Three years olds are infamous for being forgetful. But Oct. 23, 1983, is a day Tyson Hendrickson cannot forget. He was snuggling with his mother in bed while he and his 6-year-old brother, John Hendrickson, watched cartoons on a cool Saturday morning in Jacksonville, NC. Suddenly, the screen switched from colorful characters to a breaking news story happening in Lebanon, where his father was stationed with the United States Marine Corps.
A truck filled with 2,000 pounds of explosives had driven into the Marine barracks, causing the four-story building to collapse.
His brother’s face dropped, and he stood up from the floor, shouting “Daddy’s dead, daddy’s dead!” Their mother sat up in bed to see the reporter explaining that officials did not know how many soldiers — or which ones — had been injured or killed. All they could do was hope and pray.
The Beirut bombing killed 220 Marines, 18 Navy sailors and three Army soldiers. Veteran Robert Adelhelm, who also served in Beirut and founded the Semper Fidelis Society, said 21 Marines and one Navy Corpsman who died in the bombing were from Jacksonville, FL.
The main memorial for the bombing victims, dedicated on Oct. 23, 1986, is in Jacksonville, NC, home of the 2nd Marine Division. All the Marines and sailors who served in Beirut came from that division, Adelhelm said.
For the next three days after that awful Saturday morning, Hendrickson and his family quietly waited for news about his father; the television reports stayed packed with videos and images of the bombing. His mother, Debbie Hendrickson, tried to shield him and his brother from the devastation but had little success. Living on base allowed them to see casualty cards being delivered to others in the neighborhood, which only brought more worry.
When Hendrickson and his brother would leave for school, reporters bombarded them with questions about any update on the bombing or if they had heard news about their father. Hendrickson’s mother eventually started driving the boys to and from school so they could avoid the media.
Three days after the bombing, Debbie Hendrickson was watching the news when a stroke of luck found her. She was able to catch a glimpse of her husband in the background of a newscast. Staff Sergeant John Walter Hendrickson of the United States Marine Corps was alive.
The 30-year-old had been sitting on his bunk, lacing up his boots, when the bomb went off 75 feet from his tent. After being unconscious for an unknown amount of time, he pushed pieces of concrete and rock off his body and rummaged through the rubble to pull his tentmate out.
But despite his survival, a myriad of problems surrounded Hendrickson’s father. A metal beam ripped through his tent, passing through a sandbag barrier, and struck his head during the explosion. The injury later led to post-traumatic stress disorder and caused memory loss and balance and coordination problems when he tried walking. Migraines and seizures became regular for him, and the explosion exacerbated the symptoms of his multiple sclerosis, a disease that wouldn’t be diagnosed until years later when a knee surgery brought it to light.
The next time Hendrickson, who now lives in Gainesville, saw his father was in December 1983, roughly six weeks after the bombing. The biggest difference was the wheelchair. His father was unable to completely care for himself. When John Walter Hendrickson went to Beirut, he had left two little boys behind, one in diapers and the other just starting school. Now, Hendrickson was in preschool and his brother was an independent first grader.
For the next seven years, Hendrickson’s bonding time with his father revolved not around playing catch in the summer or creating memories on a camping trip, but with helping his father eat or drink or helping his mother move his father from the bedroom to the bathroom. Hendrickson was forced to watch his father live out the remainder of his years in pain.
“I wasn’t able to do a lot of the things kids do with their fathers,” Hendrickson said. “I was helping him make it through his daily life.”
One of Hendrickson’s fondest memories of his father after the bombing was the last Halloween he participated in. As part of a fundraiser for Hendrickson’s school, his father dressed up as the devil. He didn’t let being in a wheelchair keep his spirits down; instead, he called himself “hell on wheels.”
Hendrickson recalls that his father loved John Wayne movies and the original “Star Trek” series. He spent hours talking to people from all around the world on ham radio. When he was younger, he had enjoyed riding broncos, so he would also fill his spare time at home watching the rodeo on television.
After the bombing, spare time became increasingly limited. Following his MS diagnosis, monthly hospital visits turned into weekly ones, and weekly visits turned into weeks-long hospital stays. Hendrickson’s mother was forced to leave her children with friends and family members while she accompanied Hendrickson’s father to the hospital. He was transformed from a dedicated, hard-driven Marine to a bed-ridden, dependent person filled with shame, disappointments and fear.
John Walter Hendrickson died with dignity on Good Friday, April 13, 1990, in Jacksonville, NC. Nothing ever eases the loss of a loved one, especially one so young and with so much pride in his beliefs, his country, his family and his God, Debbie Hendrickson said.
Since 1990, she has been trying to persuade the military to posthumously award her husband a Purple Heart, but to no avail.
“I never wanted this award for any other reason than my husband earned it and died for it,” she said. “Both of his sons have served and are still serving to defend and uphold all that their father believed in.”
Hendrickson’s father loved nothing more than being a Marine; he saw the job as being a protector of everyone in the country. After the bombing, he was unable to return to the service because of his injuries. However, he remained listed on active duty until the day he died, Hendrickson said.
Despite all his family went through, Hendrickson considers himself lucky. Many of his friends and neighbors from North Carolina didn’t have the opportunity to spend time with their fathers after the bombing. Many of his friends never knew their fathers at all.
Those who lost family members and friends in the bombing gather every year in Jacksonville, NC, for a memorial service to honor them. It’s vital that the men who served and died are not forgotten, he said.
“As long as there are those of us that knew the Marines and sailors who lost their lives to this attack, there is a small sense of peace,” Hendrickson said.
Since 2004, the Semper Fidelis Society has been conducting an annual memorial ceremony in honor of Marines and Corpsmen every November 10. Last year the organization decided to place a Beirut memorial next to the existing Marine and Corpsmen memorial in Jacksonville’s Evergreen Cemetery, Adelhelm said.
The dedication of the new memorial will include the laying of wreaths, a 21-gun salute and a reading of the names of the fallen, he said.
“It is a way to remind all, especially future generations, that there are those among us willing to step up, serve and in most cases sacrifice for the freedoms we all enjoy,” Adelhelm said.
Despite his injuries, the constant hospital visits and the limited control his father had over his life after the bombing, Hendrickson said, he’s certain his father would go through it all again for his country. He was there to take care of the men below him and protect the country he loved.
Hendrickson, who is medically retired from the United States Coast Guard, plans to visit the memorial as soon as he can.