Eugene Page Henderson was born Nov 11, 1945 on Armistice Day, which is now known as Veteran’s Day. The fact that he happened to be born on this day is a nice coincidence, and another reason for my dad to be proud of his service to our country. His experience in the US Army had a major impact in his life, provided him with many lasting memories, and helped shape him into the person he is today.
I am very proud to be here and share with you some of his experiences as a young man.
During his senior year in high school, my dad received brochures from every branch of the military. But when he read the one from the US Army, and saw the images of guys jumping out of airplanes - he knew that’s what he wanted to do! Be Airborne!
In July of 1965, only twenty-two days after my dad graduated from Morse High School, he joined the U.S. Army. He completed basic training at Ft. Ord, CA. From there he went on to artillery school at Ft. Sill, OK and then finally to Ft. Benning, GA, for Paratrooper Jump School. He said he will never forget his first jump recalling it being a night jump. It was not really a night jump, it’s just that he had his eyes closed when he exited the plane, as did many of the other trainees on their first jump! He was pretty relieved when the static line did its job, and the parachute opened, bringing him safely to the ground! He came to enjoy jumping out of the side door of the C-130 aircraft. Leaping up and out so he would not hit the side of the aircraft 3000 feet above the ground.
On Jump School graduation day, my dad was so excited and proud of knowing that after 8 weeks of rigorous airborne training, he was going to receive his parachute badge! Only a handful of men make it through to the end of training. He says “The airborne soldier lives by a different creed than other army guys.”
After jump school he went to the 101st Airborne Division in KY. Before he was assigned to a company, it was announced that volunteers were needed to train and become combat medics. He said he must not have heard the word COMBAT before he raised his hand to volunteer. All he knew was that he didn't like being in artillery – so off he went to medical training.
Once he completed his medical training he was assigned to the 3-2-6 medical battalion back with the 101st Airborne Division.
While there, he was recommended by his company commander to interview for a position working at the brigade level for a Sgt. Major and the Colonel in charge of the Division.
There were 12 finalist selected from the division. The interview was conducted by a Sgt. Major Paul E. Huff who was the top ranking enlisted person in the brigade. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroic action in the Korean War. To my dad and the enlisted man he was a legend. SGT Major Huff must have liked what he saw, when he interviewed Private Henderson. He was offered the position, but had to tell the Sgt. Major that he had applied for further medical training and, if selected, would he have the option to go? I guess SGT. Major agreed, because he got the job.
During the time he worked under these two officers, 1) he was promoted to the next rank of specialist E-4 much sooner than he expected 2) that SGT. Major Huff would become a good friend and mentor.
While on leave in San Diego during Thanksgiving my dad received a call from Sgt. Major Huff informing my dad that he had received two sets of orders. It was up to him to decide to attend Operation Room training or go to VN. Gene said his choice was actually an easy one – go to VN. His rationale for his decision; he thought if he accepted his brother could come home immediately. Little did he know that the process would take at least 6 months, which by then his brother would be home anyway. As it turned out his brother Chico extended for another year in VN.
He actually hadn’t seen his brother in five years, but during his time in VN they managed to see each other on three occasions. Each visit brought lasting memories.
After his brother retired from the Army, they would talk about their time in VN. Sharing some of their experiences with another who was there, and understood what it was like, brought relief along with tears of sorrow. They would also reminisce about the good times, and laugh so hard it would make their stomachs hurt.
My dad arrived in Saigon on Dec 15, 1966 and with five other medics was assigned to the 1st of the12th airborne infantry battalion with the 1st Calvary Airmobile Division located near the small town of AnKae, in the central highlands of VN.
To my dad Vietnam was a beautiful country. From the air, the mountains seemed to grow out from the jungles. Water falls flowed into the rivers below. On occasion you would see a few elephants playing along the banks of the rivers. In the middle of nowhere you might come across large areas of nothing but rice patties with a small village nearby. Many time you would see villagers tending to their crops, using water buffalo to plow or for pulling their carts. At night though, those same farmers could become your worst enemy.
The 1st Calvary Division was the first of its kind to use helicopters as their main workhorse. It revolutionized the Army’s approach of fighting a war, especially in the jungles of Viet Nam. Within his first 6 months in AnKae, my dad and 29 other men received The Air Medal for their Meritorious Achievement while participating in aerial flight in the Republic of Vietnam.
All medics were assigned to the headquarters company of the 1st of the 12th and were assigned to a platoon or company when the need arose. When assigned to a new platoon he would tell the guys, “As you’re medic I have two things you must understand and follow. 1) I will always be there for you no matter what, 2) if you do need my help, never, ever yell out Medic or DOC because those two words could get me killed!” Soon, he learned that a medic who he didn’t know, was killed, and he was assigned to replace him.
