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Remembering a Hero: Pearl Harbor Survivor Keeps Legacy Alive Through Service to Other Veterans

Richard
Richard "Dick" Henry passed away on May 18, 2021, at 100 years old. The WWII veteran and Pearl Harbor survivor is keeping his legacy alive by helping current and future generations of veterans.

Dick Henry was a common sight around his Piney Island neighborhood in Fernandina Beach, Florida. As with most everything he did, he walked with a sense of purpose and commitment. Sometimes he’d stop and chat with neighbors while on his daily 3-plus mile trek, some likely unaware they were talking to a hero, a great figure from The Greatest Generation.

Richard “Dick” J. Henry, or Chief as he was affectionately known, could probably tell a lot of stories from his more than 100 years of living. It’s hard to adequately describe the full life of someone like Chief in a single story. His lifetime of adventures and his giving spirit could fill the pages of a novel, or a series of novels.

But the overall theme would be about a man who believed in service and sacrifice and lived it until the end.

Dick Henry died May 18, 2021, at 100 years old. He spent much of his life serving his country. He took care of himself, physically and mentally, and was willing to impart his wisdom to younger generations, when asked. And he always had special devotion to other service members and veterans.

Chief wanted to make sure future generations of veterans were taken care of after he was gone. With thoughtful planning, that intention was fulfilled thanks to a generous donation to Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP). The legacy gift helps ensure injured warriors can continue to benefit from free programs and services that support their physical and mental well-being and help them transition successfully from the military to civilian life. 

A WWII Hero

Service was a significant part of Dick Henry’s life. He joined the Navy in 1939 when he was 18 years old. He spent 20 years serving in the Navy before retiring as chief fire controlman, and then spent another 18 years in civil service at the Naval Air Rocket Test Station in Lake Denmark, New Jersey.

Richard Dick Henry - Navy Veteran that served for 20 years
Richard "Dick" Henry served in the Navy for 20 years. He was aboard the USS Helena during the attack on Pearl Harbor in WWII

“Chief Henry truly enjoyed being in the United States Navy,” said Joy Slebos, who was Chief’s longtime aide and saw him as a surrogate father. “He considered it a true honor and mostly a privilege to serve his country.”

During his time in the service, he fought in World War II and was a fire controlman aboard the USS Helena when it was torpedoed during the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

In a case of mistaken identity, the USS Helena was moored in the spot normally assigned to the USS Pennsylvania battleship, making it a big target for attack by Japanese planes.

The torpedo killed 34 sailors and injured 69 others aboard the USS Helena. The remaining crew, including Chief, responded swiftly, restoring power to the generator, and securing the ship. The crew immediately began fighting back, minimizing the amount of damage and deaths with their quick, efficient, and heroic response.   

In a letter written to a young boy wanting to know more about his life, Chief shared his experiences on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941. He recalled rats bailing the ship ahead of the attack, seemingly knowing in advance that something ominous was coming. He shared how he had just picked up the Sunday newspaper to read, but never got the chance as Japanese war planes began their attack. He relayed, in his usual calm manner, how he immediately called the gunnery officer, and that the commanding officer told everyone to “get to general quarters, which means prepare for war.” He detailed how his crew fought valiantly and effectively despite two waves of attacks.

He also discussed his experience fighting the French during his assignment to the USS Massachusetts BB-59, which was dispatched to North Africa to support the Allied mission with Britain, known as “Operation Torch.” During the mission, Chief’s ship encountered French battleship Jean Bart which was guarding the North African coast. A battle ensued, with the USS Massachusetts avoiding any direct hits and the Jean Bart sinking.

He was also aboard the USS Missouri when he met – and had a drink with – President Harry Truman, who admired a macramé rug that happened to have been made by Chief.

The military was in Chief’s blood. His father, brother, grandfather, great-grandfather, and great-great grandfather all had military backgrounds. His great-great grandfather died as a POW and is buried at Andersonville National Cemetery in Georgia.

The Man Behind the Medals

Serving in the Navy was a huge component of Chief’s life, but it’s far from the only component.

