When U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell was tabbed to appoint another commissioner to the World War I Centennial Commission, he would have been hard-pressed to find someone from a family as dedicated to the military as Terry Hamby’s.
Five generations of the Hamby bloodline have served in almost every major American conflict since the Civil War. His great-grandfather fought for the Union Army, his grandfather served the Army during World War I, his father during WWII, he served in the Navy during Vietnam and his son followed him into the Navy to serve during the Persian Gulf War.
“We have a long tradition of being a military family and supporting all of our veterans for the great sacrifices that they make to protect this great democracy that we have,” Hamby said. “I’ve always been put in the right place at the right time by my creator and it’s an opportunity that I accepted.”
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Hamby is one of McConnell’s two appointments to the commission. His other was Jerry L. Hester, a former chairman of the 70th Anniversary WWI National Committee and U.S. Air Force pilot, the commission’s website states.
McConnell’s appointment of two former military men to the commission isn’t a surprise, at least not to Hamby.
“He’s always been a friend to the military and our veterans through the VA,” Hamby said. “I was very honored that he thought of me.”
According to the commission’s website, it is dedicated to, among other things, creating a World War I memorial in Washington, D.C. Currently, it is the only major American conflict of the 20th century to not have a memorial in the nation’s capital.
Hamby doesn’t remember much about his grandfather. The man died when Hamby was five years old. But his family’s legacy of service isn’t the only reason he’s so passionate about the project.
“It’s not only (my family’s service), it’s just how important I have always felt that it was to honor and recognize the men and women who serve in our armed forces,” he said. “They deserve the best. It’s my passion because I’m an American and I know and love our freedom and country.”
More Americans died in World War I than in every conflict following World War II combined. Yet the commission, including Hamby, believe The Great War is one that has been largely forgotten by the country’s citizens, despite it shaping the world as we know it today. It’s not a criticism Hamby exempts himself from, he admits to not having spent as much time studying it as other conflicts, despite his passion for military history.
“It created the world that we live in today,” he said. “I think the reason that it was a such a forgotten war is that about the time we came out of World War I, 20 years later we were right back into World War II.”
Most of the country’s current conflicts can be directly traced to the war. For instance, when it was over, a country known as the Ottoman Empire was broken up in such a way that created the current Middle East.
“(They) were divided by areas and not by beliefs,” Hamby said.
More than that, 30 million people died during the war globally, including almost an entire generation of young men from England and France. When the combat began, horses and wagons were still a battlefield staple, but as the war ended, airplanes, tanks, machine guns and other more sophisticated weapons of war had become standard. Many of the innovations of World War I are still in use today, albeit in greatly upgraded forms.
Hamby said the war wasn’t just responsible for the creation of better ways to kill each other, but also for advances in social equality and justice.
“The 369th (Infantry Regiment) “Hellfighters” were all African-American. They fought admirably, they never lost a foot of ground and when they got to France, there was not segregation in France,” he said. “It started the discussions of integration because African-Americans stepped up, and African-Americans played a big part in World War I. And women came forward, they were in hospital units, it started the Women’s Suffrage Movement. It started a lot of great things.”
The 369th is also credited for introducing jazz to Europe, he said.
This commission is not the first attempt by Congress to create a memorial to the war, but all others have failed or never made it to a vote. With the centennials of America’s entry into the conflict coming in April and the end of the war in 1918 coming up, Hamby believes this might be the last, best chance at getting a memorial created.
“My grandfather was in World War I and I’m 70 years old,” he said. “I just assume if it doesn’t happen now it won’t happen ... so we’ve got to make this happen.”
The commission is going to try and break ground by the centennial of Armistice Day, Nov. 11, 2018. They are trying to raise roughly $45 million in private monies to fund the project. Though fundraising only began recently, they are about 20 percent of the way there. To donate, visit WorldWar1Centennial.org.
“I’m very humbled to be a young man from the Pennyrile and the Hopkinsville area to have the opportunity to once again serve the men and women in uniform. When you get to be 70 years old there’s not many ways you can serve anymore other than knock on doors and try to help a group that has been forgotten … especially one of your family.”