Tank gunner who helped liberate concentration camp will participate in his daughter's Air Force promotion

During brutal war, soldier made history


Like many, James Hamilton's life started out as steady and as unremarkable as a metronome. Then, for one cloudy, breath-fogging, gloves-chilly morning in the Netherlands in March 1945, it crossed history. The moment past, it subsided again to that dependable, unwavering beat.

For Hamilton, 83, of the Harlem Garden Apartments on Edmondson Avenue in West Baltimore, that memorable day came when his all-black 784th Tank Battalion -- one of three in a segregated Army -- fanned out in the Dutch town of Venlo on the German border, about 25 miles west of the Rhine, and smashed open the gate of the Venlo concentration camp.

Today in Washington, Hamilton will pin the full colonel's insignia of an eagle with outspread wings on his Air Force daughter, Lt. Col. Lynn Hamilton-Jones. A specialist in managing the development of weapon systems, Hamilton-Jones said she believes she's one of two or three black women of a group of 331 nationwide who will be promoted to full, or "bird" colonel.

Hamilton-Jones' 22-year military career was inspired by her modest father, who never talked about that March 2 when what he thought was laundry flapping on the line turned out to be skin-and-bones Jewish inmates.

"There wasn't a thing around the house that said `military,'" said Hamilton-Jones of her childhood on Marmon Avenue in Northwest Baltimore. "Everyone in the neighborhood could hear my dad's laugh. He'd do anything for you. But it was only when I was considering college and reading history that it dawned on me, `Wait a minute, he was in this campaign, in that African-American unit.'" Of her father's struggle against institutional racism and his liberation of the Venlo camp, she said, "He has seen so much evil -- what it can do to a society and people -- he wants to be the exact opposite of that, and not have anyone else go through that, ever."

Like many ordinary people who find themselves suddenly thrust into a role in history, Hamilton was unprepared for that morning when inmates in prison-striped clothes hugged and touched him, while others fell over dead in the road.

"I was 19 in the summer of 1943 when I got my letter from the draft board," he recalled, smiling with the pleasure that memories of youth bring.

Up to then, he had been hoping for an athletic scholarship to St. Paul's College in Virginia. And about the most exciting thing he had done was to caddy for Joe Louis at the Carroll Park public course.

"He could hit that ball," Hamilton said with relish. "Gave me a $50 bill, too. I carried that home straightaway to my grandmother. She gave me a look and said, `Where'd you get that money?' "

Sent to Fort Meade, Hamilton had his sights set on being a turret gunner in a B-29 "like Clark Gable, or that Indian actor, Sabu. But they wouldn't let me in because of my color." Instead, Hamilton became the machine gunner on a 42-ton M4A3 Sherman tank in the Army's first all-black armored unit. He still loves that tank.

"I mean, that baby could move!" he said. "We went through Stuttgart, went sliding around a corner, tore out the whole side of a house. Didn't hurt us none at all."

He was at the trigger of the .30-caliber gun in the clanging nose of the Sherman, scrunched beside the driver, on that March morning when they hit Venlo, having just gone 50 miles in three days skirting the Siegfried Line.

Today, sitting on the bed in his immaculate apartment, a shadow box of his medals and a folded American flag given him by his daughter on the wall, Hamilton retrieved a memory he rarely dwells on because "I just let that blow away, like the dead bodies I saw; just put it to rest."

They were coming across a field, he said -- he remembers the windmills -- when they saw the wire fence. That's when he thought from the distance that the inmates were laundry, because their clothes fell loosely against their emaciated bodies. The 20 tanks fanned out across the field.

"They were piled up by the locked gate," he said slowly, carefully, wanting his visitor to get every detail. "Some were walking. Some were trying to run, but couldn't. I never heard about anything like that. It was something strange to see when you come upon it. We knew it was a prison. But we had no idea they'd do to them like that."

The tankers waved the inmates back. Then, Hamilton said, the Sherman tank flattened the gate, just ground it into the dirt. As he remembered, his fist hit the chenille bedspread. That one gesture from an otherwise gently-spoken, almost courtly man, seemed to embody the anger he said he has left behind.

"We tried talking to them," he said, "but we couldn't understand each other. We put C-rations in some of their hands. They were just bones, hardly no fat at all." Hamilton put his hands together, wrists to wrists, to show the narrowest of waists. "You could see in their faces how happy they were to be free."

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