Major Lofton Russell Henderson

Lofton “Joe” Henderson, as a captain, July 1941.


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Service Number: O-004084

Birth and Early Life:
Lofton Henderson was born on May 24, 1903. He was the son of Fred and Catherine Henderson of Lorain, Ohio. Lofton was raised in Lorain; he graduated from the town’s high school at the age of eighteen and went on to attend the Naval Academy at Annapolis.

Enlistment and Boot Camp:
Henderson would graduate from Annapolis in 1926; his reputation as a heartthrob was second only to his notoriety for tardiness. “In the course of his extensive experiments to determine the least possible seconds that could be spent in dressing and reaching formation on time, Joe hung up the record of thirteen ‘Lates To Formation in one week,” recorded his yearbook biography. “But, all joking aside, despite the fact that he’ll keep you waiting three minutes for every two that you spend in his company, still he does make a good roommate.”

“Schmaltz is a handsome devil in his blonde Swedish way. Incidentally, he objects to being called Swedish; says anybody ought to know good “scotch” when he sees it! But, as we were saying, the women do fall for him (awful fools, women). He writes to seven girls and calls each one “Dearest!” – 1926 Annapolis yearbook.

Service Prior to 1941:

Joe Henderson (standing at left) with other student pilots. The date on this photograph is confusing, as Marine Corps muster rolls place Henderson at the Brooklyn Navy Yard on this date.
Photo courtesy of Robyn Adair, used by permission.

On May 22, 1926, Henderson and a handful of classmates were appointed as Second Lieutenants in the United States Marine Corps and assigned to basic flight training; most had their flight status revoked that August, and were diverted to other areas of training.  Henderson received an assignment as a company officer at the Naval Torpedo Station in Newport, Rhode Island. He was detached in February 1927 to attend schools at the Philadelphia Navy Yard; one of his classmates was David M. Shoup.

A fresh-faced Joe Henderson, date unknown.

After qualifying as a rifle marksman and completing his course in August 1927, Henderson traveled to the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Within three months he was on his way overseas; on December 16, he was in Tientsin, China, commanding the the First Platoon of the 16th Machine Gun & Howitzer Company, 12th Regiment. His “temporary assignment” lasted until July 11, 1928 when his orders came through for a transfer back to the States and to aviation. He boarded the USS Chaumont and sailed for San Diego, where he joined Obsevation Squadron 8-M.

Lofton Henderson on duty in Tientsin, China, in 1928.
Photo courtesy of Robyn Adair, used by permission.

Lieutenant Henderson’s career as an aviator began September 1, 1928. He was “detailed to duty involving flying as a Student Naval Aviator” in California; on the twentieth he was detached for training at Pensacola. One year to the day after departing for Pensacola, Henderson was graduated from the training program. He was granted leave from November 1 to January 2, 1930, and reported to Fighter Squadron 5M at Quantico as a pilot and assistant gunnery officer.

In April, 1930, Henderson’s squadron was posted to Nicaragua, where he served as a pilot and aerial photography specialist through October 1931. He then returned to Pensacola as an instructor, and was promoted to First Lieutenant on July 16, 1932.

While at Pensacola, Henderson met and courted Adeline Williams. The two were married on May 19, 1933, and took a cross-country honeymoon when Lofton was reassigned to  Bombing Plane Squadron 4M in San Diego.

“Joe getting ready for a flight at North Island, Coronado, CA probably between 1933-1935 before leaving for a tour in Quantico.”
Photo courtesy of Robyn Adair, used by permission

After a time as executive officer of 4M, Henderson served with a variety of squadrons on the West Coast, receiving a promotion to Captain in July 1936 while on duty with Observation Squadron 8.

“My mother’s favorite picture, done by Lou Goodale Bigelow in Coronado.” Henderson – still a lieutenant in this photograph – shortly after his arrival on duty in San Diego, California.
Photo courtesy of Robyn Adair, used by permission.

Captain Henderson spent 1937 and 1938 as Executive Officer of Bombing Squadron One, and with Headquarters Squadron of Aircraft Group One, under Colonel Roy S. Geiger. He found a more permanent post with Scouting Squadron One, serving as their executive officer from 1939 through the end of 1940.

Wartime Service:

Joe Henderson in uniform, date unknown.

On April 17, 1942, Major Henderson debarked from the USS William Ward Burrows and reported to Captain Leo Smith, the commander of VMSB-241 on Midway Island. With an exchange of orders and a shake of hands, Henderson relieved Smith as commander of the bombing squadron. His first order of business was to institute an instruction program for his new pilots, some of whom – second lieutenants Thomas Gratzek, Bruno Hagedorn, Thomas Moore, Jesse Rollow, and Harold Schlenderling – had completed flight training not long before. Henderson and his gunner, Technical Sergeant Edward Nooney, ran their subordinates through air raid and bombing drills.

