It’s been 53 years since Kirby Hammond woke to the sound of machine gun tracers hitting his truck.
It was Veterans Day, 1965. Hammond had arrived with the First Infantry Division in the Republic of Vietnam a month earlier.
The tracers marked the start of the pivotal Battle of Ap Bau Bang. Three units of the First Infantry Division had established a makeshift camp in a peanut patch and rubber tree farm 30 miles north of what was then Saigon.
Three units — infantry, artillery and armored personnel carrier — were on hand to support the Army of the Republic of Vietnam when they came under attack.
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A mortar chief would later speculate that a misunderstanding over cows set the stage for the battle.
A day earlier, American soldiers had fired warning shots near an elderly villager who was driving livestock toward the Americans. One grazed the man.
Medics patched him up and sent him on his way, according to a 2002 account in the magazine Vietnam.
The Americans were outnumbered.
Historicans recall Ap Bau Bang as the first major trial for American armored forces and a successful test for the effectiveness of combined arms in jungle warfare.
For Hammond, it was two harrowing days of combat, confusion and death. The confusing first seconds gave way to a frantic scramble to a nearby foxhole.
Eighteen American soldiers died and 81 were injured. Some were friends Hammond had trained with over the previous year and a half.
The Battle of Ap Bau Bang, he said, was “something you wouldn’t want to be in.”
Now a retired energy executive living in Richland, Hammond, 77, is marking his first Veterans Day as a decorated combat veteran, honored for heroism at Ap Bau Bang.
In October, the Department of Defense informed Hammond it is amending his record to add three citations, including the Valorous Unit Award, the unit equivalent of the Silver Star.
Hammond’s military service began with a draft notice in 1964. A college student in Jackson, Miss., he could have sought a deferral but didn’t.
“I love my country,” he explained.
He reported to Fort Leonard Wood for basic training, then to Fort Sill in Oklahoma for artillery training. From there, he was sent to Fort Riley in Kansas, where he was assigned to the 1st Infantry Division, 33rd Artillery.
The unit knew it was going to Vietnam and spent nine months training. It received Ranger-level instruction in escape and evasion, and logged nine weeks in Florida swamps.
Hammond’s unit deployed to Vietnam on Troop Ship Daniel L. Sullivan. It arrived on Oct. 7, 1965, a little more than a month ahead of the battle.
At 24, Hammond was one of the older soldiers. His buddies called him “Gramps,” an insult tinged with respect.
Hammond grew up on a farm, where he learned to be a capable hunter. Fellow soldiers trusted his instinct for subtle movement and disturbed ground.
“When I got nervous, they got nervous.”
He served four months, eight days in Vietnam.
His discharge came in the form of a kick on his bunk and a flight home. In just 24 hours, he went from soldier to discharged veteran, wandering into the confusing streets of San Francisco.
Hammond received a standard discharge. Re-entry into civilian life was bruising, but in time he got on with his life, married, had children and became an engineer and pilot.
After a divorce, he followed his former wife from California to the Tri-Cities to be close to his children and grandchildren.
Hammond said he had a standard discharge in 1966. His DD 214 only said he went to Vietnam.
An incident several years ago at a local school assembly for veterans cast doubt on whether he’d actually seen combat. Hammond declined to elaborate, saying he doesn’t want to embarrass anyone over a few thoughtless words.
Still, the misunderstanding stung.
Hammond pursued combat commendations, figuring there are more veterans like him, artillery soldiers who weren’t eligible for the Combat Infantryman Badge.
So he appealed to the military to amend his record to reflect his experience and that of other combat veterans who didn’t receive commendations.
“Most of the medals that should have been discharged were not discharged,” he said. “I want people to know there are probably people in the same shape I’m in.”
U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Sunnyside, praised Hammond for drawing attention to ensuring veterans receive the medals and commendations they have earned.
“The official recognition received by Mr. Hammond was long overdue, and I express the gratitude of our community for his honorable service,” Newhouse said in a statement. His office assists veterans who are navigating the process.
Before Hammond deployed, his father asked him to send home photos. He complied, sending home three roles of 36 exposed frames.
His mother was the first to see the pictures. She’d mistakenly expected the kinds of grinning kid photos most soldiers sent home. Hammond’s images were grittier.
The war zone images upset his mother so much that his father discarded all but 12. Those are preserved in an album with Hammond’s letters and later images.
The Valorous Unit Award, a red ribbon bisected by a field of blue, red and white stripes, is given to units that display extraordinary heroism in action against an armed enemy.
Hammond will display it on the vest he wears to veterans event, next to the patch with a golden lion, his unit’s mascot, and the figure “5724.”
That’s how many days elapsed between his discharge — Jan. 27, 1966 — and when he was first thanked for his military service — Sept. 29, 1981.
He has vivid memories of the latter day. He’d flown executives to Northern California for a business meeting, then waited in the small airport’s dining area until the executives were ready to leave.
A man and a woman were talking nearby. The woman asked the man where he was in 1965. “Chicago,” he answered. She turned to Hammond and repeated the question.
When he replied “Vietnam,” she stood and hugged him.
Like many returning from Vietnam, Hammond took the anti-war protests and hostility displayed to returning soldiers personally.
Soldiers don’t start wars. They follow orders.
“Soldiers shouldn’t be blamed,” he said.