WW II Marine and His Dress Blue Uniform

Tom Henderson

We send our condolences to the family of Thomas Henderson who passed away in May of 2019. Click here to leave your condolences for the family.

In April of 1943, with the world at war for the second time in less than three decades, Thomas Ivan Henderson, an 18-year-old from Kankakee, Illinois, was notified that he had been drafted into the military and would soon be heading off to war. Henderson, a high school senior at the time, was on his way to the draft board to try to convince the members to let him finish high school before shipping out when he saw a life-size cardboard "cutout" of a Marine non-commissioned officer in a crisp "dress blue" uniform in the window of the local Montgomery Ward store encouraging eligible young men to enlist in the United States Marine Corps. "That blue uniform really looks nice," Henderson thought, "maybe I can impress my girlfriend when I wear it."

With a newfound sense of bravado, Henderson continued to make his way up the street, found the USMC recruiting office, and enlisted in the Corps. He graduated from high school on June 4, 1943, and was in recruit training/boot camp at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego, CA, three days later. "It took three days on the train to get there," he remembered. "I guess I thought they'd give me a blue uniform when I arrived." However, due to regulations, only ceremonial/embassy Marines, recruiters, and sea-going/ship's company Marines rated blue uniforms at the time, and Henderson didn't receive the dress blues he so coveted.

After graduating recruit training in San Diego, Henderson was ordered to aviation mechanics school at Marine Corps Air Station Santa Ana in Orange County, CA. Henderson's fondest memories of his time at MCAS Santa Ana involve hitchhiking to Hollywood as often as he could to dance at the famous Hollywood Paladium, where he met many celebrities.

Upon completion of aviation training, Henderson boarded a ship in San Diego and headed to the South Pacific where he joined a scout/dive-bombing squadron, VMSB-142, First Marine Aircraft Wing. Roughly six months after joining his squadron, Henderson volunteered to serve as an aft-facing tail gunner on Dauntless SBD's (scout/dive-bombers) firing twin 30-caliber machine guns. He spent the remainder of the war flying and working on various combat aircraft-mostly in the Philippines, but also on other islands and aboard Navy aircraft carriers. "I flew a lot," he said. "And, I didn't shoot the tail off of the airplanes like some of the other gunners did."

When the war ended, Private First Class (PFC) Henderson sailed back to San Diego, boarded a train for Chicago, and was mustered out of the Marine Corps at Naval Station Great Lakes in 1947, still never having received a dress blue uniform. He went home to rural Illinois and proposed to the girlfriend he had left behind. Apparently, he didn't need the blue uniform after all to impress her-they were married for 55 years.

In 2015, Tom Henderson relocated from Illinois to Columbia, Missouri, where the MarineParents.com corporate office is located. Through his involvement in organizations like the Marine Corps League, Henderson met Mike Hoeferlin, a Vietnam-era Marine and MarineParents.com board member. As Hoeferlin got to know Henderson better and spent more time with him, it became clear to Hoeferlin that Henderson still regretted never having received his dress blue uniform more than 70 years prior.

Upon learning this, Hoeferlin hatched a plan in conjunction with MarineParents.com's Founder & Executive Director, Tracy Della Vecchia, and the organization's Corporate Secretary, Marilyn Dilts, to get Henderson a set of dress blues. To make this happen, Hoeferlin had Henderson measured for what Henderson thought was going to be a sport coat, and Della Vecchia and Dilts contacted a Columbia-based Marine recruiter who volunteered to donate a blouse/coat to Henderson. The organization then purchased additional uniform items plus campaign ribbons and USMC emblems. They also had the uniform custom tailored so the former PFC would look "squared away" in his new uniform.

When everything had been taken care of, it was time to present Henderson with his uniform. On Friday, April 1, 2016, under the guise of a trip to our EGA Shop, Hoeferlin brought Henderson to the MarineParents.com corporate office. When they arrived, Henderson was surprised to find almost 20 people, including Marine Parents staff, local television and radio affiliates, and members of Henderson's family, waiting for him.

A short ceremony was held, beginning with Dilts giving a brief rundown of what the ceremony was for and how it came to be, followed by Hoeferlin sharing Tom's story, before Della Vecchia presented Henderson with his new uniform and said a few words of her own. "We don't often get to work with the older generation of Marines...and that makes this that much more poignant," Della Vecchia said.

As Henderson put on his new uniform (which, despite having been measured, didn't fit him properly. Don't worry though, we're already in the process of getting it resized!), he, and many of those in attendance, seemed to be briefly overcome by emotion. "It's the first time I've ever had [a dress blue uniform] on," Henderson said. "All I can say right now is thank you, this is a real surprise and I appreciate it very much...I'm a lucky old man."

Following a brief question & answer session between Henderson and the media in attendance, Henderson said he plans to wear his new uniform to the numerous ceremonies he attends at the Marine Corps League and Veterans of Foreign Wars, two organizations in which he remains active. The ceremony ended with Henderson's sons, Dan and Joe, coming forward to thank everyone for helping make one of their father's lifelong dreams come true. "It's great for him to have earned that at the age of 93," Dan Henderson said. "I will tell you he will cherish that for the rest of his life."

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