was particularly dangerous. Bill flew so many night flights, he was nicknamed Captain Midnight by the MASH crew. It was these repeated aerial missions to evacuate wounded soldiers and downed pilots that earned Bill multiple medals for heroic action in Korea. More importantly, the tactical importance of air ambulances in battlefield emergency medical care would go on to save thousands of American lives over the next 50 years in places like Lebanon, Vietnam, Bosnia Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan thanks to solo pilots – brave, resourceful Army aviators like Bill Hammett.
At the end of the Korean War, Bill trained medical helicopter pilots at Fort Sam Houston; served as a test pilot at Fort Rucker, Alabama; served three years in the Surgeon General’s Office in Washington, D.C.; attended Command General Staff College; and spent three years in Germany as a Command and Staff Officer. Six months after returning from Europe, Bill was sent to Vietnam in 1966. Flying medical helicopter missions and serving as the Operations and Aviation Officer of the only medical brigade in the country, Bill controlled 124 medical units in Vietnam consisting of over 9000 medical troops from Surgical and Evacuation Hospitals to Air and Ground Ambulance units. During this time, he flew more than 25 combat missions in direct support of tactical units under hostile fire. During his long military career, Bill earned the Legion of Merit in Vietnam, Distinguished Flying Cross in Korea, Bronze Stars in both Korea and Italy, as well as numerous other air medals, campaign ribbons, and decorations.
Bill retired in 1973 after 30 years of military service and started another career as Chief of Field Services for the State of Georgia’s Emergency Medical System. Over the next 20 years – using his extensive military medical evacuation experience and knowledge – Bill was recognized for being instrumental in organizing and improving the Georgia Emergency Medical System that exists today.