Monday, March 4, 2024

GI Lost Four Limbs in the Battle of Okinawa

The Man who Wouldn’t Die

By Robert A. Waters

On June 2, 1945, Frederic Hensel, born in Virginia and raised by an uncle in Kentucky after he was orphaned, found himself on a small Pacific island called Okinawa. A tank battalion master sergeant with the 77th Infantry Division, Hensel soon learned that Okinawa was a miserable place for tank warfare. Relentless rain, rugged terrain, a doggedly determined enemy, and a vast network of cleverly formed defenses slowed advancement to a crawl. It took American GIs 82 days of brutal fighting to capture the island. 16,000 Americans would die there, and a staggering 40,000 would be wounded. 

The Associated Press wrote that "for four days prior to being injured, Hensel led a detachment of men through the mine-infested clearing on Okinawa where they were repairing [tanks] to go into battle.

"On June 2 he was working on a Sherman tank and decided to go back to headquarters for more repairs, taking another soldier with him. Realizing they were walking over dangerous ground, he ordered his companion to keep a good distance away.

"They hadn't gone far when Hensel stepped on the mine. The sturdy soldier didn't lose consciousness while his companion gave him first aid, nor until medics arrived with drugs."

"Hensel’s injuries were devastating," Time reported. "The explosion blew off both legs above the knee, his left arm above the elbow, [and] mangled his right hand…" While on the ship carrying him back to the states, his crushed hand developed a "gaseous gangrene infection" and had to be amputated.

Once Hensel arrived at Percy Jones Hospital in Battle Creek, Michigan, the media got wind of his arrival. No one, even the battle-numbed doctors and nurses, had seen injuries this severe. They quickly informed newsmen that Hensel was the only living soldier during all of World War II who had lost every limb. (NOTE: Before the war ended, four more soldiers would endure the same type of wounds.)

He was fortunate to have physicians and nurses familiar with rehabilitating soldiers who had grievous wounds. Time reporters wrote: "Eventually Sergeant Hensel will be far from helpless. After operations on all four stumps, he will get artificial limbs and be able to walk again. Last week, still suffering from shock and slightly deaf from concussion, he was thinking of starting a little chicken farm when he is discharged. He told reporters, 'This sure changes things a lot…I’d make an excellent propaganda photo to end all wars.' His dark-haired wife, at the hospital to greet him, said, 'We’ll get along fine.'"

Jewel, his wife, charmed reporters. A photogenic woman with a captivating "Southern accent," they had been married for three years. Newspapers raved about her beauty and her loyalty to her husband. 

Before he joined the army, Hensel had known only farming. As a child, he toiled on his uncle’s Kentucky farm. He informed reporters that, except for war, farming was all he knew. The plucky soldier’s determination to overcome his handicap resonated with Americans on the home-front.

Out of the blue, someone sent a small check to Hensel to help him buy a farm. Newspapers quickly joined forces with everyday citizens and soon Hensel found himself deluged with donations. Many checks were for only a dollar or two, but they added up. The Associated Press wrote that Sergeant Hensel and his wife, Jewel, "received some $60,000 in cash gifts today as they celebrated their third wedding anniversary. Hensel captured the admiration of the public when he arrived here from Okinawa five weeks ago and announced that he was going into the chicken farm business despite what seemed like insurmountable handicaps." 

That money would buy him a nice farm. While many men may have quickly blown through the cash, Hensel and his wife did not. Eighteen months after entering the hospital, Hensel left in a wheelchair. He now had two new artificial arms and hooks, as well as prosthetic legs. He did indeed buy a chicken farm in Kentucky, but a couple of years afterwards, sold out, moved to Alabama, and bought a dairy farm. He hired employees to do the milking and physical work he could not do.

Hensel prospered and became known as a successful businessman. He and Jewel had four children. Eventually, they retired to south Florida. Jewel died in 1987 at sixty-seven years of age.

Hensel outlived his beloved wife, but I have been unable to locate the date of his death. (NOTE: If anyone knows when he died, please let me know and I’ll add it to this story.)

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