Partly because his brother was 19 years older and away in the Army, B.J. Henderson, of Seattle, doesn’t have many crystal-clear memories of his sibling.
Except for this, from when B.J. was a toddler at the family’s home, then in Texarkana, Texas:
“He came home for Christmas dinner,” said Henderson. “It was just after Pearl Harbor in 1941. He had his uniform on, and carried a big duffle bag. I remember he bent over, reached down and handed me a Hershey bar. That was wonderful.”
Two and a half years later, a much different event took place at the Henderson home, one with no joy attached:
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“Someone came to the door with a telegram. But I’m not sure what happened next,” said B.J. Henderson, now 76.
The news from faraway France was that Technical Sergeant Gerald Henderson had been killed in battle.
Though it may not have been clear at the time, B.J.’s brother had been part of an invasion that would change the course of the war in Europe.
It was an amphibious attack unlike any history had seen: 160,000 Allied troops landing along a 50-mile stretch of heavily fortified beach held by the occupying German Army.
The cost was high, with more than 9,000 Allied soldiers killed or wounded. But more than 100,000 who survived began the march to drive back Hitler’s forces.
The 70th anniversary of D-Day in June is one of two historic events being noted at Memorial Day observances across the country. The other is July’s 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I.
Wreaths will be laid to mark each of the two anniversaries at a 1:30 event at Evergreen Washelli’s Veteran Memorial Cemetery, 11111 Aurora Avenue North.
Skip Dreps, a member of the cemetery’s advisory board, said the occasion will honor “sacrifices for freedom that can only be humbly saluted … by the laying of a wreath and keeping our promise to always remember those who protected our homes with their lives.”
Nearly 900 Washington state residents died in combat in World War I and some 6,000 were killed in World War II, Dreps said.
Cemeteries and monuments across the country will host events Monday, but no U.S. World War I veteran will attend them.
According to The Associated Press, the last American veteran of World War I, Frank Buckles, of West Virginia, died in 2011 at the age of 110.
World War II veterans are becoming scarce. At 97, retired Air Force Lt. Col. Rick Bassi has been slowed by age but plans to attend the event at Evergreen Washelli.
“I’ll be there,” said Bassi, who was shot down on a bombing mission over Berlin in March 1944 and held prisoner until the war ended. He received a Purple Heart and other military honors.
B.J. Henderson also often attends the Memorial Day event as a way to honor his brother, Gerald, and others who served.
Several books have documented Gerald Henderson’s bravery in trying to get wounded men to safety, where there was precious little, on a beach the Allied force called Omaha, scene of the invasion’s fiercest fighting.
Soldiers called Henderson “Pappy,” because at 25, he was older than most of his men.
Henderson had already served a stint in the Army and was about to be discharged in December 1941, but all that was changed by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
He re-enlisted and saw much combat, being injured in Africa and later in Sicily.
“I remember he wrote to our mother that the second (injury) wasn’t as bad as the first. But I think he just didn’t want to frighten her,” B.J. Henderson said.
In addition to receiving Purple Hearts for his injuries, Henderson was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for heroism.
Another thing B.J. Henderson came to learn about his brother was how important it was to him that B.J. go to college — becoming the first person in the family to do so.
One letter from Gerald included $100 specifically to be put away for that purpose, and insurance money after Gerald’s death also helped.
The gesture helped inspire a love of education in B.J. Henderson. He would go on to earn a doctorate in nuclear physics, and later, after he had moved to Seattle in 1977 to work as a physicist for Boeing, an MBA in finance.
Memorial Day observances will note that young men and women dying for their country in foreign lands is not simply a matter of history.
At Seattle’s Garden of Remembrance at Benaroya Hall, at Second Avenue and University Street, a 10 a.m. event will honor three men from Washington state who lost their lives in Afghanistan in the past year: Army Capt. Aaron R. Blanchard, 32 of Selah, Yakima County; Army Spc. Robert W. Ellis, 21, of Kennewick; and Marine Corps Sgt. Jacob M. Hess, 22, of Spokane.
Jack Broom: email@example.com or 206-464-2222