Remembering Ralph Hamblin
(April 28, 1928 to April 15, 2003)
Ralph Hamblin — known as Top, the generic nickname for a First Sergeant — was the person at the 981st whom I worked with most closely. I kept in touch with him too at Christmas until his death in 2003. He was a highly experienced noncommissioned officer, a center of calm, and an example to others at 981st headquarters in Cam Ranh Bay and at the unit’s detachments.
A few things I remember about him: He used to write to his mother Lula in Kentucky regularly. When I went to Hong Kong on R&R, he asked me to bring back two silk mandarin pajama sets, decorated with embroidery, for his wife Anna. He also once told me how concerned he was that his children would not be able to attend middle school and high school without being subject to the kinds of substance abuse temptations that were beginning to be rampant in the US at that time. I know he worried about this since he was frequently absent overseas while his three children were growing up.
I also knew he had met his wife when he was stationed in Germany and that her family had had a hard time in WW II, suffering wartime displacement and other losses and indignities. He and his wife both loved dogs and at the time I knew him had a small white poodle at home that Top insisted had a genius-level understanding of the English language. And while he liked our unit mascot Foxy, he devoted most of his attention to his own unit mutt named Homer — sad to say not at all proficient in the English-speaking tongue.
He was close to 1SG David Sam of the 630th MP Company just down the road from the 981st, and looked forward to receiving the generic Christmas letter that Sam and his wife sent to their friends. He also knew and liked SSG Fleming, our Staff Sergeant responsible for the conduct and
detail assignments of new dog handlers arriving in-country. Fleming, who had very erect military bearing and was of Native American background, I believe had worked with Top at an earlier post where they had first become friendly. Top also pointedly disliked loudmouths, braggarts and windbags, of which in Vietnam there were many.
An example of Top’s unflappable personality and ability to lead: SGTs Rush Mortimer and Arnie Price in CRB decided to help Top celebrate his birthday at the local NCO watering hole, which that night had a band in attendance. Top was agreeable but when Price thought it would be rousingly appropriate during intermission to empty the contents of their beer cans over Top’s head — as a sort of celebratory baptism by alcohol — Top quietly but firmly told the two that it would not be a good idea to do this. The two young buck sergeants thus received a benign lesson in personal dignity, which they absorbed by example, while Top avoided a patently unwelcome Pabst Blue Ribbon beer shampoo on his day of birth. And so the three wound up drinking their beers together and enjoying them as the birthday evening wore on. That being said, Top also spent much of his free time in the second-floor lounge in the barracks building he occupied — a place where drinks flowed freely, soldiers could unwind, and stag films could be watched.
On a personal note, Top helped me out on the day I was to be pinned by the colonel as a SGT E-5. On that morning a dog handler up-country had gone AWOL with at least one missing weapon. I had received the phone call on my office phone and had as a result been engaged for the better part of three hours in trying to find out how many people and weapons were involved, the extent of any injuries, etc. It was a bad connection that was intermittently cut off, and since no one wanted to take me off the phone I missed the pinning ceremony. Top went in my stead, though, and explained my absence to the colonel, who then arranged to pin me with my stripes later in the day. He at that time queried me about the incident and praised me for my perseverance — and I then understood that the colonel’s interest was a result of what Top had said about me and how he had said it. Top’s words had been a reflection of how he viewed his subordinates and what they had done or could do for the good of the company. It was something I’ve always remembered about him, as well as an illustration of his quiet good sense in both word and deed.
Top also had the opportunity to attend a TO&E strategy and planning meeting that took place while he was in-country. The meeting was called to modify our unit’s basic Table of Organization & Equipment, since our sentry dog company was different from other MP units. It did not meet frequently so this was an important opportunity whereby to plan for having our unit’s future needs met. Top’s input here was both offered and valued.
Top died in 2003, shortly before his seventy-fifth birthday. Many people he worked with remember him, what he did for the 981st, and the remarkable way in which he did it. I was honored to work closely with him and as a result I liked him a lot. Top, the time we knew each other was all too short. But I’ll take this opportunity to thank you now for all you did. You were figuratively and literally at the top of your profession and an inspiration to those of us who knew and admired you. And now, your work being done, may you rest in peace.
Submitted by Steve Dragovich, Company Clerk, 981st, 70/71.