A gasoline tanker, the USS Tombigbee was part of the Pacific fleet during World War II. U. S. Navy photo courtesy of NavSource.
(ROCKWALL, HEATH, TX – Nov. 7, 2016) As World War II wound down, the USS Tombigbee recruited a radar operator on the Pacific island of Okinawa. The young man from Texas had to decide quickly whether to accept the assignment or wait for an expected—and preferred—aircraft carrier. With an approaching typhoon, the gasoline tanker needed to leave.
Bill Bassett sensed an inner voice telling him to go. He went aboard the ship headed for Japan. Days later he received word that his tent and cot were crushed by a dislodged boulder when the typhoon hit the island.
Dr. Bassett, now 91, is a family friend and a retired counselor. He’s always wanted to write down his service stories but hasn’t gotten around to it yet.
Though libraries are full of military books, we might find good stories waiting to be told by family members, friends, and neighbors. But we shouldn’t wait long. The “Greatest Generation” especially is disappearing fast at the rate of several hundred each day.
In the dining room at Brookdale Summer Ridge in Rockwall hangs a photo collage of residents who served in the military. As a regular volunteer at the assisted living facility, I hoped one of them would tell me about their service years.
Don Henderson politely declined my request: “I never saw any action, nothing of interest.” The former Navy seaman, turning 89 soon, had little to offer—in his opinion.
However, I’ve learned to be gently persistent since the day that another veteran, now deceased, shared his war-years memories with me.
During his mid-80’s, Jim Thomas worked as a volunteer at my church. When I heard he’d been a pilot in both World War II and the Korean War I wanted to know more. The veteran doubted that his remembrances would interest anyone, but he agreed to talk over a burger basket. Our French fries grew cold as he recalled several survival stories.
On a mission from France to Germany to support Patton’s army, Thomas flew a single-engine airplane equipped with bombs and machine guns. His was the last of twelve planes providing air cover for tanks. But while the others flew low at 1000 feet, his troubled plane flew lower. When the engine quit, his only option was a belly landing in pre-dawn darkness. Suddenly, bright lights from a passing train illuminated railroad tracks and telephone wires. He flew under the wires and hit the ground, losing the wings, tail, and engine; only the pilot compartment stayed intact. He crawled out amid 25-pound bombs that could have exploded on impact. After an Army jeep picked him up, he flew another mission in the afternoon.
I asked Mr. Thomas if his grandchildren loved his stories. “They’ve never heard them,” he replied. “They’ve never asked, so….” His voice broke, and he shrugged his shoulders.
Navy Seaman Don Henderson serves as a Resident Ambassador at Brookdale Summer Ridge (assisted living), in Rockwall. Photo by Patti Richter.
At Summer Ridge recently, I tapped on the apartment door of the former Navy seaman who decided to talk with me. “Have a seat,” he offered.
Don Henderson was a young teenager in the World War II year of 1943. With an older brother serving in the Air Force, he wanted to help out with the war effort. His mother gave her signed permission and he enlisted at age 15!
The war was ending by the time Henderson finished his naval training in San Diego. Then he received a dry dock assignment to work on a war-battered destroyer, the USS Black.
After his four years of service Henderson returned to the Dallas area, married, and had nine children—several live in or near Rockwall. And, over the years, he saw the country change.
“Marriage commitment has diminished now, and people have fewer family ties,” Henderson says. “The war years were good, with no drugs. And families took care of each other.”
The local veteran, just as he warned me, had no exciting war stories. However, he has unique memories of an era—another world—fading from view. And this perspective is worth recalling.
By Blue Ribbon News contributing writer Patti Richter of Heath.
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