Valor Friday

| April 7, 2023

Petty Officer Second Class Owen Francis Hammerberg circa 1944

The US Medal of Honor has been awarded more than 3,500 times. A full 40% of the awards were made for actions during the Civil War, when the medal was the highest (and largely only) award available for combat bravery. Longtime readers of mine will know that the US Navy Medal of Honor, which was the first to be created among the services, was only open to enlisted men. Until 1915, officers in the Navy and Marine Corps were ineligible for the award, and in some cases they were given no recognition for brave actions they took right alongside seamen and petty officers who received the Medal of Honor.

We closely associate the Medal of Honor with combat bravery, and the vast majority of awards are for such. It was not required that the bravery be in the face of the enemy for most of the award’s history though.

After the Civil War and until World War II, many of the Navy’s Medals of Honor were awarded to sailors (and some Marines) who showed exceptional bravery during peacetime. Often this was in jumping into frigid waters to rescue a drowning shipmate, going into gun turrets ablaze to pull men out, or in response to or preventing a boiler explosion.

Two hundred and four men earned their Medals of Honor in such peacetime or non-combat roles. Notably, the Army only engaged in this practice twice. First, Charles Lindburgh received one by a special Act of Congress for being the first man to fly solo, non-stop across the Atlantic in 1927. Lindbergh was flying as a civilian, but he held a US Army Air Service commission in the reserves and was considered a national hero. Similar awards of the MoH were made to other pioneering explorers of the time like Richard Byrd and Floyd Bennett, who together made what was thought to be the first heavier than air flight over the North Pole.

The second non-combat Army award was to Major General Adolphus Greely for “For his lifetime of service” in 1935, just before he passed away in 1936. Greely had been a soldier for most of his life, having enlisted in 1861 at the start of the Civil War, being commissioned in 1863, and served as the Army’s chief signal officer for many years. He only left the service when he hit the mandatory retirement age of 64, having served for 47 continuous years. At the time of his death he was so well respected that his pallbearers included five other Major Generals, the publisher of the National Geographic magazine, and Air Force legend Brigadier General Billy Mitchell.

The Navy didn’t award any non-combat Medals of Honor during the Spanish-American War. During the First World War, only ten men received the award for non-combat actions. Clearly the Medal of Honor was becoming more exclusively an award for bravery in the face of the enemy. This coincided with the creation of lesser awards for valor during and shortly after the World War, namely the Navy Cross, Silver Star, and Distinguished Flying Cross.

Between the wars, 16 naval officers and men (including one Marine) received the Medal of Honor for bravery, but not in combat. The last of those awards were to four chief petty officers who dived on the wreck of USS Squalus in 1939, during the successful rescue of 33 submariners.

By the time of World War II, the Medal of Honor (and the Navy Cross, which had occasionally been awarded for non-combat acts) were firmly combat bravery decorations. The Army made this a policy early in the war, but that was just codifying their past practice. The Navy made no such policy, but unofficially, it was only a combat award. It wasn’t until 1963 that legislation was passed that made the MoH solely a combat gallantry decoration.

This left a period of time where it was possible to earn a Medal of Honor, if you were in the naval arms, for non-combat bravery during and after World War II. No such awards were made after the war, but one was made in the waning days of the conflict.

Owen Francis Patrick Hammerberg was that man. He was the only non-combat Medal of Honor awarded during World War II (though some might argue MacArthur’s award was not exactly combat-related). His is also the final non-combat MoH.

Born in 1920 and raised in the Flint, Michigan area, Owen’s parents were Elizabeth and Jonas, the latter an immigrant from Sweden. Hammerberg enlisted in the Navy in June 1941, less than six months before the US would be propelled into the war. He’d dropped out of high school before finishing, and hitchhiked his way west before seeking adventure in the Navy.

After boot camp Hammerberg served on the battleship USS Idaho (BB-42) and the minesweeper USS Advent (AM-83). Advent had been commissioned in 1942 and served in the South Pacific for most of the war.

While aboard Advent, Hammerberg gave his shipmates a glimpse of the bravery to come. One day a ship’s cable became entangled with a mine they were wrangling. This threatened to cause the mine to detonate in close proximity to the ship, which would likely injure or kill many men and could be a fatal blow to the ship itself. Without hesitation, the young Swede from Michigan dove into the water and loosened the line, eliminating the threat.

For his bravery, Hammerberg was recommended for the Bronze Star Medal, but never received one for reasons lost to history. He next volunteered for deep sea diving training.

Navy divers proved their worth after the Attack at Pearl Harbor, in which they rescued sailors from the stricken battleships. In the coming months, they would salvage and refloat most of the damaged vessels, with many of them returning to combat.

Navy divers saw significant service throughout the war. They were instrumental in salvaging damaged ships, clearing beach obstructions, and conducting reconnaissance. During the war the need for shallow water divers led to the creation of the first frogman units, known as Underwater Demolition Teams (UDTs). UDTs being one of the precursors of the modern Navy SEALs.

