WINTHROP — The toughest soldier you’ve never known grew up on his family’s farm in Winthrop.

He helped his father run the farm off Narrows Pond Road, terrorized his sister with pranks and left high school when he was a sophomore so he could get a jump on proving to himself he had what it took to make it as a Marine. He survived being wounded in the Korean War, only to return home to lose half of his left leg to a freak skydiving accident.

Donald “Woody” Hamblen took that one good leg and the wooden prosthetic that gave him his nickname and spent 30 months in Vietnam leading operations behind enemy lines. In so doing, according to Marine Maj. Bruce Norton’s 1993 article in The Bulletin newspaper, Hamblen became the first known Marine amputee to go into combat.

“It was just the training,” Hamblen said, who treats praise the way a tin roof treats a raindrop. “I could move a hell of a lot better than I can now.”

But reviving Hamblen’s story has been the passion of Winthrop resident and fellow Korean War veteran Frank Smimmo since May, when he read the book Hamblen co-authored, “One Tough Marine.”

“Three days I couldn’t put it down,” Smimmo said. “It was the greatest book I’ve ever read.”

He mentioned the book to a number of elderly residents and was surprised to learn most had never heard Hamblen’s story.

“Thus I began what I have deemed my mission to make him known and thanked by us,” Smimmo said.

The most recent result of that effort came Thursday, when town officials hung a plaque honoring Hamblen inside the Town Office. A similar plaque will be hung at American Legion Post 40 in Winthrop, and an engraved stone has been placed at the Veterans Memorial at Norcross Point.

“I know my dad would think it’s a bunch of hoopla,” Hamblen’s daughter, Sherry Parkinson of Winthrop, said with a smile. “He did his job and we’re all really proud of him.”

Hamblen, 81, settled down near Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton in Oceanside, Calif., completing his 20 years of service in 1970. He said he has not returned to Winthrop since the 1980s but said he is honored that Smimmo and the town wanted to recognize his service.

“That’s why I promoted him to sergeant major,” Hamblen joked. “I’ve adopted him as a brother.”

Hamblen, who was unable to attend Thursday’s ceremony, joined the Marines in 1950 and a year later was sent to Korea with a rifle platoon. Hamblen was wounded by shrapnel in 1952. As he was being carried to safety on a stretcher, his group was ambushed and Hamblen was hurt again, this time by a bullet to the shoulder.

He returned to duty and left Korea six months later.

Hamblen served at various bases in the U.S. over the next 10 years. In September 1962, Hamblen was making a training jump over Camp Pendleton when a gust of wind carried him into high-voltage power lines. Hamblen was left with third-degree burns over much of his body when the lines arced, and he fell 40 feet to the ground. His left foot and calf suffered the most extensive damage. Doctors amputated the leg, just below the knee, shortly after the accident.

Hamblen was urged to retire and receive three-fourths pay for the rest of his life, but Hamblen always had planned to serve 20 years and retire.

Hamblen underplays his effort to return to active duty. He said only that he was liked by those in charge.

“Once the Marines like you, you’re one of theirs,” he said. “They have to have a good reason, if you’re willing to stay, for them to not let you stay.”

Smimmo, who has spent hours on the phone with him, said Hamblen had to prove he could continue to serve as a Marine. The tests Hamblen had to endure, as first outlined in a 1996 story in Vietnam Magazine and retold on, included running the length of a football field and picking up a 170-pound man carrying a 40-pound pack who was lying flat on the ground. Hamblen had to lift the soldier across his shoulders and run back to the starting line. Hamblen also had to climb 20 feet of rope, jump an 8-foot ditch and run three miles wearing boots and carrying a marching pack in 36 minutes.

When it was over, Hamblen removed his prosthetic and poured out a cup’s worth of blood that had oozed out the scar tissue ripped open during the ordeal.

Hamblen was cleared for active duty and given a choice to retire in full standing or continue to serve. Hamblen stayed in.

Three years after his accident, in 1965, Hamblen went to Vietnam. He would spend the next 30 months leading a team of 37 Vietnamese and Cambodian soldiers behind enemy lines to grab North Vietnamese officers and political figures.

Hamblen was hit by shrapnel in 1966. It was a minor injury, and he was allowed to return to duty quickly. A year later Hamblen was shot in the arm. He still carries that bullet.

“It harasses me at the airport,” he joked.

At one point Hamblen broke his wooden leg and had to fly back to the U.S. to have it fixed. He returned to Vietnam within five days. The foot, made of wood to look real, did not react well to the wet Vietnam conditions.

“If it got wet too many times, it would just crack the wood,” he said. “If I had the legs they have today, I would have gotten myself killed.”

Gen. Herman Nickerson Jr., who had struck up a friendship with Hamblen after the amputation, asked Hamblen to leave Vietnam after his second injury when United Press International announed plans to do a story on Hamblen. Nickerson feared the attention would threaten the covert operations and worried about the bad press that would accompany an amputee soldier getting killed behind enemy lines.

“He said, ‘There’s no way in hell we can let them run a story,’” Hamblen recalled.

He returned home in 1967 and retired as a first sergeant in 1970. He spent the next 20 years working as a guide leading bear and cougar hunts into northern California.

Hamblen still feels deep affection for the Vietnamese and Cambodian soldiers with whom he served. A good number were killed. He recalled a funeral for one that was delayed until Hamblen could arrive.

“They waited for me to put the first shovel of dirt on the body,” he said, his voice pregnant with emotion. “They were like brothers to me.”

Hamblen’s sister, Gloria Sylvester, of Manchester, said she still has trouble grasping the difficulty her brother endured and the determination he showed to live out his dream.

“I couldn’t imagine how you could go through all that,” she said. “He was always kind of a daredevil. He would do things an ordinary person wouldn’t.”

Craig Crosby — 621-5642
[email protected]

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.