Private Robert D. Henderson (1923–1944)

Robert D. Henderson in a detail from a Company “K,” 333rd Infantry Regiment photo taken at Camp Claiborne, Louisiana in 1944 (Courtesy of Jim Sterner)
ResidencesCivilian Occupation
New Jersey, DelawareWorker at Pusey & Jones shipyard
BranchService Numbers
U.S. Navy, U.S. ArmyU.S. Navy 2438867 / U.S. Army 32756930
TheaterUnit
European4th Platoon, Company “K,” 333rd Infantry Regiment, 84th Infantry Division
AwardsCampaigns/Battles
Purple HeartRhineland

Early Life & Family

Robert Dubois Henderson was born in Bivalve, Cumberland County, New Jersey on December 5, 1923.  He was the son of John Griffith Henderson (a fisherman) and Ruby Taylor Henderson.

The family had apparently moved to Wilmington, Delaware by October 1, 1925, when another son was born, John.  Henderson was recorded on the census on April 11, 1930 as living with his mother and brother at 409 Marsh Road in Wilmington.  His mother died in Wilmington on October 2, 1935, aged 29.  Her obituary suggested that Henderson, his father, and brother were living back in Bivalve by that point. 


Navy Service, U.S. Army Training, & Marriage

Henderson was 17 when he enlisted in the U.S. Navy in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on March 5, 1941.  Later that year, shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, he joined the crew of the World War I vintage battleship U.S.S. Mississippi (BB-41) from the Receiving Station, Norfolk, Virginia on December 18, 1941.  Various documents from the same month described him as either a seaman apprentice or seaman 2nd class.  The Mississippi set sail soon after, transiting the Panama Canal en route to California.  A February 1942 report of changes for the battleship’s personnel stated that Seaman 2nd Class Henderson had been discharged from the U.S. Navy on February 21, 1942 at San Francisco due to undesirability.

When he registered for the draft on June 30, 1942, Henderson was living in Bivalve and working for the Stowman Bros. in Port Norris.  At the time, he was described as standing five feet, eight inches tall and weighing 156 lbs., with blond hair and blue eyes.  He had a scar above his right eye.  It appears that Henderson briefly returned to Delaware shortly thereafter.  A May 19, 1949 article in Journal-Every Evening stated that Henderson lived with his aunt Rose L. Taylor in Minquadale and worked at the Pusey & Jones shipyard in Wilmington before entering the U.S. Army.  Indeed, a headstone application stated that he entered the service from Delaware rather than New Jersey.

Despite the way his naval career ended, Henderson was drafted into the U.S. Army in the spring of 1943.  The headstone application indicates that he was inducted on April 8, 1943 and went on active duty on April 15, 1943.  Very little is clear about the early part of his military career.  He was likely stationed in North Carolina (perhaps Fort Bragg or Camp Butner) by the fall of 1943.  He married Mary S. Ellis (1921–2000) of Stantonsburg, North Carolina in Wilson County, North Carolina on November 15, 1943.  At some point in late 1943 or the first half of 1944, Henderson joined the 333rd Infantry Regiment, 84th Infantry Division (the “Railsplitters”) at Camp Claiborne, Louisiana.

Private Henderson was assigned to 4th Platoon (Weapons Platoon), Company “K,” 333rd Infantry Regiment, 84th Infantry Division.  Jim Sterner, another member of 4th Platoon, recalls that Henderson was a machine gunner in the light machine gun section.  He described Henderson as a “rough, tough young man.”  Sterner stated that Henderson was “so strong and muscular, he could do a one-armed push-up with a full field pack on.”

Company “K,” 333rd Infantry Regiment at Camp Claiborne, Louisiana in 1944 (Courtesy of Jim Sterner)

On September 4, 1944, the unit left Camp Claiborne for Camp Kilmer, New Jersey by train.  Kilmer was a staging area for the New York Port of Embarkation.  On September 20, 1944, the unit shipped out from New York aboard the U.S.A.T. Edmund B. Alexander.


