BUFFALO, N.Y. — Impressed by the accomplishments of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement, Hamilton A. Plummer decided to attend college to better himself, with an eye on political science at Maryland State College in the early 1960s.
But when his grandmother passed away, he returned home to North Brentwood, Md., to mourn her loss, and instead of returning to college, he found work as a payroll clerk for the District of Columbia.
“I belonged to a union, and I met a lot of political people. I loved the work. We paid everybody for the district government, from the mayor to the laborer.”
In March 1967, Uncle Sam decided to change Plummer’s direction in government service and drafted him into the Army, where he would twice spill his blood in the defense of the country and nearly drown in a flooded rice paddy.
But before leaving for Vietnam, he married Marcia Tucker, a Buffalo resident who was attending Howard University in Washington, D.C.
“We got married June 29, 1967, at Fort Bragg [N.C.], and I was sent to Vietnam that August,” Plummer said.
Assigned to the 1st Infantry Division, “The Big Red One,” he served with C-1/2 Company, Headquarters, and routinely carried out search-and-destroy missions.
Here’s how he earned his first Purple Heart and then another all in one day:
“Our base camp was in the jungle, and we were outside the perimeter about 50 meters when we came under attack about 11 o’clock in the morning. We called in airstrikes. All hell was breaking loose, and shrapnel from one of our bombs struck me in the right shoulder.
“The medics came and saw it wasn’t very serious. We had to draw back to the perimeter so that more airstrikes could come. It took us about a half-hour to make our way back. You had to crawl your way back. It wasn’t like you could get up and walk back from going to the store or something.”
The wound from the burning, piercing shrapnel, Plummer said, did not frighten him.
“This is war, and a whole lot of our friends didn’t make it back. I was just blessed that it wasn’t a bullet injury.”
As it turned out, he was doubly blessed.
The night of that same day, Plummer and his buddy Bruce Levy from New York City were sent out on a listening post detail.
“We were about 10 or 15 meters outside our perimeter from the base,” he said. “It was about 10:30 or 11 o’clock, and another airstrike came in, and I got hit again in the right shoulder, about 2 inches lower than the morning strike. It was amazing. It was a minor wound.”
The result was that Plummer earned his second Purple Heart in one day. After that, he says, he was taken off the front lines and assigned to guarding the interior of the base.
Levy, he added, was eventually killed while out on patrol.
“He was only 19 years old, and I was like a big brother to him.”
War, however, still proved dangerous for Plummer, as well.
At one point during his service, he recalls walking across a dike and falling into a rice paddy, which was flooded with water.
“It was very deep, 15 feet. We had our rifles and all our gear on, and I didn’t know how to swim,” he said. “The platoon leader dived in the water, and he brought me back up and got the water out of my system, and then we just kept going.”
When Plummer left Vietnam, he had more than his share of war stories, though he says he does not suffer from flashbacks.
After active duty, he signed up with the Army National Guard and served until 1996 as a Military Police officer. He also resumed his career as a payroll clerk. He and his wife raised four children.
Long retired from his military and civil service jobs, Plummer moved to Western New York about a year ago so that his wife could be close to her relatives.
“I like the Buffalo area better than I thought I would,” he said. “I thought it would be so cold and snowy up here that I wouldn’t get out. But last winter, it snowed more down in Maryland than it did up here, and this past summer, it was in the 100s down there, while it was only in the 90s up here.”