Identical twins celebrate 99th birthdays, share WWII stories

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PROVO, Utah (KSL) — Ralph and Boyd Henderson didn’t ever want to be remembered as war heroes.

“They get very uncomfortable when you talk about awards or anything of that nature,” said Lon Henderson, Ralph’s son. When he asks his dad about his World War II service, Ralph Henderson says he just went and did his job and came home.

The identical twin brothers celebrated their 99th birthdays on Wednesday. Friends and family members traveled from far and wide to throw a birthday party for the two of them in Provo on Saturday. They sang birthday songs and shared stories of when the brothers served together in World War II.

“It’s joyous to be here, but to see the last of the World War II veterans leave, it’s sad,” Lon Henderson said. “Their spirits still, I believe, are blessing this great country.”

Boyd Henderson was born on Sept. 6, 1918, in Arimo, Idaho. His twin brother, Ralph, followed almost two hours later. The family moved to Pocatello a few years after the stock market crashed in 1929. The brothers grew up together working at their father’s feed store, and their mother budgeted $3 a week to buy groceries for the family.

The twins graduated from Pocatello High School in 1936 and attended a year of college. About that time, the brothers were considering serving a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

But everything changed when Ralph’s draft number was read on the radio in 1941. Boyd decided to join his brother in enlisting in the National Guard, in the 183 Field Artillery Battalion.

After training at Fort Warren in Cheyenne, Wyoming, Boyd Henderson took a three-day leave to marry Ethel Chilton in the Salt Lake Temple.

Ralph Henderson joined a convoy headed to defend the West Coast after the bombing at Pearl Harbor. The convoy stopped to refuel in Pocatello, where Ralph had fewer than four hours to marry his high school sweetheart, Lena Rawlins.

“If I got killed,” he said, “she could get my insurance. I wanted her to have it.”

Throughout the war, the brothers tried to keep track of one another as they served in parts of North Africa and Europe. Though the twins were assigned to different companies within the 805th Tank Destroyer Battalion, they were often unaware whether the other one was alive.

“I worried to death until I finally found him and we talked together. What a great experience that was, on the battlefield,” Ralph said Saturday. “Boyd has always been a good companion.”

On one occasion, a German 88 shell hit Boyd’s tank destroyer underneath the turret, but didn’t explode. The armor plating blew, shattering the tank and hitting Boyd in the back. He was awarded the Purple Heart after the incident.

“I’m just grateful that Ralph’s alive and I’m alive, and we can associate with each other,” Boyd said.

Both brothers attribute their faith in God as helping them make it through the war. Before leaving for combat, Boyd received a blessing promising him he would survive if he obeyed the LDS Church’s Word of Wisdom, a scriptural commandment about health that includes not drinking alcohol or smoking.

Another spiritual experience Ralph recalled was when he felt he was prompted not to take an expensive pistol of a dead German soldier because the body was booby-trapped.

When the twins transferred to the Air Corps, Ralph helped build a LDS chapel on the island of Sardinia using materials bartered with cigarettes from soldiers’ rations.

After the war’s end, the brothers opened a sawmill in the Salmon National Forest, and later the Henderson Lumber Company in Pocatello.

“I have never had another hero,” said Jason Henderson, Boyd’s son. “My friends all had heroes, whether it was this athlete or this person or that. But I never once looked past my dad.”

Cornell Henderson, another one of Boyd’s sons, says he remembers buying season passes and going to BYU football games with his dad.

But “it wasn’t about BYU football at all,” he said. “It was about being with his boys.”

Boyd and Ethel, who died in 2011, have nine children and dozens of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Boyd lives in Pocatello, and served as an LDS mission president in Melbourne, Australia.

Ralph and Lena, who passed away in 2001, have five children, along with several grandchildren. Ralph took care of Lena for 14 years of her life when she was partially paralyzed by a stroke. He remarried in 2002 to a friend he initially met 18 years ago, LeNore Thompson Smedley. They live in Utah.

“They’re larger than life,” said Trevor Henderson, Boyd’s son. He remembers his dad telling him that people today don’t know what it’s like to fight in a foxhole. Trevor replied, “Thanks to you, Dad, they won’t have to.”

“Every time when I either watch a movie about World War II or read a story about it, I can’t believe that my father actually did that,” said Melanie Allen, Boyd’s daughter. “Growing up, I’ve always had a special love for the flag, because my dad taught me to love America.”

As for the secret to living to be 99, Ralph said there isn’t one.

“Love your wife, love your family, love everybody, and the Lord will bless you and help you get along in life,” he said.

“There’s nothing greater than America,” Boyd added. “There’s nothing greater than my family, and I love each one of them.”

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