Combat in the European Theater

Company “K” arrived in Normandy, France on November 2, 1944.  They moved northeast by ground across France and Belgium towards the front lines near the German border.  Though well trained, only one soldier among its six officers and 196 enlisted men had prior combat experience.  The company entered combat for the first time during the assault on the Geilenkirchen salient known as Operation Clipper.  The area had a significant number of fortifications, part of the network of German border defenses known to the Allies as the Siegfried Line.  In their book The Men of Company K: The Autobiography of a World War II Rifle Company, Harold P. Leinbaugh and John D. Campbell wrote that “Although part of the American XIII Corps and the Ninth Army, the Railsplitters for their first battle came under the operational control of the experienced British XXX Corps, commanded by Sir Brian Horrocks.”

1st Battalion, 333rd Infantry Regiment led the assault into Geilenkirchen on November 19, 1944.  3rd Battalion (including Company “K”) were initially in reserve.  When they followed, they encountered only demoralized Germans, most of whom surrendered with little resistance.  In their book, Leinbaugh and Campbell wrote that “While K Company was mopping up in Geilenkirchen, Baker and Charlie companies were pressing forward another mile, only to meet strong resistance at the edge of Suggerath. Fire from pillboxes and machine-gun nests brought their attack to a standstill.”

Jim Sterner served in the same platoon as Private Henderson in 1944 (Courtesy of Jim Sterner)

At midday on November 21, 1944, Company “K” advanced northeast, with armored support from the British Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry.  The company captured an estate, Schloss Leerodt (referred to as Château Leerodt in The Men of Company K), but German resistance stiffened immediately past it, making it impossible to advance further. 

After regrouping, Company “K” launched a new attack at 1600 hours, which made only a little headway before bogging down under heavy German mortar and machine gun fire.  In The Men of Company K, Leinbaugh and Campbell wrote:

Men began digging but struck water just below the surface. “An overpowering feeling of fear and of despair enveloped me as I tried to bail water out of the hole with my helmet,” [Ed] Stewart recalls. “The shells continued to explode in the midst of us. It was dark and cold and miserably wet. We were taking terrific punishment.” Finally word came whispered down the line to pull back.

Company “K” returned back to Schloss Leerodt but endured a night of enemy mortar fire.  In their book, Leinbaugh and Campbell quoted Howard Broderick:

Henderson and I were teamed up, but for some reason he wouldn’t help [dig a foxhole]. Heavy shelling hit our area, and Henderson got in the hole with me, but it bothered him so much he hadn’t helped dig that he climbed out and took his chances.

Miraculously, Henderson was not hit.  His luck did not hold the following day.

As Jim Sterner recalls it, on November 22, 1944, Company “K” pushed forward again, crossing the river Würm and entering Müllendorf.  Sterner described it as being “about six houses…it was a tiny little village.” 

Müllendorf was well fortified, however.  Sterner was in a small group of machine gunners and mortarmen who came under fire from a nearby enemy pillbox.  Sterner stated that they sought shelter in a narrow alleyway.  The alleyway was only about four feet across, so the men were in one line, with just a “brick wall between us and the Germans.”  Coincidentally, three men from the Wilmington area were in a row: Sterner, Donald Stauffer, and Henderson. 

Sterner recalls that suddenly, a German artillery shell, probably an 88 mm, blew a hole in the wall.  Henderson bore the brunt of the explosion and was killed instantly.  At least two other men from the machine gun section, Claudie Daniell and Robert Krieger were wounded.

Don Stauffer was standing next to Private Henderson when Henderson was killed (Courtesy of Jim Sterner)

Sterner’s close friend Don Stauffer was quoted in The Men of Company K with a similar version:

An 88 hit the wall right next to Sterner and myself and then a mortar shell came in a few feet from the two of us—that was the one that got Claudie Daniell, our machine-gun section leader, and killed Henderson.

