20 years after 9/11: Parents recall loss of son in Pentagon

The Best Times Digital Edition

August 19, 2021

By Gerald Hay

Navy man Ronald John Hemenway was the third son of Robert (Bob) and Shirley Hemenway of Shawnee.

Twenty years ago, he was an electronics technician first class petty officer assigned to the Chief of Naval Operations at the Pentagon. He was at work on Sept. 11. It started as an ordinary Tuesday. He emailed his father a joke at 7:59 a.m. (EST) and spoke with Marinella, his wife, on the phone a few minutes after 9 a.m.

Then at 9:37 a.m., American Airlines Flight 77 hit the Pentagon, killing all 64 people on the plane and 125 people inside the Pentagon, including Ronald John Hemenway.

“His remains were never recovered,” Bob Hemenway said. “Not even his dog tags.”

Twenty years later, the Shawnee couple sadly recall the events before and after Sept. 11, 2001, when their son was one of 2,977 victims killed in terrorist attacks involving four hijacked airplanes. Two planes struck New York City’s North Tower and South Tower of the World Trade Center. The third hijacked plane slammed into the Pentagon. The final plane was deliberately crashed into a Pennsylvania field near Shanksville.

The victims of the terrorist attacks ranged in age from 2 to 85. Ronald Hemenway, the father of two children, Stefan, 3, and Desiree, 1, was 37.

“The night before he died, we spent an hour and a half on the phone talking about equipment and so forth and I said, ‘Ron you better go to bed, you’ll never get up in the morning,’” his father remembered. “Twenty years may seem like a long time, but it seems just like yesterday.”

Shirley Hemenway, his wife of 61 years, agreed. “Not a day goes by that we don’t remember,” she added. “I thought I was going to die. We lost a piece of our heart that day.”

Like most of the nation, the couple watched in fear, awe and ire of 24/7 TV coverage about the attacks, heroic efforts of first responders, the collapse of the 100-story Twin Towers, a downed plane, a burning section of the Pentagon, wondering about their son.

They tried in vain to phone their son and called his wife, family members and area hospitals near the Pentagon for any information. Emails went unanswered.

“We did not know where he was,” Bob Hemenway said. “Since the Pentagon was so huge, the odds were he would not have been killed or harmed.”

Those odds were not to be. Following Sept. 11, Ronald Hemenway was classified as MIA (Missing in Action) since his body had not been located by search and recovery teams. On Nov. 11, 2001, the Pentagon announced five victims either could not be positively identified or no remains were found in the rubble. Ronald Hemenway was reclassified as KIA (Killed in Action).

He rests in a single casket placed in a five-sided “Rock of Ages” granite monument at Arlington National Cemetery along with the other four unidentified victims. They included three civilians, ranging in age from 44 to 60, at work at the Pentagon and a 3-year-old girl on Flight 77. Other families also chose to include the remains of 25 other victims from the Pentagon attack in the casket. The group gravesite was dedicated on Sept. 12, 2002.

The Hemenways attended the dedication. It would be the second time they had buried a son. Their second child, Dale, died in infancy.

The couple has five children – two sons, Robert Hemenway Jr ., Cleveland, Mo., and Paul Hemenway, Overland Park; three daughters, Sheri Berger, Shawnee, Debbie Gray, Overland Park, and Kathleen Novich, Olathe; 19 grandchildren; and 11 great-grandchildren.

Born in 1964 in Cordova, Alaska, Ronald Hemenway graduated from Wasilla High School, Wasilla, Alaska, in 1982 and attended the University of Alaska in Fairbanks for one year. For the next few years, he developed an interest in raising and breeding horses along with several other pursuits as a young adult.

“He definitely marched to the beat of a different drummer,” his father quipped.

After living in Alaska for more than two decades, Bob and Shirley Hemenway moved to the Lower 48 in the mid-1980s, first settling in Georgia before relocating to Kansas and making their home in Shawnee in July 1987.

In 1994, Ronald Hemenway joined the Navy shortly after his 30th birthday. In signing up, he expressed an interest in electronics in his military training, following in his father’s footsteps.

“I’ve been in electronics all my life,” Bob Hemenway said, adding with a smile: “The Navy wasn’t his first choice. He tried to go into the Air Force, but he was considered too old.”

Ronald Hemenway son attended the Electronic School in Great Lakes, Ill., and graduated as the Distinguished Military Graduate with his pick in assignments. He chose the U.S.S. LaSalle, a flagship in Gaeta, Italy. While serving in Italy, he met his wife, Marinella. They married in 1997.

Three years later, the Navy petty officer requested statewide duty to spend more time with his family and be closer to Kansas where his parents and most of siblings resided. He applied for a job opening at the Pentagon and was approved, transferring to Bolling Air Force Base near Washington, D.C., in March 2000.

He would die in military service while at his office job 18 months later.

Over the years, Ronald Hemenway is memorialized with the other victims inside the Pentagon or on Flight 77 in the National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial dedicated on Sept. 11, 2008.

He is also remembered on the 9/11 Memorial victim’s panel at the Overland Park Fire Training Center, 12401 Hemlock St. A bronze Battlefield Cross honors him near the main entrance to his high school in Wasilla, Alaska.

With the passing of 20 years, it’s easier for the couple to talk about that day and the beloved son they lost in the 9/11 attacks. They found solace and support through TAPS — Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors — and became peer members.

“TAPS got us through those first years,” Bob Hemenway said.

A Gold Star Banner hangs from a front window. It symbolizes a family has had a loved one die or killed while serving in the armed forces. Shirley Hemenway joined the North East Chapter of Gold Star Mothers in Kansas, including serving as a past president.

“Before 9/11, I didn’t even know what a Gold Star Mother was,” she said. “It’s an honor no family wants.”

An entire generation has grown up since the attacks. Young children, including Ronald’s son and daughter, are now young adults in their 20s.

Bob Hemenway is 81. His wife is 79. Both have mobility challenges. Shirley Hemenway has Parkinson's disease with speech difficulties and other complications.

Their home is filled with keep - sakes of their son. Group family pictures of him and his siblings in youth don the wall above the fireplace along with a large portrait of their son in uniform. A triangular-folded flag sits on the mantel. His medals, including a Purple Heart, are displayed near the pictures.

Their lives were forever changed 20 years ago. Even with the passage of time, memories never die.

“9/11 was a sad tragedy for our family and our nation. So many loved ones were lost that day,” Bob Hemenway said.

Shirley Hemenway agreed. “It never goes away,” she slowly added. “I want people to always remember. I don’t want them to ever forget.”