Staff Sergeant – U.S. Army Infantry
European Theater – World War II
(1943 – 1945)
Jim Henderson grew up in a family of eight children near Diamond Springs, a small town in California’s Mother Lode country. The United States was in the Great Depression and times were hard, but Jim says that life wasn’t as difficult in the countryside and he had a lot of fun growing up. He went to high school in Placerville and then worked in the local sawmill, saving his money in order to attend the University of San Francisco. During college he was in the Coast Artillery ROTC.
While still at the University he was drafted into the army and was sworn in as a Private on April 3rd, 1943 in Sacramento, California. He was sent by train to Monterey to be inducted, and then to Camp Wallace in Texas for anti-aircraft training. Jim said that it was very hot and humid there, and that there was a joke that the mosquitos were as big as the planes pulling the flying targets. After training at Camp Wallace, Jim was sent to the Star Unit at Camp Maxey where he was transferred to Pasadena Junior College for about three months to finish training and to take an engineering course. During basic training Jim enrolled in the ASTP (Army Specialized Training) program. He was then transferred with fifteen others to the 104th Infantry Division at Camp Granite in the Mojave Desert in Southern California. The camp was a tent city, like a campground. The division was just finishing up maneuvers in the mountains when they arrived, and were assigned to help clean up the area and make sure it was in the same pristine condition it had been in when the division arrived. He was then sent to Camp Carson in Colorado and was out on maneuvers in June, 1944 when the D-Day invasion took place. His division was called back into the garrison and put on alert to go overseas. They were sent to Camp Kilmer in New Jersey by train and then boarded ships in New York and crossed the Atlantic as a Division in August of 1944. He was on the military transport U.S.S. LeJeune, which traveled in a convoy of about a hundred ships. Jim said that there were several thousand men on the ship and they slept in the ship’s holds, three or four bunks high. There were just two meals a day because the kitchen had to feed so many soldiers. The U.S.S. LeJeune split off from the convoy during the journey and went directly to the Port of Cherbourg in France, rather than to England. They arrived at the badly destroyed port on September 7, 1944. They bivouacked in apple orchards for about two weeks and then, in one day, marched about thirty miles across the Normandy Peninsula, a very difficult hike because of the cobblestoned country streets and the hills.
In early October they were assigned to assist the Canadian 1st Army in Belgium, to help clear the Port of Antwerp. They traveled there by train in ‘forty and eight’ boxcars. Jim said that you just grabbed a spot on the floor of the boxcar, put down some straw and you put your bedroll down on that. “You saw a little bit of France and Paris from the door of the freight car.”
At the Port of Antwerp they “got their baptism into the actual shooting.” On the first night in the combat area, everyone was a bit nervous. They posted guards and “a good many trees were shot at that night… but no one was attacking us at all,” Jim recalled. However soon they were in major engagements. They were taking machine gun fire, small arms fire and some mortar shelling, and their platoon sergeant, who had gone ahead as the forward observer, was wounded.
Jim explained that the forward observer usually accompanied the rifle troops. He had a radio man with him and they would call back firing positions, if firing was needed from the mortars. His platoon’s 81mm mortars broke down into three parts. There was a bipod, a tube and the base plate. The base plate was set on the ground, the bipod set out in front of it like a tripod, and the tube was inserted into the base plate and turned so it would lock into place. The bipod had a collar on it and the tube was locked into the collar. At the Port of Antwerp, the country is very flat, “just like a tabletop” and it was very difficult fighting in that kind of terrain because “if the Germans were on top of a dyke or something then they could see for a pretty good distance and anyone coming forward would be observed and would take fire.”
In another major engagement, Jim’s platoon had to cross the Mark River. “The Germans were fighting like mad to hold the land that they had. The Port of Antwerp itself had fallen, but the estuary was held by the Germans.” The allied force’s job was to clear that estuary so that the Port of Antwerp could be used to get supplies to the troops elsewhere in Europe. The bridges that had crossed the river at the town of Standdaarbuiten had been blown up by the Germans, so the battalion had to cross in small boats, about ten soldiers to a boat. They were under fire the whole time, and as soon as Jim’s platoon got across, the Germans opened fire with one of their 88mm artillery pieces. “And they just cut the mortar platoon to ribbons” Jim said. The troops had crossed under cover of darkness in order to reduce their losses, but the darkness also meant that they couldn’t set up their mortars or do anything to knock out the 88mm artillery piece. Fifty yards from the bank of the river “all hell broke loose.” Jim said it was the most terrifying experience he had during the war. “You could hear the shell when it was fired. It was that close to us. …You’d hear the thing fire.. and boom, like that, it was exploding right there among us. There was shrapnel and mud and debris.” Their lieutenant was killed by a nearly direct hit and there were others who were wounded and yelling for medics. Jim was an ammo bearer and had sixty pounds of ammunition on in a packboard. Another mortar platoon member who was carrying the mortar base plate was hit by shrapnel and was injured. Jim added that as late as 1990, that soldier was still having operations to remove shrapnel from his back.
