CLEMSON, S.C. — Expect to be impressed when you meet a Marine, but when that Marine is a 96 year-old Pearl Harbor survivor who challenges you to a pull-up contest, prepare to be blown away.This is one of many things Clemson University student Will Hines of Spartanburg has learned in conducting the Veterans Project, an ongoing undergraduate research project to collect and preserve the personal accounts of American war veterans so that future generations can hear those stories directly from the men and women who lived them.
Former Marine Staff Sgt. Robert A. Henderson’s story begins in Hawaii on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, as a plane with a perplexing paint job thunders overhead “close enough that I could have thrown a rock and hit it” toward a row of U.S. Naval ships docked in the harbor, he said.
He thought it was part of a drill until the plane dipped and released a torpedo. The violent chaos in the two hours that followed would define much of the 20th century.
Henderson, relaxed in a comfortable chair in his Spartanburg living room, describes in gripping detail the 51 months of combat he experienced, culminating in the Battle of Okinawa.
“I was in the first and last battles of the war,” he said.
Hines videotapes every word. One copy will go to Henderson and his family, and one copy will go to the Library of Congress to be preserved forever.
When asked how he stays so healthy at 96. Henderson takes Hines out to his garage to show off his home gym, where he exercises three times a week. He demonstrates by doing 12 pull-ups without breaking a sweat, and dares Hines to match him.
Interactions with truly amazing veterans like this are just some of the fringe benefits students who participate in the project enjoy. The Veterans Project is an example of community-engaged learning at Clemson, which has a military history dating back to its founding in 1889.
Hines, a junior business management major from Spartanburg, became involved in the project because of his life-long fascination with history.
“I’ve been interested in veterans since I was little. I met my great uncle when I was about 7 years old. I found out he landed on five islands in the Pacific, and I asked him a ton of questions,” he explained. “I was able to interview him in high school — for fun, not for anything specific — which helped me become closer to him. He was wounded twice — once on Okinawa from a grenade rolled down a mountain. Meeting him really influenced how I became interested in studying the history of America’ s conflicts.”