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New Scotland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, May 27, 2010

From the Atlantic to Albany, Hamilton looks out for soldiers

By Saranac Hale Spencer

NEW SCOTLAND — When Art Hamilton hauled himself from the back of the parking lot at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Albany to the building a couple of years ago, he was livid to see two Ford vans sitting, unused, in the employees’ lot.

An attendant at the front desk told him to see Stephanie, on the third floor, to do something about it.

There were no drivers, she told him.  The 84-year-old World War II veteran signed up to volunteer.

“Guys are fighting to get up here,” he said, recalling one man he helped who walked on two steel poles with shoes fastened to them.  The man had been wrestling with a wheelchair in the back of his pickup and, when he closed the tailgate, a Marines sticker was visible.  If only Hamilton knew his name, he said this week, he’d send him a sticker he has since seen that says, “And God made Marines.”

Hamilton joined the Navy when he was barely old enough, needing his mother’s signature, in 1943.  He joined because of the draft, which wouldn’t have given him any choice of where to go. 

“I said, ‘I’ll be darned if I’m going to dig a hole to sleep.  I’ll go in the Navy and get a bunk.’”

Much of the time, his bunk was in the engine room of a Landing Ship Tank, called an LST, a giant boat used to deliver everything soldiers needed, including tanks and vehicles.  Those who manned the ships often call them Large Slow Targets.

“I was a motor mac,” Hamilton said, which meant that he kept the engines running in four-hour shifts.

He felt like a popular comic-strip character of the era, Hamilton said, explaining, “Wherever he went, he had a big dark cloud above his head.”

At one point, his LST 980 was part of a convoy, Hamilton said, when it started to slow down.  He was followed by a cloud of dark smoke when he came out the engine room, having found that one of the pistons hadn’t been getting oil.  A convoy doesn’t wait, he said, so they were left behind, but a destroyer went back for them, “Thank God,” he said, since German submarines were rife.

“I was the guy with the cloud over his head,” he reiterated, smiling.

The vans that Hamilton recently started driving for the hospital had over 100,000 miles on them and the doors squeaked when they opened, so he’d switch between the two each Monday, he said.

One day, though, Stephanie and her superior, Karen, met him at the door and asked him to take them around to the back of the building.  Waiting for him was a “brand spanking new” van, he said, showing a picture of himself, stifling a grin, standing next to it.

He puts about two miles on it during his roughly seven-hour day and usually delivers about 100 people from the parking lot to the hospital door.

Hamilton was recently honored with a pin for 500 hours of volunteer work at the hospital.

“A lot of people depend on you,” he said of the work.  Most people whom he drives chat about the weather, Hamilton said, but some want to talk about war.  He just listens.

Of the injuries he sees, Hamilton said, “It’s going to get worse.”  Referring to the soldiers coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan, he said, “They’re tore up.  Mentally, they’re killed.”

“War does stuff to you — I know,” he said.  “I wound up in D-Day.”

Two thousand LSTs were at Normandy, he said, dropping their mouths open to produce two dozen tanks on the beach and supplies.

“Without these ships, the war would’ve gone down the tube,” he said.  “It would’ve been a different war.”

They’ve got a flat bottom, he said, and “They go like a cork,” bouncing and quivering across the Atlantic.  From his porthole window, Hamilton would either be surrounded by water or have a view stretching over a wide horizon, as the ship seesawed over the ocean.

“They call us the ’gator Navy,” he said, showing the patch he wears on his jacket with an alligator’s jaws opening to produce a row of tanks.

In an elevator at the VA hospital, Hamilton once felt a hand on his arm and turned to see a woman who said, “I saw that patch and I know exactly what you did.”  Her father had been in the amphibious force, she said.

Hamilton is wiped out at the end of each Monday, he said, but it’s worth it.  “You get that satisfaction,” he said.  “You helped someone out like that.”

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