At this point in the battle, the platoon decided to retreat back across the river. While the battle had been taking place, the engineers had put a footbridge up across the river. “It was just a little bridge that had floats on it… about three to four feet wide and there were no handrails on either side. It was just floating there in the river. And I had my ammunition on my back, sixty pounds of ammunition and we were pea green at that point because we hadn’t had that much actual fighting experience.” Apparently one of the shells had damaged the footbridge and as Jim hurried across the bridge he hit the broken section and fell into the river. The GI wool overcoat filled with water and the sixty pounds of ammunition plus other gear weighed him down. Jim thought he was going to drown and said, “I wondered what kind of a God there could be up in heaven that would let me go through the hell I had just gone and then bring me back and let me fall into the river, and I wasn’t happy with the Almighty.”
Luckily there wasn’t much of a current, and the ammunition cylinders were watertight and helped with the buoyancy. He came up next to the bridge and two soldiers struggled to help him out of the heavy packboard, finally cutting the straps at Jim’s insistence and pulling him out of the water. “And it’s still at the bottom of the river as far as I know.” Jim said that he fell asleep in a foxhole afterwards and by the time he awoke the next morning, the platoon had gone. He hitched a ride and after about two days was able to get back to his outfit. “It got easier after that… but it was never easy. It just got easier.”
They were then transported to Aachen to relieve the U.S. 1st Army. They were assigned to the U.S. 1st Army and in mid-November started marching and fighting their way toward Cologne. They got as far as the Roer River, where the Battle of the Bulge took place, and were forced to stop there. They spent part of the winter there, from mid-December to mid-February, on the allied side of the Roer River. The Germans were on the other side of the river, so for the duration of their stay there Jim’s mortar platoon was firing across and the rifle platoon was sending out patrols to take prisoners.
On February 23rd the Bulge had been wiped out and the 1st U.S. Army crossed the Roer River and started to march again toward Cologne and Berlin. In the meantime the Germans had opened the gates of a dam south of where Jim was, and the newly unleashed waters had turned the Roer River into a raging torrent, several hundred yards wide. Jim’s Company still managed to get across, and they moved forward toward Cologne. They then accompanied the 3rd Armored Division into Cologne and helped secure the city.
At about that time, the Remagen Bridge south of Cologne was captured, and Jim and the Timberwolf Division were transferred to the bridge. They went across a pontoon bridge spanning the Rhine and fought their way to the Mulde River. Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt had agreed that “whoever got there first [to the Mulde River], that’s as far as they would advance toward Berlin,” which was about 70 miles away. Jim’s unit halted at the Mulde River and soon after the war ended.
Jim recounted one notable story that took place when the 414th took the German town of Nordhausen, where there was a slave labor camp in tunnels dug into the mountain. It was called Dora-Mittelbau. The Germans had excavated gypsum from the mountain and the tunnels they created were wide enough to run trains through. Slave laborers were forced to work on German rockets in these tunnels. By the time Jim’s unit arrived, there were about thirty-five hundred prisoners there who were dead or dying.
When the war ended, the division was transferred to Le Havre and then to the United States. They had thirty days leave and then reassembled at Camp San Luis Obispo to participate in the invasion of Japan. “Luckily,” Jim said, “that never came to pass.” Jim was reassigned to DeWitt General Hospital in Auburn, California where he did the duties of a military policeman. Later he went back to work at the sawmill in Placerville and then returned to college. Upon graduating from the University of San Francisco and completing the advanced ROTC program in June 1948, Jim was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant. He continued his education in law school, and while studying there, he worked for the FBI. In 1949, after deciding to leave law school, Jim signed up for a sixty day tour of duty with the army at Fort Ord on Monterey Bay in California. There he met his wife, an army nurse, and when Jim’s tour of duty ended they moved back to San Francisco. Jim went to work for the lumber firm, J.E. Higgins Hardwoods, and a year later he was employed by the Western Pine Supply Company in Emeryville. He and his wife at first had an apartment in San Francisco, then moved to Larkspur and finally, in 1953, bought their house in Novato. Jim and his first wife raised five children in the house, three boys and two girls. Sadly, Jim’s first wife passed away in 1994, and he has lost one son, but he has remarried and his four children live in northern California.
Jim says that his division had reunions up until three years ago and he maintains contact with friends that he made in WWII. He also gets news through the website of the 104th Infantry Division. There were some two hundred members of his company but now there just about five left.
Jim ended our interview by reciting a poem from memory. He wrote it when he was in college, just about three months before he entered the service…
He had heard the order to advance, and now was on his way
Marching across that desolate stretch, in order to enter the fray
Dawn found him in the battle, fighting for what was right
Too well he knew, man could not live in a nation ruled by might
He crawled into position, and there for a while he lay
‘Til he saw a German moving two hundred yards away
The gun was at his shoulder, the German in his sight
He squeezed the trigger tightly, and his face turned deathly white
The battle raged for many months, until the GIs won
Soon they’d be returning, for now their job was done
He thought of things that had happened, that night as he knelt to pray
And he asked the God in heaven to hear what he had to say
Some mothers now are waiting, for their sons who I have shot
Am I to say it’s nothing, that they had cast their lot?
Is this what we are born for, to kill our fellow man?
To destroy the things we dearly love and further what they began?
Dear God, I ask you guide us
In the peace that we shall write
That men may live the way they should
And boys not have to fight.
Jim concluded that “we’re still fighting, and I guess we always will.” He said, “It’s up to you [the new generation] to straighten it out and I hope you can. Good luck.”
Interview by Michael Assmus on June 1, 2013.