Rev. Dr. Clay Smith: His life mattered


Mac Hammond grew up at Alice Drive Baptist Church. I don't really know much about him, but I knew his mother. I would imagine that Mac, like most boys in the '60s, got through school, liked girls, hoped to settle down one day and have a family.

He graduated in 1965 from Edmunds High School, which was not a good year if you were not going to college. There was a high probability you would be drafted and sent to Vietnam. You could also volunteer, which Mac did. He enlisted in the Marines, went through basic at Parris Island and was assigned to Company H, 2nd Division battalion, 5th Marines - infantry, Vietnam.

If you talk to men who served in the infantry in Vietnam, they will tell you it was a frustrating war. Battle lines were non-existent. The Viet Cong fought a guerilla war. They would occupy a village, fortify it, dig tunnels underneath it and defend it. When troops came to flush them out, they would engage in a battle then melt away into the jungle or disappear into the tunnels. You could not tell who was a civilian and who was a combatant. It was a war of deep frustration.

Mac's company was airlifted into the Quang Tri province as part of Operation Prairie. On Oct. 11, 1966, Company H faced North Vietnam troops in the village Thon Huong Thanh. The North Vietnamese were in fortified positions. Airstrikes were called in to force the North Vietnamese to flee. Gunfire was exchanged. Mac was hit by enemy fire and was killed. He was 19.

His family learned of his death when a photo of his body being carried by Company H soldiers appeared in LIFE magazine. It would be weeks before official notice came from the State Department.

The photo, by Larry Burrows, became famous. It was often used to depict the death of a soldier and the brotherhood of those he fought beside. One year, on Memorial Day, our church put together a montage of photos as a background for honoring those who died for our country. Not knowing the connection, we included Mac's photo. After the first service, several long-timers at church came up to me and told me, "That photo must be taken out. That is a picture of Lydia Hammond's son the day he died."

I was shocked. It had been just another picture to me. At that moment, the picture became a person. We immediately took the picture out. Every year when we sought to honor those who fought and died for our country, I made sure that picture was never displayed again.

Though I was Lydia's pastor for over 25 years, she never mentioned her son, never mentioned his death, never mentioned the picture. Some memories are to be kept in the quiet places of the soul.

I looked up Thon Huong Thanh. It is still a small village in Vietnam. I am sure few, if any, remember that day of bombs, napalm and bullets. Operation Prairie was considered a success by the U.S. military. But in Vietnam, all success was temporary. The battle at Thon Huong Thanh was an engagement that never made the headlines. It was never a battle that turned the tide, but it was a battle that left heartbreaks for families.

It might be important for some people to ask, "Why did Mac have to die? What was the point?" There is a restless part of our souls that wants answers to questions that have no answers. What I know for sure is Mac wasn't planning to die at 19. I don't know what he hoped and dreamed, but every 19-year-old I have known has hopes and dreams.

This Memorial Day, we remember and honor those who died in service of our country. Some died to secure our independence. Some died to keep our country united. Some died to preserve freedom. Some died to punish our enemies. And yes, some died in wars that we still wonder about, if those wars were worth fighting.

But those who died, their lives mattered. They deserve to be remembered. They deserve to be honored. When we moved Memorial Day to Monday, instead of its traditional date of May 30, we lost something of the specialness of the day. Yes, posting flags and memes on Facebook is a way to honor them, but it requires so little effort.

What we can do is remember. On this Memorial Day, I will choose to remember Lance Cpl. Leland Emanuel "Mac" Hammon, killed in action Oct. 11, 1966. I will remember he served. I will remember his Mama. And I will pray for peace.

The Rev. Dr. Clay Smith is the lead pastor of Alice Drive Baptist Church in Sumter. Email him at