A stolen wallet kept Army Pvt. Virgle L. Hamock from saying goodbye to his family before completing boot camp and shipping out for the Philippines in 1941, his sister recalled.
“That was supposed to be our goodbye,” Millie Simon, now 87, recalled. The family never saw him again.
Simon was presented on Wedensday, Dec. 11 with the medals Hamock was awarded during his service fighting on the Bataan Peninsula in the early days of World War II. The ceremony took place at the Sun Tower apartments in Yakima where Simon lives.
Lt. Col. Roger Gavriluk, commander of the Yakima Training Center, presented Simon with the medals and decorations Hamock was posthumously awarded, including the Purple Heart, Bronze Star, Combat Infantryman’s Badge and the Prisoner of War medal.
“I think he’s got more medals than I do, and I’ve been in (the service) for 26 years,” Gavriluk said. “As a private, Pvt. Hamock has accomplished a lot in a short period of time.”
The ceremony was attended by family members and Simon’s neighbors at the senior-citizen high-rise.
For Simon, the last of nine siblings still alive, getting his medals was an important step for her family.
“Getting his medals is one step closer to having him brought back to his homeland,” Simon said. The family is waiting for DNA tests to confirm the identity of remains believed to be his.
Hamock was born Dec. 9, 1919, in Arkansas. Simon said her brother was a man who was obedient to his parents and cared for his siblings. She remembered her brother taking her and two other sisters out with him when he plowed the field, giving his mother a break.
“When he was done, he would put us on the horse and walk us back to the house,” Simon recalled.
After a stint in the Civilian Conservation Corps building hiking trails in the Ozarks, Hamock enlisted in the U.S. Army in May 1941 and went to Fort Riley, Kan., for boot camp. He received a 10-day leave of absence to visit his family before shipping out, but when he arrived in Kansas City, his billfold was taken, forcing him to return to base before seeing his family.
He arrived in the Philippines in fall 1941, as tensions with the Japanese Empire rose. Japanese forces attacked the Philippines shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and U.S. and Filipino forces fell back to the Bataan Peninsula and the fortress at Corregidor, with hopes of holding on long enough for reinforcements to arrive.
But with a portion of the Pacific Fleet damaged at Pearl Harbor attack and Japanese ships blockading the islands, the American defenders were forced to surrender in April 1942. Hamock was among the thousands of half-starved men forced to march 65 miles to a prisoner of war camp in what has become known as the Bataan Death March.
“My brother would have fought until he could fight no more, if he believed it was right,” Simon said.
Hamock survived the march, in which several thousand men — sources say the official number is unknown — were either shot or bayonetted by Japanese soldiers. He also survived initial imprisonment at Camp O’Donnell before being moved to a prison camp in Cabanatuan, according to Army records, where he died Dec. 12, 1942, of pellagra and dysentery.
“Back then, the way POWs were treated was vastly different and not as politically correct as today,” Gavriluk said. The prisoners had scant food, water and medicine, and were kept in squalid conditions.
Simon said the family initially received a telegram from the government telling them that Hamock was missing in action. Later, they were told that he was on the death march and in a Japanese prison camp.
She said the family had at that point steeled themselves to the possibility that Hamock was not coming home, but it was still a blow when the telegram came confirming that he had died. That reality became more apparent to Simon as she got older.
The family recently put in a request for his medals, and in October the Army issued them. Gavriluk said he was asked last week if he would be willing to present them to Simon, a duty he said he was more than happy to perform.
“It ties the military with retired military and their families,” Gavriluk said. “(Almost) 79 years after the fact, we are still honoring Pvt. Hamock’s service.”
When he died, Hamock was buried in a communal grave with other soldiers. His, along with six others that also could not be individually identified, were buried at the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial.
But the remains are now undergoing DNA testing, comparing their DNA with living relatives’ genetic markers to identify them, Simon said.
Gavriluk also gave Simon a commander’s challenge coin from the training center.