Seasoned in combat during World War II, William Henninger was a draw to younger soldiers when he served on the Army's front lines in the Korean War. In the infamous 1950 Sunchon Tunnel Massacre, one of those younger GIs would save his life.
Henninger, a Twin Cities native who died April 1 at age 88, was deeply troubled by the atrocity and spent his life in friendship with other veterans.
"He lived with horror in his heart,'' said his widow, Dorothy Henninger. "But he was great for helping anyone connected to the service.''
On Oct. 20, 1950, Henninger was one of more than 100 American prisoners led by North Korean guards out of a train tunnel in Sunchon. Starving from days of brutal captivity, the men were told they would be fed. Taken in groups of 30 or 40, they were instead lined up in a gully and shot.
Henninger and about 20 others escaped by playing dead. He later said he felt bullets going through his hair and clothes but wasn't wounded. The body of a young GI from Minneapolis fell on top of him and covered him in blood.
Jim Yeager of Taylor, Ariz., escaped with Henninger and a handful of others after hiding under shocks of millet for a night. He said he'll never forget how the dying men called out for their mothers in the shooting spree. He said he and Henninger "kind of leaned on each other'' after the war and stayed in contact, particularly on the anniversary of the massacre. "I had Bill carry one of the wounded kids out of there,'' Yeager said. "He was a real hero.''
Awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart, Henninger said in one postwar interview that he felt more like a survivor than a hero. He was a POW for 89 days, losing about half his body weight during the ordeal and returning to U.S. soil weighing less than 100 pounds. His wife said the starvation led to lifelong kidney and stomach problems.
Henninger searched most of his life, in vain, for the parents of the young soldier who fell on him during the massacre. He wanted to pay his respects and give the young man's family a firsthand account of the horror.
In 2006, Henninger and Yeager attended the first organized reunion of Sunchon Tunnel survivors, in Branson, Mo. The war crime had received national attention in U.S. Senate hearings held by Sen. Joseph McCarthy.
One survivor testified that of 180 POWs there, only about 20 survived to rejoin U.S. troops. Yeager and Henninger led their small group to safety by climbing to high ground during daylight and spying a column of U.N. troops and trucks in the distance.
Returning to the United States, Henninger served for six months as a chauffeur for officers at Camp Roberts, Calif. Before his enlistment ended, he served as a guard in Desert Rock, Nev., during the test firing of an atomic bomb. He saw the mushroom cloud and was exposed to radiation from the blast.
Henninger graduated in 1942 from John Marshall High School in Minneapolis and later lived in Hastings and worked for many years for the amusement park at St. Paul's Como Zoo.
Dorothy said her husband would visit veterans in the hospital, play bugle at cemetery services and help fellow soldiers whenever needed. His groups included the Trench Rats, Fort Snelling Rifle Squad, Purple Heart Association, VFW and American Legion. "He went to a lot of meetings and he loved his comrades,'' she said.
Henninger was buried April 10 at Fort Snelling National Cemetery.
Tony Kennedy 612-673-4213
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