b. 31/05/1920 Daggett, Michigan. d. 17/02/1945 Pearl Harbour, Hawaii.
DATE OF MOH ACTION: 17/02/1945 Pearl Harbour, Hawaii.
Hammerberg was born May 31, 1920, and grew up on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. His family moved around and landed in Flint during Hammerberg’s teen years. He dropped out of high school, hitchhiked west and worked on a ranch before joining the Navy on July 16, 1941, when he was 21. After basic training, Hammerberg was assigned to the USS Idaho and USS Advent. While on the Advent, Hammerberg became known for an incident in which he dove into the water to free a cable that had been tangled in a mine. It could have caused an explosion, but Hammerberg’s actions prevented that.
After his heroics in the water, Hammerberg went to Navy dive school. He completed the training and was assigned to Pacific Fleet Salvage Force, Mobile Diving Salvage Unit 1 in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
Hammerberg earned the Medal of Honor for his actions on Feb. 17, 1945, but before we get to that, it’s important to mention what led to it — an incident known as the West Loch Disaster. Pearl Harbor’s West Loch was an area that had been spared from damage during the Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese attacks. In May 1944, several ships were moored there, all of which were loaded with ammunition and fuel for an upcoming mission in the Pacific. On May 21, one of those ships mysteriously blew up, causing a chain-reaction explosion that set several other ships on fire. The Navy was forced to sink several of them so they didn’t put more nearby ships in danger.
The following February, the Navy called in five dive teams to raise the hulks and clear the channel. Hammerberg and his team were able to raise their assigned ship without any issues, but another team didn’t have that luck. As the two divers tunneled under a ship that had sunk in 40 feet of water and 20 feet of mud, they got trapped in steel and cables. Attempts by other divers to reach them made the waters even muddier, so even a special diving team wouldn’t risk the mission. A call for volunteer divers went out, and Hammerberg responded. He pushed his way into the black, muddy waters to find the stranded men, despite serious concerns about cave-ins and jagged pieces of debris tearing his lifeline.
Working in complete darkness, it took Hammerberg five hours to find and free George Fuller, the first of the trapped men. “Fuller, who had been pinned by a steel plate, shook Hammerberg’s hand underwater before heading to the surface for safety,” congressional records state.
Hammerberg was tired from the effort, but he continued to push his way through the buried wreckage to find the second diver, Earl Brown, whom he located about 18 hours after the rescue mission began. At the same time, though, a cave-in occurred, causing a heavy piece of steel to pin Hammerberg on top of Brown. Hammerberg was crushed to death, but Brown survived because he was protected by Hammerberg’s body.
Two days later, a Filipino father-and-son dive team rescued Brown from the murky depths and recovered Hammerberg’s body.
For giving his life to save another, Hammerberg received the Medal of Honor. His parents accepted it on his behalf the same month he died. The 23-year-old was buried in Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Southfield, Michigan. The young diver has not been forgotten. In 1954, the Navy named a destroyer escort, the USS Hammerberg, in his honor. It was christened by his mother. Around the same time, Hammerberg Road was dedicated in Flint, Michigan, and a Detroit park was named for him.
In 2005, a large monument was dedicated for Hammerberg near Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 5966 in Menominee, Michigan. The Medal of Honor recipient’s medals and uniform are also on display at the Michigan Heroes Museum in Frankenmuth, Michigan.
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as a diver engaged in rescue operations at West Loch, Pearl Harbor, 17 February 1945. Aware of the danger when two fellow divers were hopelessly trapped in a cave-in of steel wreckage while tunneling with jet nozzles under an LST sunk in 40 feet of water and 20 feet of mud, Hammerberg unhesitatingly went overboard in a valiant attempt to effect their rescue despite the certain hazard of additional cave-ins and the risk of fouling his lifeline on jagged pieces of steel imbedded in the shifting mud. Washing a passage through the original excavation, he reached the first of the trapped men, freed him from the wreckage, and, working desperately in pitch-black darkness, finally effected his release from fouled lines, thereby enabling him to reach the surface. Wearied but undaunted after several hours of arduous labor, Hammerberg resolved to continue his struggle to wash through the oozing submarine, subterranean mud in a determined effort to save the second diver. Venturing still farther under the buried hulk, he held tenaciously to his purpose, reaching a place immediately above the other man just as another cave-in occurred and a heavy piece of steel pinned him crosswise over his shipmate in a position which protected the man beneath from further injury while placing the full brunt of terrific presure on himself. Although he succumbed in agony 18 hours after he had gone to the aid of his fellow divers, Hammerberg, by his cool judgment, unfaltering professional skill, and consistent disregard of all personal danger in the face of tremendous odds, had contributed effectively to the saving of his two comrades. His heroic spirit of self-sacrifice throughout enhanced and sustained the highest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life in the service of his country.
BURIAL LOCATION: HOLY SEPULCHRE CATHOLIC CEMETERY, SOUTHFIELD, MICHIGAN.
SECTION 4, LOT 145, GRAVE 4.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: MICHIGAN HEROES MUSEUM, FRANKENMUTH, MICHIGAN.