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Cutchogue man’s family owes a debt that can never be repaid

Dan De Mato of Cutchogue never met Lester Hammond Jr. Heck, he wasn’t even born when Mr. Hammond was alive, yet Mr. De Mato owes everything to him.

Everything.

If it weren’t for Mr. Hammond, Mr. De Mato would never have been born, nor would any of his siblings. If it weren’t for Mr. Hammond, Mr. De Mato’s late father, Joseph, might very well have been killed along with several fellow servicemen by Chinese troops on a ravine during the Korean War.

As Dan sees it, the least he can do is remember Mr. Hammond’s heroism. He has not forgotten.

Aug. 14, 1952, is a special date for the De Mato household. It was on that date when Joseph De Mato, a paratrooper in the 187th Regimental Combat Team, and four other servicemen almost surely had their lives saved by Mr. Hammond’s heroic actions. Dan De Mato hasn’t forgotten.

If not for what Mr. Hammond did that day, Joseph De Mato doesn’t come home alive. He doesn’t meet his wife-to-be, Mary Ellen. They never have eight children, 14 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren. Dan De Mato hasn’t forgotten.

“So that’s 34 people that would not exist if not for Lester Hammond’s sacrifice,” Dan, 57, said. “And that’s just one of the members of the patrol.”

This coming Aug. 14 will mark the 70th anniversary of Mr. Hammond’s supreme self-sacrifice, and Dan said it’s important to him that his family’s next generation knows it owes a debt that can never be repaid.

On the morning of Aug. 14, 1952, Joseph De Mato was part of a six-man patrol to reconnoiter a river crossing in the vicinity of Kumwha, Korea. According to a declassified 187th RCT Command report, the small patrol was ambushed by Chinese troops in enemy-held territory and forced to take cover in a ravine along a river bank carved out with small caves. That is, all six except for Mr. Hammond, the radio operator. Although injured during the initial exchange of fire, he refused to take cover in the relative safety of the caves in order to call for friendly artillery fire and adjust it.

“He thereby sealed his own death but beyond a question of a doubt saved the lives of the other patrol members,” stated the report signed by Lt. Col. Russell Whetstone.


Joseph De Mato during his days as a paratrooper in the 187th Regimental Combat Team. (Courtesy of Dan De Mato)

Joseph, in a sworn statement on Aug. 28, 1952, said: “We were completely cut off and overwhelmingly outnumbered and deep in enemy held land and would have undoubtedly been killed had it not been for Cpl. Hammond’s sacrifice.”

Another patrol member, Clyde Rich, testified: “At about 1120 hours we were completely surrounded and pinned down. I thought we were all sure to die … I could see when I went out to give [Mr. Hammond] some water he had two wounds that appeared to be caused by shell fragments in his forehead, and his right leg was wounded and swollen to nearly two times its normal size.”

Mr. Hammond died on the field. The other patrol members were all injured, but survived the two-hour barrage in the broiling heat (the temperature was said to reach 102 degrees) as a relief platoon evacuated them while under heavy fire. The military estimated enemy losses from the engagement at 48 men.

Mr. Hammond was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.

“His intrepid actions in the face of tremendous odds and his utterly selfless devotion to his comrades have set him among the preeminent few deserving of this, our nation’s highest award for valor,” Lt. Gen. Maxwell Taylor wrote in a recommendation letter dated Nov. 17, 1952.

“During the two-hour barrage, Cpl. Hammond received a second wound which proved fatal and he died upon the field,” read a Nov. 17, 1952, document, signed by Capt. Harold McDonald, recommending Mr. Hammond for the award. “His act was outstanding because of the fact that he knew that his message calling in friendly artillery on his own exposed position meant certain death for himself.”

Joseph sustained shrapnel wounds in his legs and abdomen, but the injuries weren’t “super serious,” his son said, “and he had it for his whole life. Some of the stuff in his abdomen they never bothered to take out.”

The other patrol members were Mason Bowen, Samuel Payne and William Liell.

When Dan, the seventh of eight children, was a youngster, he watched old war movies with his father, asked him questions about the Korean War and soaked it all in. His father didn’t give full details and spoke about others, not so much himself.

Dan learned that his father, the assistant squad leader, tended to injuries suffered by Mr. Payne, the squad leader, early in that battle. Later in the battle, after Mr. Hammond died, Mr. Liell retrieved the radio. Joseph helped see to it that Mr. Payne received the Silver Star and Mr. Liell the Bronze Star, Dan said. He said his father did not seek any recognition for himself.

One story Dan didn’t hear from his father came in a letter he received from Mr. Liell. The letter, dated July 9, 1995, referred to a camp on Koje-do Island where Chinese and North Korean prisoners of war were kept and a rebellion broke out. Mr. Liell wrote that when a prisoner with a large, sharp bamboo pole lunged toward an American flamethrower operator and stabbed him (ultimately causing him to bleed to death), “Your Dad immediately stepped aside and shot the POW.”

Mr. Liell described Joseph as a being a “great soldier [who] always took care of his men.”

Joseph was honorably discharged from the service in 1952 with a Purple Heart. He was 60 when he died in 1990, the result of a postoperative infection, his son said.

Dan said his father kept a Stars and Stripes newspaper clipping about the Hammond patrol in his wallet until the day he died.

In order to find more information about his father and Mr. Hammond, Dan reached out in 2018 to Congressman Lee Zeldin’s office, which secured military documents he was looking for in the hope of gaining greater insight into his father’s role.

Dan said a smile inevitably formed on his father’s face when he spoke about Mr. Hammond.

“This guy was his hero,” Dan said. “My father understood what Hammond gave to him. He gave life to him and four other men.”

“As a kid, I knew that if it wasn’t for Lester Hammond saving the whole group, they all would have died,” he continued. “So I had, obviously, even as a kid, I had such gratitude toward this guy. Now, it wasn’t fully formed and it wasn’t what it should have been because I was a kid, but as you get older, you realize all of the things that he gave up. You know, he gave up ever having a family. He gave up ever having children. He gave up ever having a career. He gave up ever having anything ever again to save his friends. When you get older and you have those things, you realize just how humongous the sacrifice was.”

Dan is a retired Suffolk County police detective who had served in the Army for two years as a military police officer. He has also made a name for himself as a sports photographer, whose work has appeared in The Suffolk Times and Newsday. He and his wife, Diane, have a daughter, Jessica, who gave them a grandson, Kristian Daniel Qirici, on Oct. 17, 2021.

“I tell my grandson, ‘You have warrior blood in your veins,’ ” Dan said.

Mr. Liell, in his letter to Dan, wrote: “I know that you are a police officer. Don’t take any chances, one hero in one family is enough. Your Dad was a man’s man and was a hero many times over.”

On the anniversary of Mr. Hammond’s death or Memorial Day, Dan typically posts something on Facebook in his memory.

He said, “Really, that’s all we can do to repay him is to remember him now.”

Dan De Mato hasn’t forgotten.

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