Howard Broderick also attributed Henderson’s death to a mortar shell.  Sterner recalls that at the time that an 88 mm and mortar shells were landing in close succession, but that he is certain that based on Henderson’s wounds, it was the 88 that killed him.

The 333rd Infantry Regiment after action report for the month stated of that day:

The attack continued at 1100A 22 November 1944, the pill-boxes along the SUGGERATH-WORM road which had delayed the advance the preceding being reduced by the employment of doughboys from the 2d and 3d Battalions against the blind side of the pill-boxes. The attack progressed to a line on the high ground approximately 300 yards south of MULLENDORF, where, at 1830 22 November 1944, the Regiment was ordered to hold and consolidate its present positions, although elements of the regiment had succeeded in entering the town.

Claudie Daniell served in the light machine gun section of 4th Platoon with Private Henderson and was wounded by the explosion that killed him (Courtesy of Jim Sterner)

The attack was ultimately unsuccessful.  On November 23, 1944, the day after Private Henderson was killed, 3rd Battalion headquarters ordered Company “K” to withdraw back to Suggerath.  Company “K” casualties during its first five days of combat were severe.  Leinbaugh and Campbell wrote that “twelve or thirteen men had been killed and at least forty wounded. Thirty men had been sent to the rear with trench foot. A dozen more were simply missing.”  Some of the missing eventually returned to friendly lines, with the rest dead or captured.

Henderson was buried in a temporary cemetery.  After the war, his body was repatriated to the United States.  After a funeral service in Port Norris, New Jersey on May 22, 1949 which was presided over by the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion, Private Henderson was buried in the Cedar Hill Cemetery nearby.


Notes

Brother’s Name

Different sources give Henderson brother’s name as John Griffith Henderson, Jr. or John Edward Henderson.  John Henderson (1925–2000) served in the U.S. Navy from 1944–1946. His father also served in the U.S. Navy during the war.

Time in Delaware

It is not clear when Henderson left Delaware as a child.  When his mother died in Wilmington in 1935, her obituary stated that John Henderson and his sons were living in Bivalve.  Henderson does not appear on any known 1940 census record.  There was a Rose Taylor living in Minquadale recorded on the April 3, 1940 (probably his aunt) but Henderson was not living with her.  Henderson must have returned to Delaware at some point to work at Pusey & Jones, most likely between the time he registered for the draft in New Jersey in June 1942 and when he was drafted there in April 1943.  Despite that, Henderson listed his residence as Bivalve, New Jersey on his marriage certificate.  His name is on the New Jersey section at Veteran’s Memorial Park in New Castle, Delaware and his name appeared on the Cumberland County, New Jersey casualty list.

U.S. Navy Career

When Henderson’s family applied for a military headstone after his death, a government official jotted a note on the back: “alleged prior Sv [service] USN [U.S. Navy] 5 MAR 41 TO 21 FEB 42”.  I was able to confirm that match with U.S. Navy muster rolls show a Robert D. Henderson (service number 2438867) who enlisted on March 5, 1941 in Philadelphia and discharged in San Francisco on February 21, 1942. 

My assumption is that the official had access to Henderson’s U.S. Army personnel file or other military documents that listed prior service.  After all, why would the official compare his name to a list of U.S. Navy service personnel for purposes of verifying service for a headstone application?  Even if he did, Robert D. Henderson isn’t necessarily an uncommon name, so there would be no reason to assume he was the same person without documentation to that effect.

Without access to his U.S. Navy personnel file, it is difficult to know why Henderson was discharged right after Pearl Harbor when the military was rapidly expanding.  The regulation cited, Article D-9110 in the Bureau of Navigation Manual, is rather vague: “The Bureau may authorize or direct the discharge of a man for unsuitability due to immaturity or other cause wherein it is not desired to discharge him for inaptitude.”  

Henderson’s father and brother also served in the U.S. Navy during World War II.

