Tec/5 William C. Henson, Tank Driver, Company C, 37th Tank Battalion, 4th Armored Division, Third Army
born Jul 28, 1924 Bethel Springs, Tennessee
died Jul 13, 2004 Spring Hill, Florida
This soft-spoken, unassuming Southern gentleman became a close friend of mine in 2003 and 2004 through phone calls and two visits to his home in Spring Hill, Florida. After many hours of telephone conversation and his appreciation of my strong interest in his role in WWII, “W.C.” Henson and his wonderful wife Nancy of 54 years together welcomed me into their home as if I were family on my first visit, Apr. 28, 2003. W.C. was retired from a 40 year career as a rural mail carrier back in his home town. A deacon of the Northcliffe Baptist Church, he was a member of the Masonic Lodge and the Eastern Star.
W.C. Henson was one of eight children born into a very successful, large-acreage farm family in West Tennessee. The family was strongly patriotic, his father having served in WWI, and W.C. and both his brothers having served in WWII. The family never talked about their war experiences. But in 2003, perhaps because of his failing health (Henson had had several surgeries for bladder cancer, was diabetic, and his heart problems required him to wear a pacemaker), W.C. wrote to an acquaintance of mine, military historian and author Lt. Col.(ret.) Henry Gerard Phillips expressing an interest in telling about his war experiences in Patton’s Third Army. Since Phillips knew I was working on a screenplay about the Hammelburg raid, he forwarded the letter to me. I contacted W.C. Henson by phone and found his memory for details to be excellent as he answered my questions honestly and carefully.
A high school graduate, Henson volunteered to join the Army. After basic training he was shipped from New York on Aug. 16 off to Europe as a replacement, and was picked up on about Sept. 1, 1944 in France by the 4th Armored Division. He served first as 30 cal bow gunner, then loader, then 75 mm gunner. In mid-December he got his first experience driving a tank, a Sherman, starting at the Battle of the Bulge—strictly on-the-job training.
The Tennesee farm boy must have had a gift for machine operation, because his Tank Commander, M.Sgt Kenneth J. “K.J.” Smith insisted on Henson’s driving for the rest of the war. During the final assault on Bastogne on Dec. 26, 1944, Henson was driving about the 4th tank in a platoon of Shermans, and his tank was knocked out by a Panzerfaust. He was ejected into a snowdrift, blackened and burned, requiring hospitalization for about a week.
K.J. Smith, originally from either Toledo or Akron, OH, seems to have been a colorful and somewhat mysterious character. After the war he was seen at the Army Tank School in Ft. Knox, KY, but eluded all further attempts by those trying to find him. Henson’s tank crew also included Forest Woods from Marlinton, WV, who served as the barber for the crew.
Henson said that “everyone was shocked” when they discovered the true purpose of the Hammelburg raid. Nevertheless, he has a very high opinion of Gen. Patton, Maj. Baum, and every other officer connected with the 4th Div. and the raid. He met Col. Abrams several times. Mr. Henson said that the entire raid was conducted with the tank hatches open, like 99% of the time during the war, since visibility through the periscopes was so poor, especially at night. With “blackout lights” they followed at a distance of 20 or 30 feet. He said that all members of the crew wore microphones and headsets so that they could talk to each other. The tank was also equipped with a radio that had a range of probably 2-3 miles. Radio silence was on during most of the raid.
In the early afternoon of Mar. 27, after the bridge at Gemunden had been blown, forcing the raiders to detour to the north, Henson’s engine conked out and he was unable to restart it. This happened near Weickersgruben at a level, treeless place in the road.
Henson revealed to me that he discovered at that moment that the bow gunner was dead by a self-inflicted gunshot. This was a new replacement who had been drinking a lot, and was suspected of being unstable. (Evidently there was a lot of drinking going on among the tankers, who kept their tanks well supplied with food and alcohol.) The crew decided not to try and lift his body through the hatch, which would be too messy. The Sherman was disabled with a thermite grenade and the crew members hitched rides in other vehicles. In subsequent weeks, the Germans used the disabled tank for target practice.
According to Henson, after liberating the prison camp, there was a kind of letdown and loss of discipline. All the fatigue of the previous days was catching up with the men and it was hard to get people back in the tanks and willing to serve as drivers, gunners, etc. W.C. Henson volunteered to drive a Sherman from that point forward, and remembers backing out of several roadblocks in complete darkness, probably including those at Bonnland and Hoellrich, and perhaps Hessdorf. Henson recalls sitting near Hill 427 during the night, siphoning gas from some half-tracks to get enough for others. Henson wondered whether setting the extra vehicles on fire was such a good idea, since they became targets during the ensuing attack.
When the Germans attacked the surrounded Americans on the morning of Mar. 28, Henson attempted to escape. He took off with about 5 others from the 10th Armored Infantry, but after about 4 days without food was caught by the Germans and spent 30 days as a POW in Hammelburg and Moosberg. He was wounded towards the end of the raid, giving him the Oak Leaf Cluster to his Purple Heart. K.J. Smith was one of a handful of tankers who escaped back to the American lines. On the train to Moosberg the prisoners were strafed by Allied fighter planes and chose to walk the rest of the way. Henson has never experienced anything nearly as intense in his life since WWII.
From Henson’s house we telephoned his former commander, Lt. Bill Nutto in Corpus Christi, whom I had recently made contact with (see another of My Heroes). They had not spoken to each other since the raid, if ever, and had a lively conversation. After my first visit to Henson in Spring Hill, I ordered and sent to him a blue Presidential Unit citation ribbon which he had earned as a member of the elite 4th Armored Division, but for some reason had never received. He was very grateful for the gesture.
Shortly after my visit, Henson underwent removal of his bladder and prostate due to cancer. There were complications and he came close to dying. He had hoped to be able to attend the OFLAG 64 reunion in Minneapolis in Sept., 2003, but never did.
Just before Christmas, 2003, I visited the Hensons again. The thought of having his story told in a Hollywood movie was very exciting to them, as it seemed to give several other veterans an extra reason to cling to life. The Hensons had tragically lost their only child, son, Bill Junior, a college student and music major who was murdered. I was welcomed into their home like an adopted son, and they were especially happy that this time I spent the night in their guest bedroom.
In our phone calls during early 2004, Henson’s voice became fainter. Clearly he was losing his last battle, and on July 13, 2004 he died at age 79. A deeply religious man, W.C. was fatalistic about death. “When the Good Lord calls my number, I’m ready to go.”, he often said. I felt that W.C. Henson is exactly the kind of guy you would want driving your tank into battle. Honest, straight-talking, modest, and ready to obey any order or make any sacrifice for what he believed in. I was honored to be his friend during the last two years of his life. There will be no replacements for men like this.
In Feb., 2005, I received a package from Nancy Henson, the widow of W.C. It contained the gold chain he always wore around his neck and the note below. I have never been more moved. Nancy and I have exchanged Christmas cards every year since W.C.’s death. I spoke to her at a retirement community in Mississipi last week (Aug. 16, 2016). She is still full of energy and in very good health.