Research project preserves veterans’ stories

Retired U.S. Marine Staff Sgt. Robert A. Henderson, 95, a Pearl Harbor survivor, poses next to his medals and a photo of himself from the era, Feb. 21, 2015. "Living this long is no accident," he said. "It takes work." Henderson served more than 50 months in combat during WWII, including at the Battle of Okinawa. "I was in the first and last battles of the war," he said. (Photo by Ken Scar)

Retired U.S. Marine Staff Sgt. Robert A. Henderson, 95, a Pearl Harbor survivor, poses next to his medals and a photo of himself from the era, Feb. 21, 2015. “Living this long is no accident,” he said. “It takes work.” Henderson served more than 50 months in combat during WWII, including at the Battle of Okinawa. “I was in the first and last battles of the war,” he said. (Photo by Ken Scar)

 

Expect to be impressed when you meet a Marine, but when that Marine is a 95-year-old Pearl Harbor survivor who challenges you to a pull-up contest, prepare to be blown away.

This is one of many things Will Hines of Spartanburg has learned in conducting the Veterans Project, an ongoing undergraduate research project to collect and preserve the personal accounts of American war veterans so that future generations can hear those stories directly from the men and women who lived them.

Former Marine Staff Sgt. Robert A. Henderson’s story begins in Hawaii on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, as a plane with a perplexing paint job thunders overhead “close enough that I could have thrown a rock and hit it” toward a row of U.S. Navy ships docked in the harbor, he said. He thought it was part of a drill until the plane dipped and released 
a torpedo. The violent chaos in the two hours that followed would define much of the 
20th century.

Henderson described in gripping detail the many months of combat he experienced, culminating in the Battle of Okinawa. “I was in the first and last battles of the war,” he said.

Hines videotapes every word. One copy will go to Henderson and his family, and one copy will go to the Library of Congress to be preserved forever.

When asked how he stays so healthy at 95, Henderson takes Hines out to his garage to show off his home gym where he exercises three times a week. He demonstrates by doing 12 pull-ups without breaking a sweat and dares Hines to match him.

Hines, a business management major from Spartanburg, became involved in the project because of his lifelong fascination with history. His interest in veterans stemmed from his relationship with a great uncle who served in the Pacific during WWII. After Henderson’s interview, Hines is slated to interview a Vietnam veteran and a Battle of the Bulge veteran. It’s quite a day for a history buff.

Clemson University junior Will Hines (right) chats with retired U.S. Marine Staff Sgt. Robert A. Henderson, 95, a Pearl Harbor survivor. (Photo by Ken Scar)

“I can’t speak highly enough about the altruism and the character of the students who have been involved in this project. As a veteran myself, I really appreciate what they’re doing,” said historian Vernon Burton, author of The Age of Lincoln and the Veterans Project’s faculty adviser. “They care about our history, and they care about these people and the sacrifices they’ve made.”

To date, Clemson students have preserved the stories of 87 veterans from all branches of service with hopes that the project will continue as new students cycle in.

“It is very important to document these veterans’ stories as told from their own mouths while we still can,” said Burton. “Beyond that, this program provides an incredible opportunity for students here at Clemson to experience history firsthand while developing historic and analytical skills. The use of new technology and interviewing techniques will serve them as they move forward in their careers. Most importantly, they’re helping to create an amazing resource for historians of the future.”

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After interviewing Marine Staff Sgt. Robert A. Henderson, Clemson student Will Hines of Spartanburg makes the seven-minute drive to another veteran’s home. Retired U.S. Air Force Col. Arthur T. Ballard was an F-105 fighter pilot during the Vietnam conflict with 68 combat missions under his belt when he was shot down and captured Sept. 26, 1966.

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