Valor Friday

| June 12, 2020

Ensign Charles Hammann

Once again Mason brings us a tale of heroism in the air, this time in WW-I off what is now the Adriatic coast of Croatia. How an American Navy Enlisted Pilot managed to perform a wartime rescue at sea is impressive in and of itself, but is even more so when one views the aircraft he used. Simply amazing.


This week’s article will be tragically short, as was the life of the man we’re honoring. I also appear to need to make a bit of a correction in a previous article. When I was writing the article about Butch O’Hare (, numerous sources listed him as the first US Naval aviator to receive the Medal of Honor. While O’Hare’s heroics are definitely extraordinary, he was not the first awardee.

Charles Hammann would receive the Medal of Honor for gallantry in action in 1918. Hammann was actually the first aviator from any branch of service to receive the nation’s highest honor. Two other men, Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker (US Army) and 1st Lieut. Frank Luke (US Army and discussed here, were the only other flyers to receive the medal for actions in WWI. Their actions came just a few weeks after Ensign Hammann.

Charles Hammann of Baltimore enlisted into the US Navy Reserve in October, 1917 to participate in World War I. Within a year he was a Naval aviator (no. 1494) and posted in Italy (an ally during WWI).

Hammann was an Enlisted Pilot (his rank/rate and, in an uncharacteristic move on the part of the Navy, an apt description of his duties). This program would train enlisted men and warrant officers to pilot naval aircraft alongside their commissioned counterparts. Later given the designation Naval Aviation Pilot (NAP), they flew combat missions and saw service through both World Wars and as late as the Vietnam War. The NAP program also trained enlisted pilots to serve in the Marine Corps and Coast Guard. The final NAP retired from the Navy in 1981, preceded by the last USCG enlisted pilot who retired in 1979 and the last four USMC enlisted pilots who retired simultaneously in 1973 (proving again that Marines do things best in groups *grin*).

Navy Aviation Pilot Petty Officer First Class

During World War I, the US was allied with Italy and the US Navy posted a unit in Italy at Porto Corsini near Venice at an Italian seaplane base. The US servicemen based there would fly Italian-made planes. The base was bombed on July 24, 1918 by Austro-Hungarian forces to minimal effect and the base became operational a short time later. It would be the US Navy’s only air station on the Adriatic during the war.

On August 21, 1918 Hammann was in a Macchi M.5 seaplane fighter, a small single-seat biplane, with four other fighters escorting two Italian seaplane bombers on what would be the Americans’ first combat mission. The flight was headed to the Austro-Hungarian port of Pola to “bomb” the port with leaflets.

Macchi M.5 Seaplane

As the aircraft came into the heavily defended port, five land-based fighters and two sea-based fighters rose up to meet them. Outnumbered and against the more experienced Austrian pilots the Americans engaged the enemy. In the dogfight that ensued, Hammann’s wingman, Ensign George Ludlow was forced down. His aircraft had taken fire and he crash landed three to five miles off the coast of Pola.

Austrian forces had threatened to execute any aviators shot down who had attacked their territory. Ludlow, so near the enemy port, was at imminent risk of capture and execution, if he didn’t drown first. Early aircraft, even those designed for amphibious use, were not terribly good boats in open water.

Hammann’s plane had also been damaged in the dogfighting, but he was unwilling to leave a man behind. He landed in the water next to Ludlow. The small M.5 seaplane was only designed for one man. It’s empty weight was almost 1,600 lbs. and its gross takeoff weight was less than 2,200 lbs. With the weight of fuel, this didn’t leave any figurative wiggle room, and the lack of a second seat left even less literal wiggle room.

Hammann took Ludlow on board as Ludlow’s plane sank below the waves. Turning into the wind, Hammann evaded the enemy aircraft as he somehow coaxed his plane into the air with the extra payload. By the grace of God he avoided the enemy aircraft as he left their backyard.

He slowly made his way back to Porto Corsini. Upon landing, Hammann’s aircraft sank from the battle damage and strain.

Hammann would receive the Medal of Honor for his actions that day. Ludlow would receive the Navy Cross. Hammann would also receive the Italian Silver Medal of Military Valor, roughly analogous to an American Silver Citation Star (which would become the Silver Star between the World Wars).

Navy Medal of Honor

Italian Silver Medal of Military Valor

Like most Enlisted Pilots he was commissioned after a time in flying service. In October 1918 he was commissioned an Ensign.

After the war, Ensign Hammann was in Langley, Virginia on June 14, 1919 at the controls of another M.5. Unfortunately, as happened to many pioneering aviators, he succumbed to his passion. He died in a crash that day at the age of 27.

The US Navy named two ships in honor of Ensign Hammann. The first, USS Hammann (DD-412), was a Sims-class destroyer. Commissioned in 1939, DD-412 participated in the Battle of the Coral Sea on May 8, 1942. She would rescue 500 men from the doomed USS Lexington aircraft carrier after that ship had been mortally wounded by enemy torpedoes. DD-412 would go on to be sunk by a Japanese submarine at the decisive Battle of Midway on June 6, 1942 as she was coming to the aid of the stricken carrier USS Yorktown. Of the crew of nearly 200 men, 80 would go down with the ship.

DD 412, USS Hammann

The second USS Hammann carried hull number DE-131. She was a destroyer escort commissioned in 1943. DE-131 would see action as a convoy escort in the Atlantic theater. Moved to the Pacific after VE Day she arrived at Pearl Harbor just after the Japanese surrender. The ship was decommissioned and placed in the reserve fleet for 27 years before being stricken and scrapped in 1972.

DE-131 USS Hammann

Hand Salute. Ready, Two!

Thanks again, Mason.

Category: Guest Post, The Warrior Code, Valor

Comments (5)

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  1. Comm Center Rat says:

    Absolutely amazing Hammann could rescue a downed pilot and get him onboard his own damaged lightweight aircraft before safely flying back to Porto Corsini. Incredible bravery and airmanship truly worthy of the MoH.

    As a former Army PSYOP troop I was excited to read that Hammann’s flight was on a mission to “bomb” the port of Pola with leaflets. Dropping leaflets always seems to excite senior military leadership. I remember one of our PSYOP detachments was tasked with doing a few helicopter leaflet drops in Iraq. The War of Words is a force multiplier.


  2. 5th/77th FA says:

    BZ Ensign Charles Hammann. Slow Hand Salute!

    The Naval vessels named in your Honor performed with the same level of Bravery and Dedication to Service as their namesake.

    A part of WWI History that very few ever even think about. Mostly when we think of WWI we think trench warfare or dogfights over the unquiet Western Front.

    Thanks Mason! Another fine job of the story of an American Hero.

  3. ninja says:

    Wow, Mason…

    That was a GREAT Read…

    Thank You so much again for taking the time to research and share with us these stories of our Brave Heroes.

    Salute to Ensign Charles Hammann.

  4. Slow Joe says:

    I didn’t know US forces had actually engaged the Habsburgs during WW1.

  5. SFC D says:

    I’d say that Hammann’s aircraft deserved a posthumous valor award, considering it used the last full measure of it’s ability. Incredible story!