Navy Ensign Charles Hazeltine Hammann was one of the first U.S. military aviators who went to battle when the country entered World War I, so it’s fitting that his heroics in the skies over Europe made him the first aviator to earn the Medal of Honor.
Hammann was born March 16, 1892, in Baltimore, to parents Jacob and Elizabeth Hammann. He had a brother, Edward, and a sister named Lillian.
Called “Haze” by his friends, thanks to his middle name, Hammann played high school football at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute before graduating in 1910. He spent a few years working in business, including for a brewing company, before joining the Naval Reserve’s Flying Corps in 1917.
Hammann learned how to fly at the Navy’s only air station at the time, which was in Pensacola, Florida. He then sailed to France in June 1917. Over the next year, he got a lot of flight time under his belt and even learned how to do stunt piloting, according to a letter he wrote home to his brother.
By the spring of 1918, Hammann was sent to Italy to join the fight. On Aug. 21, he and three other pilots were sent on a patrol over an Austro-Hungarian naval base near the enemy stronghold of Pola, in modern-day Croatia. The pilots were flying Italian Macchi seaplanes when enemy aircraft came after them.
In the middle of the dogfight, the airplane of the lead pilot, Ensign George Ludlow, was hit by anti-aircraft fire. According to a 1938 Baltimore Sun article, the plane nose-dived about 12,000 feet before leveling off and landing safely in the water.
Hammann immediately did his best to dodge the remaining enemy aircraft to attempt a rescue. He dove down and landed on the water close to the disabled plane and took Ludlow onboard, even though his aircraft wasn’t designed to hold two people. Hammann put Ludlow under the motor, a 1918 Baltimore Sun article said, before taking off again. The extra weight caused the plane to sway and strain with effort, but when enemy aircraft came for them, Hammann was still able to turn his machine guns in their direction, which caused them to flee.
Hammann’s overweight aircraft almost made it back to Naval Air Station Porto Corsini in northeast Italy before it fully broke down. The plane fell into the water right off the coast. Hammann and Ludlow had to swim to shore — but they made it.
Two months after the incident, Hammann was commissioned as an ensign. He returned from overseas in January 1919.
Unfortunately, Hammann’s life was cut short a few months later. The 27-year-old was killed on June 14 during a Flag Day celebration at Langley Field in Hampton, Virginia. According to a 1938 Baltimore Sun article, he was stunting in an aircraft when it went into a tailspin and crashed.
Hammann is buried in Oak Lawn Cemetery in Baltimore.
Hammann was nominated for the Medal of Honor before he died; however, it wasn’t made available to his family until November 1920. Newspaper coverage at the time showed the holdup was due to a Congressional investigation into injustice within the Navy regarding the service’s manner of distributing recognition of distinguished war-time service.
According to the Naval History and Heritage Command, Hammann was the first U.S. aviator of any service to receive the Medal of Honor. His August 1918 heroics also earned him the Silver Medal for Military Valor from the king of Italy and the Italian War Cross.
Hammann’s name has not been forgotten within the Navy or in his hometown. A monument to the aviator and another Baltimore World War I Medal of Honor recipient, Army Private Henry Gilbert Costin, was erected in the city’s downtown in 1939.
During World War II, there were actually two warships named for him. The first USS Hammann was a destroyer launched in 1939, but it was sunk in early 1942 during the Battle of Midway. Later that same year, a commissioned destroyer escort was renamed as the second USS Hammann.
This article is part of a weekly series called “Medal of Honor Monday,” in which we highlight one of the more than 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients who have earned the U.S. military’s highest medal for valor.
Source: Department of Defense