It was late that afternoon when he was delivered, by helicopter, to join the platoon as their new medic. As he approached he saw a small hill, where the guys in the platoon were resting, smoking, eating their C-rations, all the while being on guard. There was not much room to land the helicopter, and the guys didn’t move - they held onto their helmets, covered their food and faces as the dust from the turning rotor blades blew dirt, and anything else not held down, in every direction.
On approach my dad said he was sitting in the open side door with the door gunner with his legs hanging over, so that when he was close enough he could jump off with his gear. He said he could tell the pilot didn’t want to stay for dinner because he turned the helicopter slightly and was off before my dad’s boots hit the ground. He joined the men for some chow.
Later just before dusk he was sitting alone overlooking the valley below which had a mist of fog lingering just below the tree tops. It was beautiful and calm as the sun set. This valley was likely where they would be going in the morning.
The lieutenant who was in charge of the platoon came and sat next to him and said “how you doing?”, as if he was welcoming him to the platoon. “What’s your name?” he asked. My dad answered – “Its Gene’. The lieutenant then said “my name is George but you know you are not supposed to call me that’. And Gene in a manner you are all probably are familiar with said, “No problem, George!”
Early the next morning the platoon moved towards the valley below. They situated themselves at the base of a hill first then made their way into the jungle, following a small stream. They received a radio call to check out some smoke that was spotted from the air about a half mile into the jungle. Just as they arrived at the location, a gunship was circling and all of a sudden the door gunner started spraying up the place. It was obvious the pilot didn’t get the word that there was a platoon of soldiers in the area.
Our lieutenant (George) was hit in the leg by one of the gunner’s bullets. My dad patched his leg up and told him, ‘you’ll be going home from this’. He said to Gene, “Thanks, and Good luck Gene” as he was placed in the medivac copter. That was the first time my dad experienced what is called “friendly fire”.
Upon his return from this mission he received another stripe that made him a Specialist E-5 at the age of 20.
Months later my dad’s tour in Viet Nam was almost over. He was excited, because he would be home by Christmas. After his tour from VN he and another friend returned to Ft Campbell. I don’t know why, but they happened to be three days AWOL before reporting to the reception center.
At Fort Campbell, he and some of his buddies were sitting under a shade tree when he heard a private calling out for Henderson. With a smile on his face, the private told my dad that the Captain of the reception center wanted to see him. The private wouldn’t tell him why. My dad said to himself, “well, there goes a stripe for being AWOL!” But since he only had 6 months left in the Army, he thought, so what!
When he arrived at the captain’s office, he knocked on the door. He then heard a gruff voice telling him to come-in. He opened the door, and the Captain was looking out his window, with his back to him. My dad saluted as required and continued to say “Sir, Specialist Henderson reporting as ordered, Sir”.
The Captain turned around, and all my dad could do was cry out “George!” ….it was a happy reunion!
My dad received his new orders - he was assigned to an Artillery unit. No way did he want this assignment, because he knew they would be spending a lot of time in the field training. And he just returned from almost a whole year in the jungles of VN.
He decided to see if, by chance, Sgt. Major Huff was still on the post so he could visit with him and perhaps get his orders changed. My dad was able to meet with Sgt. Major Huff and he told him how he felt about being assigned to an artillery unit. Sgt. Major Huff told him He told him he would have new orders sent over for him right away. He was to grab his bags, not say a word to anyone and check into Division Headquarters Company.
What my dad did not know was that the Captain at Headquarters Company had some sort of problem with Sgt Major Huff, so his arrival without orders did not go over very well. To make things worse, three days passed, and still no orders arrived. What DID arrive were two military police to take him back to the Artillery unit for being AWOL.
My dad said he tried to explain his situation to the military police, but they didn’t want to listen. So he told them to call Sgt. Major Huff. The two military police looked at him as if he were nuts.
The MP wound up calling their superiors to find out what to do…. you don’t just call the Division Sgt. Major unless you have a real good reason, and to the MP being AWOL wasn't one of them. Their superiors contacted Sgt. Major Huff and within an hour his orders were sent over.
As his 3 year enlistment was coming to an end, an Army rep asked him if he was interested in re-enlisting (as is the norm). He told them no, he had other plans after leaving the Army. Days later the Army rep contacted him again, and sweetened the offer by agreeing to promote him to E-6 Staff Sargent. It was very tempting, but he declined the offer. He found out later that if he had re-enlisted, he would have been one of the youngest Staff Sergeants in the US Army, at age 21.
Occasionally, he wonders how his life would have unfolded if he remained in the Army. I imagine that had he stayed in the Army it’s unlikely that he would worked for PSA. It’s unlikely that he would have met the cute senorita at the airport, and married her 2 years later.
I have no doubt that he would have gone on to live an interesting and fulfilling life, become a mentor to those who want to learn from a no-nonsense, guy. A person who has a great entrepreneurial spirit, is artistic, and has a great sense of humor. I am so glad that he chose to leave the Army when he did, so that he would meet and marry my mom, and be a great dad.