As a kid, Tommy Henderson was nearly killed when he was hit by a car. He had to endure wearing a full body cast, but he grew up strong and tough. He was a street wise Pittsburgh kid, the type of kid who would always get by, he was smarter than average, some would say brilliant and wise way beyond his years. The artist and educator Joe Fitzpatrick who also taught Andy Warhol, once told me that Tommy Henderson was the most talented and creative student he ever taught.
When WWII broke out and his older brother joined the U.S. Army Air Corps, Tommy lied about his age and joined the United States Navy at age 17. He did his basic training up on the Great Lakes and was eventually assigned to DE-700, the USS Currier, a Destroyer Escort with a Hunter Killer Group that hunted the North Atlantic for German U-Boats. The Currier was based at Oran in North Africa. Africa and especially Egypt would captivate his imagination the rest of his life. With the Currier, he participated in the amphibious invasion of Southern France, that allowed him to wear the Navy's Amphibious Assault Patch. His restless nature not only provided him with incredible adventures, but also got him in a lot of trouble, but as I mentioned, he was street wise and very often smarter than the officers and NCO's he served under. Eventually he became bored with life on the Currier in North Africa, figured out a way to trade places with another sailor who was going to be shipping out to that Pacific as the war in Europe ended. In the Pacific, he served on LST 598 and participated in the island hopping campaign as US troops fought for bloody island after bloody island, driving the Japanese back. Throughout this great adventure, he documented it all with film, developing his own photos under the crudest of conditions. As a kid, his photos and stories amazed me. I have a few precious photos of Nose Art that he shot on Okinawa of B-24 Liberators and P-38 Lightenings. When his tour of duty was done with the Navy, he joined the Army, but ended up stateside and that just didn't fit his restless nature, he finished his tour with the Army and moved on.
As a civilian he found work with the Boilermakers of America and became a living legend among some of the bravest and hardest working men in the world. They worked the high iron building steel mills, blast furnaces and power plants all around the Northeast and Mid-West during the post war building boom. Years of hard work and respect eventually had him heading up his own crew. Working with Tommy Henderson got you instant respect with all the other boilermakers, that is if you were a hard worker, there was no room for slouches and loafers on his crew. Being his relative, also got you instant respect too. I remember the the countless hardy handshakes from powerful calloused hands of workers who knew or worked with him. You could feel the respect and camaraderie that only soldiers and hard workers have for each other.
As a boilermaker he came in contact with a building material that would eventually take his life, but not without a long and painful fight. Since the 1930's the danger of this product well was known, but conveniently ignored because of it's importance to industry. This product was never treated as the hazardous material it was. Under some circumstances it could be installed and used safely, but for the aggressive hard working boilermakers, there was no time for the proper handling of this product when the job had to be done on time. Besides, how could a product that was so important and so prevalent in the industry, be hazardous to your health? Or so they were led to believe, but while they were working the tiny fibers of this product were embedding themselves into the walls of their lungs. Asbestos was like a ticking time bomb.
I remember his last days and I remember talking to him and enjoying his stories and tales, looking at the photos and reading the hand written captions. I remember the pride of being his nephew and I remember his pride of being my uncle. One thing I'll never forget was his dignity, not long before he died after he had suffered so much, he told me he had lived an exciting life and had no complaints. All I can say to that is "Boy! What a Life!". I love you and miss you uncle Tommy!
This illustration is based on an old B&W photo of my uncle Thomas C. Henderson, taken while on leave in New York City.
Adobe Illustrator 8.0, Apple Macintosh G4 Power Mac, OS 9.2.