Joe Henderson faced an incredible task. His planes – Vought SB2U Vindicators – were already obsolete, their engines were well past their maintenance checks, and the lack of hangar space available on Midway meant that their fabric skins were exposed to heat, cold, rain, and wind. Ten days after joining, an accident involving the bombers of Lt. Armond DeLalio and T/Sgt Clyde Stamps rendered DeLalio’s aircraft inoperable. Henderson noted in the squadron’s war diary that the men “confidently [wait] for replacements.”

Training for the bomber pilots continued into May, 1942. The ongoing maintenance problems became worse and worse, as the war diary recorded:

Saturday, 16 May 1942.
Carried out routine patrols. Dive bombing practice cancelled due to fabric ripping off planes and windshields cracking. Practice is to dive with wheels up instead of down, as has been practiced heretofore. Diving wheels up gives much improved control due to lessened stick forces, and shortens the required arc of pull out, but builds up speeds in excess of 300 knots which has proved to be too great a strain for our tattered, battered ships. Therefore, dive bombing has been canceled and glide bombing is now the practice.

The glide-bombing tactic eliminated the only advantage the Vindicators had against enemy aircraft and gunnery – speed and accuracy. To counteract this, Henderson tried working out new tactics and formations; he also was joined by a new gunner, PFC Lee Reininger. On May 26, the squadron’s strength was increased by nine new pilots and a handful of enlisted men – and nineteen new Douglas Dauntless SBD-2 dive bombers. The senior pilots took the newer planes, while the ones who had just joined formed a separate section under Major Benjamin Norris.

Major Henderson (highlighted at center) with the pilots of VMSB-241 on Midway in May, 1942

VMSB-241 was now at an even more serious disadvantage. The pilots who had trained on the Vindicators were now hustling to learn the controls of their new bombers, while the replacements were still learning how to fly. “The new pilots are assigned to the SB2U-3 unit and are in need of much training, but are making excellent progress” the war diary hopefully noted, “despite two groundloops today that cost us two airplanes.” Henderson despaired at leading untrained pilots into battle with unfamiliar airplanes, and hoped that his glide-bombing plan would show some dividends when put into action.

Date Of Loss:
Henderson’s plan was put to the test on June 4, 1942, when he led his flight of dive bombers into action against the Japanese carrier Hiryu. As the Marines his flight began their shallow 30-degree dive, defending Japanese planes identified Henderson’s Dauntless as the command aircraft, and began working their way down the line of closely-formed, slow-moving bombers.

PFC Eugene Card, the gunner for navigation officer Captain Richard Fleming, witnessed the death of Lofton Henderson.

“The first enemy fighter attacks were directed at the squadron leader in an attempt to put him down. After about two passes, one of the enemy put several shots through his plane and the left wing began to burn. It was apparent that he was hit and out of action.” (1)

The report of Captain Marshall A. Tyler, who would succeed Henderson as the squadron’s leader, noted that “Hits were observed on Major Henderson’s plane and it was obvious from his actions that he was seriously wounded.” (2) A parachute was observed blossoming from behind Henderson’s plane; possibly he or his gunner, PFC Reninger managed to bail out. Neither was seen again; for all of Henderson’s efforts, not one of his pilots scored a direct hit on the enemy carrier.

Lofton Henderson’s remains were never found. He was awarded a posthumous Navy Cross for his actions in the battle:

The President of the United States of America takes pride in presenting the Navy Cross (Posthumously) to Major Lofton Russell Henderson (MCSN: 0-4084), United States Marine Corps, for extraordinary heroism and distinguished service in the line of his profession while serving as Squadron Commander and a Pilot in Marine Scout-Bombing Squadron TWO HUNDRED FORTY-ONE (VMSB-241), Marine Air Group TWENTY-TWO (MAG-22), Naval Air Station, Midway, during operations of the U.S. Naval and Marine Forces against the invading Japanese Fleet during the Battle of Midway on 4 June 1942. With utter disregard for his own personal safety, Major Henderson, with keen judgment and courageous aggressiveness in the face of strong enemy fighter opposition, led his squadron in an attack which contributed materially to the defeat of the enemy. He was subsequently reported as missing it action. It is believed he gallantly gave up his life in the service of his country.

Next Of Kin:
Wife, Mrs. Adeline Henderson

Status Of Remains:
Lost at sea.

Memorial:
Tablets of the Missing, National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific.
Henderson Field, Guadalcanal.
USS Henderson (DD-785) was named in his honor.
_____
NOTES:
(1) Camp, Lt. Col Dick (ret.) “Valiant Sacrifice: Death in the Skies Over Midway.Leatherneck Magazine, February 2008 pg 33-34.
(2) http://midway1942.org/docs/usn_doc_18.shtml. Tyler’s aircraft was grounded on June 4, and he did not participate in the battle.

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