Clarence Henniger trained for combat, but saw the aftermath of war
Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, Texas
Clarence Henniger was getting ready to fight in the Korean War as a 20-year-old in 1952.
He had completed 16 weeks of basic infantry training, and all except 12 men of his company were ordered to ship out to Korea.
In a few days, 11 of the 12 who had remained in camp were sent to special schools.
“So, there I was in the company area by myself with the cadre, and waiting for my orders,” Henniger remembers.
“After a few days my orders came down, and I was to report to Camp Stoneman for overseas shipment.”
He was put aboard a troop ship with soldiers he hadn’t trained with, and sent to Japan.
At Yokohama, he and others were instructed to exchange their Class A equipment and uniforms for full combat equipment that included helmet and rifle.
At sunrise, the men were taken to a rifle range and told by a sergeant to remember what they had learned in basic training, because they would be on the front lines in Korea by nightfall.
Henniger zeroed-in the sights of his rifle and returned with the others to the company area. There, 15 names, including Henniger’s, were called and told to report to the 1st sergeant. Except for those, the rest of the men were loaded into trucks, taken to a nearby air base, and as they had been told, were on the front lines before the sun went down.
Henniger learned why his name had been called — it was the information on the form he had filled out that asked about occupation when he went into the Army.
He had put down “assistant funeral director,” because he actually was in an apprenticeship program when he went into the service.
Henniger was assigned to an American grave registration service called 8204 Army Unit. It consisted of headquarters, identification and field operations sections so that families could receive their soldiers back home with respect and dignity after they had fallen on the battlefield.
Henniger remembers that after identification and embalming had been done, the soldier was carefully wrapped in a brand new white sheet, with a new Army blanket outside that, and placed in a casket that was then sealed and never to be opened. The casket was placed into a special shipping container so it couldn’t be damaged, and returned to the United States for burial with military honors by the family.
Inevitably, buddies he had trained with came through the grave registration unit where he worked.
“We had embalming tables, and they would be brought in and placed on a table. Then we would start our procedure. They brought them in at random. As they were released from identification, they came to us.
“I recognized my buddy that I had gone into training with. Somebody else worked on him. I think there were three or four of us assigned to each table.”
Henniger was seeing the aftermath of war.
“The officers were really considerate. If it were a friend or acquaintance, you could just ask if you could step out and have a cigarette or a Coke. They did not require us to stay, which was really considerate. But still, you saw your buddy come through,” he said.
There was a prevailing atmosphere of honor and respect for those who had fallen, one in which generals participated.
“Throughout these times while I was over there, when it was possible, and if it was where we could, we had formal retreats on Friday," Henniger remembered.
“There, we would have the flags at half mast — we always flew half-mast flags. The chaplain would be there, and we had a lot of dignitaries — high brass. Gen. Ridgeway was there one time and attended one of our formal retreats. We had the chaplain — the general that was over all the chaplains — was there at one time. So, we had a lot of brass that would come into our area and pay their respects.”
“We would march in, and we had a special podium for the chaplain, the company commanders and the dignitaries who were present,” he said.
Taps was played, and there was prayer.
“Of course everybody stood at attention. Then, after that we marched off.”
“Everything, the whole area and the whole procedure, was very respectful. They gave the casualties — the soldiers who had died — they gave them the honor and respect. There wasn’t anything that went on that would be disrespectful,” he said.
Henniger had breaks from the work at times, and he bought a Japanese bicycle and a box of bubblegum from the PX.
Then, he would ride through the villages and up into the hills.
“I would take off down these rice paddy roads, and kids are kids whether they are here or whether they are over in Japan. They would be out there in the road playing marbles or something. I would come along and hand each one a bubble gum. They were tickled to death over that.
“The only bad thing was, I had to come back, and I met them coming back. By that time they had told their friends about the bubblegum.”
Some of the war casualties that came to Henniger’s area were difficult to identify. In the intensity of battle, with lines changing places rapidly, not all of the fallen could be brought back to friendly territory immediately.
“Dog tags were not a real good identification,” he said. “A lot of the boys over in Korea, so I was told, would have inspections every once in a while to see if they were wearing their dog tags. Well, some of the guys pitched them aside, and they grabbed another guy’s dog tags to pass inspection.”
“They used dog tags initially, but that’s not where they stopped. The best identification was teeth, and they would check that,” he said.
The investigation into identity was conducted thoroughly and with logic. The location and time of the battle were plotted, along with any physical evidence that could be found.
Henniger heard of one identification that was made possible by a 1933 Chevrolet key in the soldier’s pocket. It had a number, and the number was traced through a series of owners until the last one was found.
In 1953, the final year of open conflict in Korea, Henniger and others in his unit worked in eight-hour shifts around the clock, and seven days a week. It was a portion of the war called “the spring offensive.”
“We lost a lot of men,” Henniger said. “Our unit, plus headquarters and identification, worked day and night. Some buddies that I had taken training with ... I saw them come through.”
Japanese civilians also had jobs at the post, Henniger remembers. “They did a lot of the lifting and carrying, and ran little tractors to pull trailers and things. There was this one man that I got to know well — Minami Yasuji. He had been a tank driver in the Japanese army. He came to me one day and said, ‘Clarence, I’ve been talking to my wife, and we would like you to come spend a weekend with us.’
“I told him, ‘Minami, that’s an honor, and I would really like to.’
“He lived probably 60 to 70 miles away from our unit, and he rode a jam-packed train. But I got a pass for the weekend, and I went home with him.
“They were the most hospitable family. He had little children, ages 3 or 4, cute as a bug. His wife couldn’t speak any English, Minami spoke broken English, and I spoke only a little Japanese. But the language barrier ... there was no language barrier really. They introduced me to some of their friends in the little village, and they fed me — I’m sure they fed me with the best they had. Then, Minami took me on tour. We walked around this village and toured the different shrines and things like that.
“That was a wonderful time that weekend.”
After the Korean War’s shooting was put on hold with an armistice, the United States worked out a deal with North Korea to allow the removal of Americans who had been buried in the north.
Some were in trench graves.
Henniger was in Japan long enough to prepare to receive those soldiers, when his orders came to rotate back home and ultimately to conclude his time in the service as a staff sergeant with the occupational specialty level of a master sergeant.
It was a logical step to work first for a funeral home and to get his funeral director’s license. Then he enrolled at Texas Tech, and later took a traveling sales job.
Henniger then began a 32-year career in advertising at the Avalanche-Journal, and retired in Lubbock where he and his wife, Theda, are still residents.
The war has been put on a shelf in his memory.
“I try not to think about it now. Occasionally somebody might ask me, and I will say a little bit about it. But I’m all right,” he said.
Still, when Taps is played, it brings back the memory of fallen soldiers, and with it a wave of emotion that cannot always be concealed.
Freedom was purchased with a price.