EXCHANGE: Marion man remembers his dad's WWII legacy
Jun. 15, 2018
MARION, Ill. (AP) — Bill Henson said he sees the ghost of his father in a lot of places — in books, on television and even on the internet. This is because his father, William Henson, served as a staff sergeant in one of the most iconic Army groups that served in World War II — the 4th Infantry Division, 8th Battalion.
Henson's father served in what could be considered the greatest hits of battles during the war — he was in the first wave to land on Utah Beach in Normandy on D-Day, he was there the day after the Dachau concentration camp was liberated, and was even present for the Battle of the Bulge.
However, it was William Henson's part in the July 25, 1944, Operation Cobra in St. Lo, France that comes up over and over. It was there that he and some of his fellow soldiers looked to the sky as thousands of Allied bombers flew overhead to clear the way for troop advancement.
It was there that an unknown war photographer — Bill Henson speculated it might have been famed war correspondent Ernie Pyle — took a photo that has stood the test of time. There Henson is, in the middle, an optimistic look on his face.
Bill Henson said he's seen this picture of his dad since he was a child, it's in his father's 4th Infantry book. But what he never expected was to see it on television.
Henson recalled sitting there in 2007, watching the fourth episode of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick's mammoth documentary "The War," when Operation Cobra came up.
"I fell off the couch," Henson said. There was his dad's photograph, and as the narrator read the words of Ernie Pyle, they zoomed closer and closer on William Henson's face. His parents were watching and Henson called them to see if they had seen it — they had.
Growing up, Henson said he knew his dad served, he knew some of the stories, but to him, William Henson was mostly the guy who played catch with him, not the man who helped storm Normandy on June 6, 1944.
On their block in Marion, Henson said there were six World War II veterans. He said these men were the heroes he and his brother looked up to.
Henson said it wasn't until he was in his early 20s that he got really invested in learning the history not only of the war, but also of his father's involvement in it. He even got his father to write down his memories before his passing in 2010.
"We were dropped out of landing craft in about 5.5 feet of water. The water was up to my chin," Henson wrote of his experience landing on Utah Beach.
"I saw that Henry Stephanie of our Company, who was only 5 ft. 5 in. tall was having trouble getting out of the deep water, so I got him by the arm and helped him to where he could get better footing and could go on his own.
"After getting on the beach, I saw my first dead American soldier floating on the water's edge," he wrote.
Henson wrote matter-of-factly about his experience arriving at the liberated Dachau concentration camp in April 1945.
"There we saw the railroad cars loaded with the bodies of hundreds of the Jews that the German Army had killed," he wrote.
Bill Henson said his father impressed on him that there were funny times in war, too, at least in hindsight. There was the time he had to dive for cover through what had recently been used as a German latrine. There was also the time he was caught off-guard after using the bathroom himself by a German soldier surrendering.
"Comrade, Comrade!" Henson wrote the soldier said as he approached. Henson wrote that he panicked because his rifle was at least 3 yards away.
Henson said his father was able to put a lot of the trauma of war behind him — though he did have nightmares about the war throughout his life — but he did enjoy the company of others who served.
"My dad and couple of the other guys almost every day would meet in the alley behind their house and talked," Henson said, adding that it was a lot like Hank Hill and the gang on the animated series "King of the Hill."
Before he was a soldier, William Henson was a St. Louis Cardinals baseball fan — this is the side Bill Henson said he knew of his dad.
Born in 1920 in Valier, Henson's father grew up idolizing The Gashouse Gang of Cardinals players and even got to see Dizzy Dean pitch when he attended his first Cardinals game in his early teens.
Henson said sometimes the desire to see a game was just too much for his dad.
"When he was in high school, him and a couple buddies wanted to see a Cardinal game so bad . they hitchhiked to St. Louis to watch a ballgame," Henson remembered his dad telling him.
"It got late coming back and they couldn't get a ride. They ended up spending the night in some guy's barn before they were able to get a ride the next morning."
Henson said one of the fondest memories of his father was being there with him when the Cardinals won the 2006 World Series.
"He was just excited. He was just like a little kid," Henson said, remembering them jumping up and down, exchanging high-fives. His father was 86 at the time.
Henson carried his love of baseball into the military with him, playing catcher in the 4th Motorized Division's baseball team.
"(Henson) cracks out a single" a headline reads above a photo of William Henson doing just that in a May 28, 1943 edition of The Ivy Leaf.
Henson actually went back into the military a few years after being discharged — Bill Henson said his dad had tired of the coal mines and thought he wanted a career in the military. That ended though, around the time he realized it might take him away from the game he loved.
"He was going to get a promotion. That promotion was going to make it to where he wasn't going to be able to play baseball anymore and he didn't like that, and that's when he decided to get back out of the Army again," Henson said. In his second tour, Henson served during the Korean War, but was stationed in Germany.
He went on to work for three decades at the Marion VA Hospital.
William Henson died from a stroke Oct. 31, 2010. Bill Henson said this was particularly hard because of the seemingly good health his dad was in.
Henson said less than two weeks after his father passed, he got a call from a friend, urging him to turn on Fox News. It was Veterans Day and at the bottom of the screen was his father's face.
He said they used his father's Operation Cobra photograph in their telecasts all day. He said it was like getting a visit from his dad.
There are a lot of lessons his dad taught him, but Bill Henson said he often reflects on his dad's "Greatest Generation." He said they are leaving at a fast rate and should be thanked for their service at home and abroad — without them, he said, the world would be a very different place.
"The timing for their generation was perfect," Henson said, tears welling in his eyes.
Source: The (Carbondale) Southern Illinoisan, https://bit.ly/2L5q20B
Information from: Southern Illinoisan, http://www.southernillinoisan.com