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Returning to duty for a fierce fight

James M. Hannon had just graduated from Burgard Vocational High School and was pumping gas at a station on the South Buffalo-West Seneca border.

He enjoyed the work because of the friendly family atmosphere. The station was owned by his neighbor Jim Sanders, but the job didn't last as long as Hannon would have liked. After Christmas 1948, business slowed, and he was laid off.

His dad, Mark, a World War I-era veteran, promptly suggested that his oldest son find another job. Hannon took his father's advice and, like so many other young men before him, headed to the old Post Office downtown to see his Uncle Sam.

"The recruiter there asked me how long I wanted to enlist. I told him, 'I don't know,' and he said there was a special one-year enlistment. After that, I would be inactive reserve if I didn't want stay active duty."

When he returned home after 365 days of stateside service, Hannon traded in his uniform for a wedding ring. "I got married," he said, "and I got a job right away at Bethlehem Steel."

So it seemed his military service was finished.

"Who knew there would be another war? But in August 1950, I got called up and sent to Camp Lejeune [N.C.] and assigned to an infantry company and was made a machine-gunner."

Holding down the fort back home was Patricia, his wife, who was pregnant with their first child. The unexpected Marine would see his infant son once before shipping out to South Korea in January 1951.

Initially, Hannon and fellow Marines went after North Korean guerrillas stuck in the hills of South Korea.

"They had been cut off, and they would hide in the hills and harass the natives, stealing food, clothing, whatever they could get," he said.

Six months into his war tour, he suffered his first battle wound just south of the 38th parallel.

"We were set up behind the lines. It was a nice sunny afternoon. We were sitting around talking, shooting the breeze," he said. "Then the North Korean troops dropped three mortar shells on us. A little piece of shrapnel hit me in the left hip. It was just a scrape."

A corpsman asked whether anyone had been hit.

"There was blood on my hip, and he said, 'I'll write you up for a Purple Heart.' I said, 'Don't do that.' It was insignificant, but he wrote down the details on the back of a ration box lid."

Ten days later, June 10, Hannon was again wounded, this time in his left calf. It was more than a scratch.

On the front lines, Hannon had been stationed in a hilltop pine forest. North Korean or Chinese troops, he said, were below in a valley.

"We couldn't see them, but they probably had spotters," Hannon said, "They knew where we were. We took a mortar barrage for what seemed like forever, though it was probably only a half-hour."

Mortars slammed into the trees and exploded, creating showers of shrapnel.

"My buddy Moe [Bob Pray] and I were manning a machine gun, and I said, 'Moe, this is getting a little close. I think I'm going to dig a hole," Hannon recalled.

"I was just about done digging the foxhole, and the shrapnel got real close, and Moe jumped in, and I jumped on top of him. Just then, I felt this thing hit my leg.

"I said 'Moe, I think I'm hit,' and he said, 'No, you're not.' I said 'Well, what's this blood doing here?' I took my leggings off and said, 'What's this hole doing here?' "

Seeing was believing. Hannon had served as Moe's human shield.

Then, the same corpsman from 10 days earlier came over and said, "Oh, no, not again."

"I'd gotten a piece of shrapnel in my left calf. It severed all the tendons in my leg. My foot was inoperable. It was, like, broken."

After being bandaged and helped down the hill by two fellow Marines, Hannon was evacuated along with several others who had been wounded in the battle.

At an evacuation hospital, a medic asked Hannon where he was from. When he answered Buffalo, the medic said he hailed from Hamburg and promptly gave him eight cans of beer and told him that a movie would be shown that evening and that he could go if he wanted.

"So I watched a movie with my beer," Hannon said. "I think I had two cans left the next morning. Beer was a luxury at that time."

On the USS Haven, a hospital ship, Hannon recuperated and was soon sent back to the war front.

"My old captain said, 'What are you doing here?' I said, 'This is my home and this is where I want to be.' The captain said, 'Why don't you hang around a couple days?' Then he said, 'I have a job for you as the company armorer. He takes care of all the weapons.' So I became the armorer, and I didn't have to go to the front anymore."

By early 1952, he was reassigned back to the United States and, on the way home, came down with pneumonia.

"I asked the doctor how I could come down with pneumonia on a ship after living in a hole in Korea," he said. "I never even had the sniffles; it was ironic. The doctor said that the bug can stay dormant for months."

After briefly visiting Buffalo and spending time with his wife and son James, he was ordered to Washington, D.C., where he served as a guard at the Pentagon. By April, Hannon was released from his commitment to Uncle Sam.

Though he had a slight limp, he managed to pass the physical and served for 33 years as a Buffalo firefighter.

He and Patricia would raise a family of nine children.

"They're all in South Buffalo," he said. "They never left the neighborhood."

And, Hannon says, he's glad about it.

***

>James M. Hannon, 80

Hometown: Olyphant, Pa.

Residence: Buffalo

Branch: Marine Corps

Rank: Corporal

War zone: Korea

Years of service: 1949-52

Most prominent honors: Two Purple Hearts, Combat Action Ribbon, Presidential Unit Citation

Specialty: Machine-gunner

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