(Via Ho’okele News)
Story and photos by MC2 Tiarra Fulgham
Navy Public Affairs Support Element West Detachment Hawaii
Ashes of Pearl Harbor survivor Machinist’s Mate 1st Class William Henderson were scattered into the calm waters at the USS Utah Memorial on Ford Island, Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam during an ash scattering ceremony March 10.
Henderson was born Nov. 12, 1922 and later joined the U.S. Navy the day after his 18th birthday on Nov. 13, 1940. Following graduation from Recruit Training Command, he received orders to the Brooklyn-class cruiser USS Helena (CL 50) at Pearl Harbor.
On the morning of the 1941 Japanese attacks, Henderson was asleep in his rack and was awakened by a general alarm calling for all crew to report to their battle stations.
While he was getting dressed, the ship was hit by a Japanese torpedo that knocked out the power throughout the ship and flooded the engine and boiler rooms. Henderson managed to make it to his battle station shortly after a short state of unconsciousness.
Capt. Larry Scruggs, deputy commander of Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard, spoke at the ceremony about Henderson’s dedication and bravery on that day.
“I am sure he felt that this was his last day as he ran to perform his duties as trained,” said Scruggs. “He would witness his world forever change that day, and yet, he would go on to serve his country honorably, with passion and courage, and a deep commitment to his shipmates.”
Even with the extensive damage to the ship, it was repaired and returned to full active status, deploying to sea as a part of the task force to intercept the Japanese fleet in October 1942.
Henderson continued to serve in the Navy and on the Helena during the Battles of Esperance, Guadalcanal and Kula Gulf in which the ship was hit by three torpedoes, breaking it into three parts and resulting in it sinking.
In an excerpt from his book, “Escape from the Sea,” he recalled in great detail the night he survived the Japanese attacks on the Helena in the Kula Gulf.
“For us the battle was over but we had lost eight officers, 186 enlisted men and four Marines. Most of them died while manning their battle stations during the fight. Some severely wounded men managed to abandon ship but later died in the water or aboard the rescue ships. They were all shipmates who made the supreme sacrifice. Some were friends, men with whom I had been on liberty. They will be sorely missed until we are all called to meet the ‘supreme commander,” Henderson said.
After the sinking of Helena, Henderson was later reassigned to the attack transport USS President Polk (AP 103), and he served until the end of the war and later discharged in 1947.
“I feel very fortunate to have survived the war without a scratch or wound. To this day, I have a poignant feeling for the Helena, but have no desire to repeat the harrowing experience of action in the South Pacific. I left the Navy after serving a six-year hitch and worked 36 years for the Pacific Telephone Company in California, retiring in 1984. Francis and I have three fine daughters, three great sonin-laws and six wonderful grandchildren. How sweet it is,” Henderson said in his book.
To show his feelings and love for the Helena, he named all three of his daughters after the ship.
They all have the same initials C-L-H after the light cruiser Helena.
Henderson’s son-in-law, Mike Danaher, talked about many of the things Henderson did to continue to honor his shipmates even after he retired.
“He raised money and ran a sculpture competition to build a World War II memorial in our hometown, and now that’s the focus for the 4th of July activities,” said Danaher.
His family mentioned that Henderson began to collect stories from surviving shipmates and put them into his book.
“He did a lot to honor his shipmates and he would really appreciate this,” Danaher added.
“I’m thankful for all the fine men and women that contributed to the ceremony,” said Fran Henderson, Henderson’s wife of more than 63 years. “I feel appreciation for the many years I had with my husband and his contribution to the war.”
“He was a hero to his family, the Navy and the United States,” said Jim Taylor, Pearl Harbor survivor liaison who spoke at the ceremony. “His desire was to make a final voyage to Pearl Harbor and have his remains returned to honor his fellow friends and shipmates lost during the attacks. Thanks to the efforts of his family, his wish has come true.”
Henderson passed away in August 2013.
His ashes were returned to the site of the attack to join his shipmates and received full military honors including a flag presentation, playing of “Taps,” and a three-volley rifle salute from members of the Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam Honors and Ceremonies Detachment.