S1c George Winston Hammerud,

Unknown Sailor

S1c George Winston Hammerud

George Winston Hammerud and his kid brother, Gordon, were wrestlers and boxers in Valley City, North Dakota. In 1935 they were good enough to make it to the state Golden Gloves tournament.

Winston, as he was known, had also been a pole vaulter and ice hockey player in high school. He left their small town — population 5,900 —  to learn the radio business in Denver and Missoula, Montana.  By the spring of 1940, he was a radio announcer in Seattle.

Born Dec. 2, 1914, he enlisted in the Navy in October 1940. Gordon, who was nearly three years younger, joined in February 1941.

Aboard the U.S.S. Arizona, Winston wrote to their parents —  George, a veterinarian, and Rachel, a homemaker — in June 1941, while the ship was briefly visiting its home port at San Pedro, California.

“Last night I was on duty when I heard the word passed to report to the quarterdeck to receive a visitor. I couldn’t imagine who it was. I went right down, and there was Gordon. I was never so glad to see anyone in my life.”

He concluded his long hand-written letter with this: “From your letters you seem quite nervous. Please, both of you, don’t believe all your hear and read in the papers, and maybe you won’t worry so much. Love to all, Win.”

George Winston Hammerud was killed less than six months later in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Gordon served in the Navy for nearly the entire war.

Afterward, Gordon named his oldest child Gordon Winston Hammerud. He grew up to attend the Air Force Academy and to serve during the Vietnam War. He also inherited several of his uncle’s newsy letters home.

In one, a month after the June 1941 visit to California, Winston again wrote about how good it had been to see his brother. 

“I think one of the happiest days of my life was when we saw the U.S. come into view after nearly six months away, and one of the most miserable the day we left. When I say that, I’m speaking for nearly every boy in the fleet.

“The day we are scheduled to arrive in L.B. (Long Beach) nearly every one who rates liberty roams around the decks for hours in dress blues, from the time land is first sighted. All trying to make the first liberty boat. I understand now why civilians say sailors are wild and rowdy. One has to be one I guess to understand them. Actually they’re no worse than other boys but the cramped living quarters, days away from land and so many restrictions on their activities aboard, well, when they hit shore, they have so much steam and energy stored away, they’ve got to blow it off. At heart, you’ll never find a better bunch of boys.”

He did not mention the possibility of war in his next letter, dated Aug. 28, 1941, but his description of the Arizona’s most recent maneuvers made clear the military was stepping up its readiness.

“We fired all our guns last time out,” he wrote. “How I wish you folks could witness that just once. There’s nothing quite like it, so it’s rather hard to describe. When the turrets, they’re the big ones, fire, they literally lift one right off the deck. Their projectiles are 14 inches in diameter and about 5 ft. long. That’s just the projectile. Behind that are 4 powder bags, each weighing over 100 lbs. The projectile placed atop the powder bags make a complete shell over 10 ft. long.  The explosion is terrific. A great sheet of flame and then the explosion. The concussion is so great it would kill a man if he were near it. We on the signal bridge are a hundred or more feet away, but even so, we put cotton in our ears and strain every muscle taught. One must or be shaken to pieces. It’s a wonderful sight tho.”

His last letter home, dated Nov. 2, 1941, said:

“Dear folks:

“I hope you don’t feel I’ve forgotten you when I don’t write too often, but we just got in port Sunday, and I was too tired to do much of anything. I got your letter though and Myrle’s (his sister). Whenever we go to sea for a couple  weeks, it just plays out the entire signal force. It’s a fine division when in port, the best, but at sea it’s a killer. Nobody good for much of any thing for several days after we get in.

“Come to think of it, I don’t believe I ever did tell you much about what we do, so I’ll try to explain it.

“In the first place we are known as the Signal Force, and the division consists of about forty men. Our work is the carrying on of visual communications, and most communications are visual, as they try to use radio as little as possible, as it gives your position away to the enemy. During the day it consists of the use of flags, semaphore as used by the Boy Scouts. We can send and receive messages by that method about 25 words per minute. At night it’s all done by various methods of flashing light, using Morse Code the same as in radio, but it’s not as fast as radio because the eye will not react as quickly as the ear. The hardest thing about it is learning the code, so that when you see a group of flags you unconsciously know what it is. You don’t have time to think and the flashes are too fast to count. It just gets to be second nature.

