Last Song for a Tuskegee Airman

Remembering Wesley Henderson, a beloved friend and distinguished World War II serviceman

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Posted in , Jan 13, 2016

Guideposts blogger Rick Hamlin remembers his friend Wesley Henderson, a Tuskegee Airman.

My friend Wesley Henderson was a Tuskegee Airman, part of that distinguished cadre of African-American pilots and ground crew who fought in World War II. I knew Wesley because he was also part of my church, a wonderful man with a great passion for music.

During the war when the group was making its way through Italy, Wesley was asked by his commandeer to start a choir. The son of a piano teacher, gifted with perfect pitch, Wesley gathered a crew together and taught them the music out of the only one hymnal he had.

I mention music because that was something that bonded us together. Recently Wesley’s health had left him homebound and whenever I visited him, we would sing together, always something from the hymnal. He complained that he didn’t have much voice left, but his baritone could always harmonize around whatever melody I pitched.

I saw Wesley for the last time just before Christmas. “Hope to see you in the New Year,” I told him. “You will,” he said. Although I wondered about that. He was awfully weak, could barely lift his head.

During the holidays he had to be hospitalized, and I learned a couple of days ago that he was being put on hospice care. He was 94 years old, a month short of 95.

Wednesday midday I got a call at work from Julie, another member of our church. Wesley had just come home, and she was visiting him. “Could you sing for him?” Julie asked. “He always seemed to enjoy that.”

“I can’t get up there till the weekend,” I said and hung up, wishing he lived closer and that I could dash by in the middle of a busy day.

Then I had a second thought. Sing to him now. Call him up, Rick. Sing on the phone to him.

Filled with a sense of urgency, I darted into an unused office, closed the door, called his number and the caregiver answered. “I’m Rick Hamlin, Wesley’s friend from church. I’d like to sing a song to him now on the phone. Could you hold it near him?” He was at rest, not responsive, but they often say that hearing is one of the last faculties to function.

“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound…” I sang and then I prayed with him, telling him how God loved him and how we at the church loved him.

I hung up, full of plans of other hymns I could do, favorites that I remembered of his. I went over the words to “Be Thou My Vision” because I thought the last verse would be especially comforting, “High King of Heaven, my victory won…” I called again at 4:30.

“He passed,” said the caregiver, stunned, sorrow in her voice. “He passed at 2:30.” I was stunned too. It had happened so fast.

I sang the song anyway, for myself, for God, for Wesley, standing on a busy street corner, singing of a victory won.

Here's a video interview with Wesley that Guideposts posted when Red Tails, a movie about the Tuskegee Airmen, opened in 2012.

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