Heroes of the Solomons: Lofton R. Henderson

Every time you land at Honiara’s Henderson Field, you are arriving at a place in history.

In August 1942, US Marines landed in force to capture the almost complete airfield that the Japanese had been constructing since early July, setting off the six month Guadalcanal Campaign that continued until February 1943.

Soon after the capture of the airfield at Lunga Point, it was renamed Henderson Field and began operations as an airbase to attack the Japanese forces that were still in strength on the island of Guadalcanal as well as the naval and supply vessels in the surrounding waters.

The naming of the airfield was in honour of Major Lofton Russell Henderson who was already a seasoned naval aviator at the outset of war having been appointed as Second Lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps in 1926. His career as an aviator began in 1928 when he was “detailed to duty involving flying as a Student Naval Aviator” in California.

Henderson’s military career did not begin auspiciously, but by perseverance of character and more than a little charm, he endeared himself to both classmates and superiors as well as developing a reputation as a heartthrob and the nickname “Joe Schmaltz”

“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 1926 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.”

After postings at overseas bases prior to 1941, Henderson was moved to Midway Island in April 1942 and relieved Captain Leo Smith, the commander of VMSB-241 bombing squadron and immediately set about training his pilots and crews for the hazardous task of dive-bombing ships.

Henderson began this task with obsolete aircraft. His Vought SB2U Vindicators were the first monoplanes developed to be a carrier-based dive bomber for the United States Navy in the 1930s and still had fabric wing coverings that were not faring well in the tropical conditions. To allow for the aircraft’s inadequacies and poor state of repair, Henderson developed a tactic of ‘glide bombing’ where the aircraft would approach the target faster, at a much shallower angle and releasing bombs at a lower altitude.

He noted:  “Practice is to dive with wheels up instead of down, as has been practised 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. “

Fortunately, some of the brand new and much tougher Douglas SBD Dauntless aircraft arrived in time for their big test in June of that year: the Battle of Midway, just six months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

In the opening phase of the intense battle around the mid-Pacific atoll, Henderson’s plan of ‘glide bombing’  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 his flight began their shallow 30-degree dive, defending Japanese planes identified Henderson’s bomber as the command aircraft and began working their way down the line of closely-formed, slow-moving bombers.

A report from one of the few surviving aircraft stated: 

“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.”

Even though one parachute was seen to come from Henderson’s plane, neither he nor his gunner, PFC Reninger, were found. The two become the first crew to be lost in the battle that would go down in history as "the most stunning and decisive blow in the history of naval warfare."

Henderson, aged 39, was awarded a posthumous Navy Cross for his actions and apart from naming of the new airfield on Guadalcanal, a US Navy destroyer was named in his honour in 1945.

His Navy Cross citation reads:

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 in action. It is believed he gallantly gave up his life in the service of his country.

Comments (0) Trackbacks (0)

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Trackbacks are disabled.