Pastors' Memoirs

Marshall S. Hamer, 1920-2001

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The Rev. Marshall S. Hamer went to be with the Lord on Wednesday, June 20, 2001, after an extended illness at the VA Medical Center in Martinsburg, W.Va. He was born on August 2, 1920, in Canton, Ohio, the son of the late Marshall S. and Bessie E. Hamer. He spent much of his teenage years in Portsmouth, Ohio, where he was very active in the Methodist Church.

Marshall was drafted into the Army in 1942, and he decided he would make his military experience something to remember. He chose to be a ball turret gunner on a B-17 bomber. He was sent overseas and on Thursday, October 14, 1943, his life was forever changed. The 8th Army Air Force attacked and destroyed the ball bearing factories in Schweinfurt, Germany. This battle would go down in history as the "world’s greatest air battle." When his plane was hit and he was told to bail out, he had to find his parachute (which was under a knee-deep pile of spent shells). He landed face down in the midst of a German war maneuver. After seven days’ interrogation, Marshall and the other captured POWs were sent by crowded boxcar to Stalag 17 outside Vienna. This trip took 21 days. He spent the next 19 months in that prison camp. He relied upon his education and faith to keep him going. He said he kept his mind and body active in an attempt to keep up his morale. He exercised his body and his mind every day.

One day when speaking to a group of high school students, he stated: "I was just out of high school and I knew the only way out was if I walked out." That’s what he did, 19 months later; but, first, he had to endure lice-infested barracks and starvation rations — one bowl of "soup" (for want of a better word) a day. When the camp was finally liberated, the German guards — in violation of international law — forced the American POWs to march for 18 days with no food except that for which they could scrounge in passing. Even though he weighed less than 100 pounds, he found enough strength to make the march. He was liberated at Braunau on May 5, 1945.

On the 37th anniversary of the Schweinfurt mission, Marshall was at Arlington National Cemetery. He was milling through the crowd, when he spotted Gene Sebeck, a former crew member and a bunk mate from prison, with whom he had shared a tea bag for six months. Marshall said, "It was one of the happiest moments of my life." He had not seen Gene since that last night on the hill outside Braunau. While Marshall was still a prisoner-of-war he vowed that if he ever got back home, he was going "to get an education and be a teacher."

Following World War II, he returned to school earning a B.A. in education from Ohio University, and an M.A. in religious education from Scarritt College in Nashville, Tenn. Marshall came to Front Royal, Va., in 1952 and taught Old and New Testament and Comparative Religions at Randolph-Macon Academy for 28 years, where he also served as chaplain and director of Religious Activities. While he was teaching at R-MA, he spent 15 summers as a head counselor at Camp Sea Gull, Arapahoe, N.C. He also served as an adjunct faculty member at Lord Fairfax Community College at Middletown during this time. In the early ’60s, he attended Emory University and later attended Wesley Theological Seminary. At this time he became an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church.

After leaving R-MA, he worked for the VA Employment Commission in Winchester as a Veterans Representative for 51/2 years. He also administered aptitude and enlistments tests to high school juniors and seniors and military recruits in the northern Shenandoah Valley, Maryland, and West Virginia. He was a recipient of the Governor’s Award for Volunteering Excellence, the DAV National Commander’s Citation for outstanding service to veterans, The Chapel of Four Chaplains’ Legion of Honor Award, and is listed on the Camp Sea Gull/Camp Seafarer Hall of Fame.

He was a member and former president of the Front Royal Kiwanis Club, life member and former commander of the Disabled American Veterans Chapter 38, member of the American Legion Post No. 53, and the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post No. 1860. The Rev. Hamer held life membership in the American Ex-POWs and in the Bob Frakes Shenandoah Chapter of Ex-POWs, where he served as a former commander and chaplain for that organization.

Hamer is survived by his wife, Joyce and his son, Marshall III, as well as nieces and nephews and great-nieces and great-nephews.

A memorial service and celebration of Hamer’s life was held at the Front Royal United Methodist Church on June 25, 2001. Former students from R-MA and counselors from Camp Sea Gull as well as the American Legion and the VFW paid tribute to him. The minister closed his sermon with an epilogue written by a former camper and now a biology professor at Texas Tech University. He stated: "In the recent movie Mr. Holland’s Opus, the teacher (played by Richard Dreyfuss) devotes his life to teaching but, upon his retirement, wonders whether all of his efforts really made any difference. In the final scene, hundreds of his former students assemble in the school’s auditorium and give him a standing ovation. At last, he realized how much he meant to his students."

If all of the young people who have been inspired by the Rev. Hamer over the years were to assemble, they could not be contained in a mere auditorium. It would require a huge coliseum. Many of them are busy pursuing their own lives, too busy perhaps to unite in one place for such an event. Nevertheless, Marshall, it should take only a little imagining for you to hear our applause on the days when the leaves rustle in your garden. Please know, old friend, that all of us love and admire you and we always will.

— Joyce Hamer and Lewis Held Jr.



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