U.S. Army Career

Private Henderson is one of approximately 13% of World War II era U.S. Army soldiers whose enlistment data card could not properly be digitized by the National Archives.  A government official made edits to a headstone application submitted by his father or brother in 1949, listing Henderson as joining the service on April 8, 1943 (presumably his induction date) and adding that he went on active duty on April 15, 1943.  The official also crossed out New Jersey for his state and added Delaware, showing that he was a resident of Delaware at the time he was drafted. 

Wife’s Middle Name

Mary S. Ellis’s middle name was listed as Sallie on her marriage certificate to Henderson, but Sally on other sources.  On September 20, 1947, she remarried in Lynchburg, Virginia to a sailor, Jimmie Oliver Vernon.


Acknowledgments

Special thanks to Jim Sterner for providing information that made this article possible, as well as the photos accompanying it.  Thanks go out as well to Rick Bell for providing 333rd Infantry Regiment documents.


Bibliography

Applications for Headstones, compiled 01/01/1925 – 06/30/1970, documenting the period ca. 1776 – 1970.  Record Group 92, Records of the Office of the Quartermaster General, 1774 –1985.  National Archives at Washington, D.C. https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/2375/images/40050_644066_0004-02499    

Draper, Theodore.  The 84th Infantry Division in the Battle of Germany November 1944–May 1945.  The Viking Press, 1946. https://archive.org/details/84thInfDivBattleOfGermany

“Killed In Action.”  Millville Daily Republican, December 27, 1944.  Pg. 1. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/79135269/henderson-kia/

Leinbaugh, Harold P., and John D. Campbell. The Men of Company K: The Autobiography of a World War II Rifle Company.  William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1985.

“Military Funeral For Pvt. Robert D. Henderson.”  Millville Daily Republican, May 23, 1949.  Pg. 1. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/79136235/henderson-funeral/

Muster Rolls of U.S. Navy Ships, Stations, and Other Naval Activities, 01/01/1939-01/01/1949.  Record Group Number 24, Records of the Bureau of Naval Personnel.  National Archives at College Park, Maryland. https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/1143/images/32861_250806-00117, https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/1143/images/32861_250806-00217    

North Carolina Marriage Records, 1741–2011.  Record Group 048, North Carolina County Registers of Deeds.  North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh, North Carolina. https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/60548/images/42091_343648-00374

“Obituary Notes.”  Wilmington Morning News, October 4, 1935.  Pg. 2. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/79139111/ruby-taylor-henderson/

“Pvt. R. D. Henderson Services To Be Held.”  Wilmington Morning News, May 20, 1949.  Pg. 4. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/78711926/private-robert-d-henderson/

“Pvt. Robert Henderson.”  Journal-Every Evening, May 19, 1949.  Pg. 47. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/79135733/robert-henderson-service/

Sterner, Jim.  Phone interview on May 31, 2021 and interviews on June 8 and 13, 2021.

“Summary of Operations U.S.S. Mississippi period December 7, 1941 to March 31, 1942.”  World War II War Diaries, 1941–1945.  Record Group 38, Records of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations.  National Archives at College Park, Maryland. https://www.fold3.com/image/270451437

“Table of Organization and Equipment No. 7-17: Infantry Rifle Company.”  War Department, February 26, 1944.  Military Research Service website.  http://www.militaryresearch.org/7-17%2026Feb44.pdf

Timm, Loren J.  “After Action Report [333rd Infantry Regiment] for the period 1 through 30 November 1944.”  Courtesy of Rick Bell.

United States of America, Bureau of the Census.  Fifteenth Census of the United States, 1930.  National Archives at Washington, D.C. https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/6224/images/4531892_00963    

Virginia Marriages, 1936–2014.  Virginia Department of Health, Richmond, Virginia. https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/9279/images/43067_162028006056_0528-00342

WWII Draft Registration Cards for New Jersey, 10/16/1940-03/31/1947.  Record Group 147, Records of the Selective Service System.  National Archives at St. Louis, Missouri. https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/2238/images/44025_05_00035-01585   


Last updated on June 20, 2021

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