By Diana Colson
Walter Hamer was born in 1932 in Puerto Cortes in the Republic of Honduras. His mother was American, but his father was British, and so, according to the laws of the time, he became a British subject. This fact influenced his later career in the United States Air Force.
Walter’s dad was an executive with the United Fruit Company, and the family lived in several Latin American countries until Walter’s high school years. Completely bilingual, his command of Spanish would help him in business throughout his life.
Although the United Fruit Company provided schooling for employee’s children, they made no provision beyond 8th grade, and youngsters went to the States for their high school education. Walter received his first taste of the military when he attended Castle Heights Military Academy in Tennessee from 1946 to 1950. Here he also learned to fly, becoming a licensed pilot in his senior year.
On June 27, 1950, President Truman committed U. S. armed forces to the defense of South Korea. That same summer, Walter enrolled in Civil Engineering at Tulane University, in New Orleans.
After a year of study, he decided to change to Agricultural Engineering. He was accepted at Cornell, but Cornell required one year of practical farm experience as a prerequisite for their Ag Engineering curriculum. Walter arranged to meet this requirement by working in the United Fruit Company’s banana farms in Latin America.
As a foreigner in America on a student visa, Walter was required to register for the draft. His draft board did not consider the work year to be a part of his education. He was told that as soon as he left Tulane he’d lose his student deferment and would probably be drafted.
At 19, Walter wanted to serve but preferred to serve in the Air Force, where his flight training would be put to better use. He tried to enlist in the U. S. Air Force but was ineligible because of his non-citizen classification. He couldn’t enlist, he could only be drafted.
He visited the British Consulate in New Orleans to see if there was some alternative military service he might perform. He was told that the Australian Air Force was actively recruiting pilots and that, as a British subject, they would gladly take him in. When Walter advised the American draft board of his intentions, he was told that foreign military service would not change his status, and he would still be eligible for the draft upon completion. A sympathetic and far-sighted recruiting officer delved in to the legalities of the situation. He found that if Walter were to file a Declaration of intent to Become an American Citizen, he would qualify for enlistment. However, he could not become a pilot, as all pilots in the U. S. Air force are commissioned officers, and only American citizens could hold military commissions.
“Fine,” said Walter. “I’ll serve as an enlisted man.”
He went through Basic Training at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, becoming an Airman Basic. Along with other recruits, he was given aptitude tests which, not surprisingly, proved him to be good pilot material. He was encouraged to apply for pilot training but was once again turned down because of his British citizenship. A second visionary officer researched the situation and found that the filed Declaration of Intent was sufficient for him to enter the Aviation Cadet program. Upon completion, Walter became one of the few commissioned officers in the service who was not an American citizen.
He received Primary Training at Columbus, Mississippi; Basic Instruction in Enid, Oklahoma, and Advanced four-engine bomber qualifications at Randolph AFB in Texas. He was given survival training in Nevada, followed by overseas assignment to Kadena AFB in Okinawa.
The heavy bombardment of North Korean cities from Okinawa was one of the main factors in bringing about the Cease-Fire and eventual peace negotiations between the warring sides. As Walter explains, “We continued flying fully armed missions with briefings for North Korean targets but would turn around upon reaching the 38th parallel, which was the cease-fire demarcation line. The idea was to encourage the Korean negotiators at the bargaining table.” The big bombers could take off with a full bomb load, but could not land with such high weight, so they had to drop their loads on the return leg. A group of small unpopulated Okinawan islands was assigned as a practice range and bombs were dropped as a training exercise. Local fishermen discovered that the exploding bombs killed and stunned hundreds of fish which they could scoop out of the water. Keeping the drop area clear of fishermen was an ongoing problem handled by the Navy. Of his Air Force career, Walter says, “I never dropped a bomb in anger, but I probably killed a lot of fish.”
An armistice agreement was reached in 1953, and Walter’s overseas tour ended. His squadron flew the now-obsolete B-29s back to Tucson, Arizona, to be stored or scrapped. He was assigned to Altus AFB, Oklahoma, from where he completed training in the new B-47 strategic jet bomber and spent the rest of his active service flying various missions as a Strategic Air Command bomber pilot.
In 1956, he was discharged from active duty and went into the Air Force Reserve. He returned to Tulane to pick up his Civil Engineering studies, where he reconnected with Susan Trafton, whom he had known since childhood. Like him, she was a “banana brat”, born in Panama to another United Fruit family.
In 1959, Walter graduated and married Susan. The young couple moved to the Azores where Walter worked for a construction company doing projects on the joint Portuguese-American air base at Terceira. They then moved to another job in Puerto Rico, where their daughter was born and where Walter became an American citizen. After that, they lived in Spain for almost fifteen years in both Barcelona and Madrid, working mostly for American companies doing construction and development work there. In 1978, they moved to Tampa, where Walter was employed by a development company, traveling to Latin America looking for investment capital for the company’s projects.
Their fluency in Spanish has served the couple well. Susan is a Certified Federal Court Interpreter who has worked since the 1980’s with Spanish speakers at the Federal District Court in Tampa.
The Hamers retired in 2001, moving into a Carriage House in the Landings. Walter has taken up writing for pleasure and is currently working on his mother’s life story. Sue continues her free-lance interpretation work at the Tampa court, although on a reduced schedule.
As a young man, Walter learned much from his military experience, particularly the values one gets from working closely with a group of people. He says, “A B-29 crew was twelve people working together in a big pressurized tin can, bringing all of their various specialties together to accomplish complicated common goals.”