“The reason we get so tired at sea is that we stand watches, 4 hours on and 4 off, the entire time out, never getting over 4 hours of sleep at one time. No, that’s not right. Every fourth night we can sleep in. The rest of the time it’s 4 on, 4 off day and night. When we get back into port, everyone is ready to bust you on the nose at the slightest provocation. I know things could be arranged better, but try and tell them that.

“We are supposed to be immune to sleepyness or tiredness, I guess. 

“Did you get to hear the World Series? We did out here. NBC sent it over by short wave. It seemed rather funny to listen to a ball game at 7:30 in the morning. It came in clearly most of the time and turned out the way I hoped and expected it would. (Editor’s note: The New York Yankees won.) We also get to hear the major football games Saturdays. The eastern games begin at 8:15 AM and the Pacific coast at 11:30 AM. Saturday’s games are the only real pleasure we get out here. 

“I wrote to Gordon I (will) be up to see him over Thanksgiving, but now I don’t know. It might be Xmas or N. Year’s. We’ve got to get back soon, as most of the fellows ain’t fit to live with any more. Bite your head off every time one speaks to them. I have money enough to get home if we ever get the chance, but I don’t think two weeks is long enough. I better wait till we go to the yards.

“Write soon. Lots of Love, Win.”

The Arizona was supposed to go the Navy yard in Bremerton, Washington in the fall of 1941 for an overhaul, but that was put off after a collision with the Oklahoma while on maneuvers in October. The Arizona stayed at Pearl Harbor for repairs. Many sailors held out hope that they would go to Long Beach, at least briefly, over the holidays. 

Mr. Hammerud did not seem at all sure about when the ship would make it to the West Coast. He was a seaman first class when he was killed 30 days after writing this letter.

There is one more important Hammerud family letter, though, dated 11 p.m. on Dec. 26, 1941. It was written by Gordon Hammerud, then stationed at Tiburon, California, to his parents and sister in North Dakota.

“Your letter came yesterday, mom.

“According to your letter I believe you have taken all this in the best way. Of course none of those boys over there never did any harm to the Japanese individually, as you say. In fact, none of us have. They are trying to harm us, and that is what we are trying to prevent.

“If it weren’t for our Army and Navy the civilian population of our country would have to lose all that they have fought and died for for hundreds of years. There really must be something to it all, don’t you think?

“I’m sure that for all our boys who were lost at Pearl Harbor, I could honestly say for them, that if they had to go, it happened as they would have wanted it, serving their country in the best way they knew how. You must believe, mother and dad, that none of these boys lost their lives, they gave them.

“This whole country is being readily awakened to the fact that these things are happening, but with many people it has to hit home before they realize it. For the sake of our boys, who gave their lives in Pearl Harbor, and the many more yet to go, the people are going to have to be as one, and give, and sacrifice in every possible way, so that this may come to an end as soon as possible.

“If I have to work twenty-four hours a day I don’t mind a bit because that’s all I’ve given. As long as this war lasts I’ll do my best in whatever I’m doing.

“But believe me, family, I’m coming home after this for your sake’s if for nothing else.”

He concluded by describing his new assignment as a truck driver. Previously he’d operated a tugboat. He also encouraged his family to drive to California to visit.

“Love to all of you,” he signed off. “You are the best mother and Dad in the world.”

Gordon died in 1985, almost 45 years after Dec. 7, 1941.

Sources: Special thanks to Gordon Winston Hammerud for sharing these letters home from his father and uncle. Other sources include: the Valley City (North Dakota) Times Record; the Bismarck (North Dakota) Tribune; 1932 Valley City High School yearbook; Census; Navy muster rolls; Veterans Administration death file. This profile was researched and written on behalf of the U.S.S. Arizona Mall Memorial at the University of Arizona.
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