WWII vet and former baseball player speaks of D-Day one last time

    Xuan Thai, ESPN Senior Writer Jun 6, 2024

    World War II veteran Jack Hamlin, pictured here in 2014 and now 102, is believed to be the last surviving professional athlete to have served at Normandy. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

    WITH A ROPE tied around his waist and bullets whizzing past, Jack Hamlin [Sigma Nu] jumped from his Coast Guard cutter and into the frigid waters just off the coast of Normandy. His job on June 6, 1944: to rescue wounded Allied troops before they drowned or bled out. He still remembers the orders from that day.

    “‘We don’t want the dead ones. Just the ones we can save,'” Hamlin says his commanders told him. They could recover the bodies later.

    Just hours earlier, under the cover of darkness, Hamlin and his crew had set sail from Poole, England, and crossed the English Channel toward their assignment at Omaha Beach. They had no inkling of the magnitude of death and devastation that would unfold. Omaha would become the bloodiest of the five Allied landing zones on D-Day, one of the largest military assaults in history and a pivot point in World War II.

    “Can you just imagine 5,000 ships going to the five beaches?” he says. “I was scared. I was scared to death.”

    Hamlin was just 22 and thousands of miles from his home in Springfield, Mo., and a budding career as a minor league infielder with dreams of playing Major League Baseball.

    Today, eight decades later, Hamlin is 102 and spending his days in an assisted-living center in Springfield, where he was born and raised. He is one of hundreds, or maybe thousands, of D-Day veterans still alive — there are no official records, and the youngest would be well into their 90s. Historians say he is possibly the last surviving professional athlete to have served at Normandy.

    On a gray and dreary morning, he sits with a reporter in his living room, perched on a couch in pressed khakis and a checkered button-down shirt. His oldest daughter, Jacqueline, sits in a corner. Hamlin is feeling unusually weary on this day, after a weekend visit to an urgent care center, but after a nurse checks in and they banter back and forth, the twinkle returns to Hamlin’s eyes.

    He’s ready for what Jacqueline later reveals will be the last interview he ever wants to give on this subject, about what he saw that day 80 years ago and about the baseball career he gave up while serving others.