Dick married the love of his life, June Rosalie Baumann, who shared his dedication to the military. She was the daughter of a career sailor and worked as a financial advisor for the Department of the Army until her retirement. The couple was married for 67 years until her passing in August 2019.

“I suppose they both saw and met quite a few people throughout their lives who needed help,” Joy said. “They both were always willing to help someone in need. More than once, they bought properties or mortgages to help others who couldn’t get credit. Being separated from family, the military was their family.”

Those who knew him, as well as those who had only heard of him, were impressed by his energy, intellect, and keen awareness.

“He did not forget anything, and even after all those years, while looking at pictures, he could tell you the names of his comrades and where they lived when they enlisted,” Joy said. “Even at almost 101, he could outwork me in the yard, walk further than I wanted, and carry on a better, more intelligent conversation than I could ever dream of having.”

Navy veteran with family

Chief was a combination of so many things. A humble man who commanded respect. A person who was enthusiastic about his health and physical well-being. A WWII veteran who believed in honor and service. A loving husband and caring friend who never wavered in his dedication to those who served.

“I believe Dick would like to be known for his belief and pride in America the great, his service to his country, his kindness to fellow Americans, his integrity and loyalty, his love of Jesus Christ, his savior,” Joy said. “Like many veterans, he did not consider himself worthy of his medals due to his fellow sailors dying, while he escaped harm. He wanted to make up for the guilt one feels. His wife felt that pain and saw it at the military base as well. They had a very deep commitment to one another and the military.”

Chief also maintained an active lifestyle and credited his longevity to his healthy habits. He ate oatmeal and an apple almost daily since childhood. He took a daily multi-vitamin. He walked no less than 3 miles most days.

But maybe the best thing he did for his heart, was fill it with love, compassion, and a lifetime of giving to others.

Chief imparted wisdom from his more than 100 years onto a 5-year-old fan who wrote to him. He told the youngster to respect his elders, to listen to his parents and grandparents, and to “remember that there is no glory in making a name for yourself if you are not honorable.”

Navy veteran, Dick Henry shaking hands with WWP Mike Linnington

Paying it Forward

To celebrate his 100th birthday, Chief visited WWP’s headquarters in Jacksonville, Florida. He spent some time with WWP staff and shared some stories of his amazing life.

“Mr. Henry was humbling and a fine citizen and shared his love for his wife and country,” said Scott Forshey-Friedman, WWP’s director of Donor Engagement and Experience. “During his visit, we did a tour of our headquarters, and I was able to provide him some WWP logo apparel. I put a WWP jacket on him, and he told me he won’t be taking it off. He was honored to wear it.”

Scott got to know Chief over the years through weekly phone calls. He would talk about his walks, his healthy habits, his Navy adventures, and, of course, his dedication and commitment to those who serve.

“I was inspired, humbled, and honored to spend a portion of time with Mr. Henry,” Scott said. “His legacy and stories made an impact on me that has been shared with others. Not only was the life he lived honorable, but his legacy gift is also allowing us to keep his legacy alive as the impact is now being shared with veterans that we serve today.”

It’s heroes like Chief who help WWP fulfill its mission to help wounded warriors achieve their mission. It’s heroes like Chief who help veterans receive the lifesaving physical and mental health treatments that allow them to live full and complete lives. It’s heroes like Chief who help family members of warriors get help for themselves and their loved ones, so their families can get back the moms, dads, husbands, wives, sisters, and brothers they knew before war.

And it’s heroes like you who can help continue Chief’s work and share his passion to serve those who sacrificed so much for us. WWP is grateful for all the heroes like Mr. Henry who make this goal of helping current and future generations of injured warriors and their families to achieve their highest ambition a reality.

Find out how you can help injured veterans.

Contact: — Paris Moulden, Public Relations, pmoulden@woundedwarriorproject.org, 904.570.7910

About Wounded Warrior Project

Since 2003, Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP) has been meeting the growing needs of warriors, their families, and caregivers — helping them achieve their highest ambition. Learn more.

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