Hammerberg, after completing his grueling diver training, was assigned to the Salvage Unit, Surface Force, Pacific Fleet.

At Pearl Harbor, in May 1944 the Navy had been forced to scuttle five Landing Ship Tank (LST) ships. LSTs were a common sight during the war, particularly in the Pacific Theater. The US built more than 1,000 of the ships during the conflict, and they were an integral part of amphibious operations in all theaters.

The scuttling was part of an event now known as the West Loch Disaster. The LSTs were part of a large group of ships moored at the dock. Twenty-nine LSTs in total were tied at three piers in the West Loch portion of Pearl Harbor. All of them were loaded with ammunition for a coming operation in the Pacific. When one mysteriously exploded, it threatened the whole fleet.

The initial explosion aboard LST-353 started fires and explosions on several other ships. Hundreds of men were hurled from the decks of their ships. The blast was powerful enough to knock over vehicles. Ashore nearly a dozen buildings were destroyed and several more damaged.

Firefighting efforts went on for more than 24 hours. Eleven tugboats were damaged, and many ships that were undamaged in the initial explosions, were nearly torched when fuel in the water burst into flames. Sinking some of the ships (at least five) was the quickest, best course of action to prevent the fires from cascading down the line.

The exact cause of the disaster was never known. Army stevedores were unloading mortar rounds, using an elevator near some barrels of fuel, in the area where the blast originated. It’s been supposed that one of the mortars was dropped or that the conflagration was started by a careless smoker too near the gas. In any case, at least 163 men were killed and hundreds more were wounded. The final fatality from the disaster would come several months later, however.

By February 1945, the Navy wanted to raise those ships or otherwise remove them. I guess they’d started to wear out their welcome at the very busy Pacific Fleet’s home port. Five diving teams were called in. Each one would be assigned to a single LST. They were promised time to go on leave once their particular ship had been raised. This was probably highly motivating, as Hawaii then and now is quite a lovely place to take shore leave.

Hammerberg and his team made short work of their ship, and they went on leave. Meanwhile, another of the dive teams wasn’t so lucky. They’d become mired in the cables and collapsing hull of their assigned LST. In the attempts to rescue them, the water had become muddied. A special dive team from New York (who were likely used to working in muddy, low visibility conditions) wouldn’t even attempt to dive. It was that bad.

A call went out for volunteers to dive and attempt to rescue the fallen sailors. Hammerberg stepped up without hesitating, suited up, and went into the brown, opaque water. The men were trapped under 40 feet of water and 20 feet of muck and wreckage.

Following the diving lines down, Hammerberg came to the first trapped diver. George Fuller was pinned to the bottom by a steel plate. Hammerberg worked for five hours to free the man. Fuller shook Hammerberg’s hand before he went topside to safety. Meanwhile, Hammerberg moved to the next man.

It took another 13 hours (18 in total) of plowing through the mud with a water jet, through twisted, collapsed wreckage of the ship, to follow the tangled umbilical line to the next diver. Finally finding Earl Brown, Hammerberg set out to free him from a steel plate that had him pinned. As he worked, the unstable wreckage shifted. Another large, heavy steel plate slid towards the divers as the wreck caved in again.

Hammerberg stepped in front of the plate, absorbing the bulk of the weight. This kept the plate from fully striking Brown, but in the process cost Hammerberg his life. For his bravery and sacrifice he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, the last man to receive it for actions not in active combat. His parents received it on his behalf in a ceremony at Naval Air Station Grosse Ile, just outside Detroit.

His sacrifice wasn’t in vain. His final act saved the life of Mr. Brown. Though still trapped, he was alive. Two Filipino divers, a father and son, volunteered to go down. Seventy-two hours after Hammerberg had strapped his gear on for the final time, Earl Brown was freed from the wreckage and returned to the surface.

Among memorials to Hammerberg are a street in his native Flint, in 1955 the destroyer escort USS Hammerberg (DE-1015) was named for him, and in 2021 a VFW post in Michigan was renamed for him.

Category: Historical, Medal of Honor, Navy, Valor, We Remember

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Old tanker

No greater love…



Excellent read Mason. Thank you.

President Elect Toxic Deplorable Racist SAH Neande

That such men lived…
(Slow Salute)
(damned allergies)


A True Hero, well deserving of the Honors Earned. Much Respect!


Another great story, again, Mason. Thanks!


Believe I read once that MacArthur’s MoH was actually awareded the second time he was recommended, as he was recommended for one for actions after the US landing in Mexico when he was a lieutenant?


Bet Hammerberg didn’t need a dive weight belt with those brass balls!

Rest Well, Petty Officer.

Prior Service

Great read. I had no idea of the non-combat awards in general or Hammerberg specifically. Thanks for posting.