Home Articles Interview with James Henke

Interview with James Henke

by Ilya Grinberg

– Please, tell us about yourself: youth, school, how did you get your aviation training.

I developed a very early interest in aviation because of the solo flight of Charles Lindbergh across the Atlantic. One of my very earliest memories is of trying to hear radio reports, with my father, of the progress of the flight. I was only four years old at the time, but I remember waiting to see the newspaper headlines the next day. He had taken off from Roosevelt Field, which was about 25 miles from my home, and landed in Paris.

Because my father was a carpenter, I also developed an interest in tools. When it became time for me to learn how to ride a bicycle, because of the lack of family funds I had to figure out a way that I could build a bicycle out of salvaged parts. I eventually succeeded and became mobile. I used that bike later on to take a trip of 16 miles to Republic Airport, where there was an aircraft factory building aircraft designed by Alexander Seversky. We had to crawl through the woods to get close to the field, and were fortunate enough to spot an experimental aircraft being readied for a test flight. It was one of the first models of the P-43. I believe it was the first all metal fighter with retractable landing gear built for the US. It was also the basis for the design of the famous P-47. For me it was a big deal just to see it.

My building experience didn’t end with bicycles. I decided to get into balloons. I decided I would build a hot air balloon and fly it. The balloon ended up being made of paper, about eight feet tall, powered by kerosene-fed flame. The experiment ended successfully because the balloon flew at least a half mile. Unfortunately, when it landed it set the woods on fire. The local volunteer fire department put the fire out and I didn’t dare claim any success.

I graduated from high school at the age of 16. Because of the lack of family funds I couldn’t go on to college, so I immediately went to work at whatever jobs I could find. After I had spent several years as a carpenter’s helper, Pearl Harbor was attacked. Almost immediately all construction works stopped and the country started to mobilize for war. The US government subsidized a training program for aircraft factories, and because of my experience with tools I was accepted for training as a sheet metal worker. The program lasted for about six weeks when I was interviewed and accepted for a job at Republic Aircraft. My assignment was in the wing shop for the P-47. After working there for about eight months, I decided that because there was a war going on I had to get into it. Because I did have some experience and was a volunteer, I was given several options for assignments. I chose the hydraulic specialist training and was assigned to a tech training school. That became the pattern of my continuing experience in aviation training. Every time a new objective was determined, a new training session evolved. My formal training had ended with high school.

– Give us your impressions of Great Falls, Montana, and Ladd Field as you first arrived there.

Great Falls was merely a transit stop for us and I never got to see any of the operation there except for the mess hall and the barracks. It was my first experience with below zero temperatures and the cold left a definite impression.

Ladd Field was definitely an eye opener when I arrived there. It had a modern hangar, a large barracks building complete with mess halls, post exchange (PX) facility, theater, and a recreation room complete with locally operated gambling tables ready for unwary GIs. I avoided the games. This building was connected to the rest of the base facilities with underground tunnels that kept us inside in the worst weather. Base facilities included a modern hospital, officers’ quarters, commander’s offices, women’s barracks and visitors quarters. I lived in that main barracks for the first winter I spent there until a Quonset hut facility was set up across the field for the Air Transport Command personnel. These were much more primitive quarters, but we managed to survive. During my stay at Ladd a new runway was built and then two wooden hangars were constructed for the Lend Lease program.

– What were your schedule and work conditions? Please, describe a difference when the flow of aircraft was slow and heavy at different periods. Was there any compensation for your work?

We normally worked a six-day week, eight hours a day. It was generally a two-shift operation. I happened to be in charge of the Hydraulic Shop, so I generally worked the day shift. I was also able to keep busy either working on shop equipment or putting my nose into some tech manual trying to increase my knowledge of the various aircraft. At Ladd Field we generally worked on B-25s, A-20s, and the P-39s.

You asked about compensation. The only compensation I got was my GI salary at the end of the month and the personal satisfaction I got from doing my job to help win the war and get home to a normal life.

You asked a question about what our work schedule was like during slack times. I usually had some sort of personal project going that I would work on. I’m attaching a couple of pictures of a boat a friend and I built using materials we were able to find and some recycled aircraft parts that we were able to get our hands on. The engine we used was salvaged from a ground power cart. We used the boat to take trips up river during our off time. That way if we had a mechanical breakdown, we could always drift downstream with the flow. Anything for a little fun.

I had the opportunity to take a trip to Mt. McKinley National Park for a little rest and relaxation while at Ladd Field. While the stay at the park was not extraordinary (the weather was so bad I never got to see the mountain), the train ride to and from the park was memorable. On the way to the park the Alaskan Railroad train ran off the track about three times. We had to stop and get off the train while the crew worked to get the train rolling again. They explained that the effects of permafrost had caused the tracks to move; consequently the train had to travel slowly in order to prevent a more serious accident. It took us almost a whole day to travel the relatively short distance between Fairbanks and the park. The park is now known as Denali National Park.

The train ride back was also notable because we were accompanied by the superintendent of the park, whose name was Grant Pearson. He had formerly been a park ranger and a noted mountain climber. He had been part of a team that had accomplished the feat of scaling both of Mount McKinley’s peaks in one day. Prior to their feat in 1932, it had never been successfully done before. He kept us regaled with stories of his exploits and also stories of his knowledge of the current civilian residents of Fairbanks. All in all a very interesting trip.

– Please, describe complexity of equipment, access to it, etc. Did it depend on the manufacturer? Which ones did you like more?

The equipment we used was normal shop equipment, such as hydraulic test stands for testing components and mobile test equipment for testing aircraft systems. We also did some tubing work for standard repairs and used shop tube benders and normal hand tools. Other specialty shops such as machine shops, welding, sheet metal, and paint were all fully equipped with their own tools. We were not equipped for depot-type overhauls but were able to handle most line repairs. The Ladd Base organization did have additional equipment that was available for additional support.

– Describe the process for turning the aircraft (AC) over to the Soviet side. Did the US side use a long checklist? Who signed off on this list? Was there a formal (deliberate) “turnover” procedure? Or was it informal (hurried)?

I had very little to do with the actual turnover of AC to Soviet personnel. My own work was signed off on normal USAF paperwork and also signed off by a USAF inspector. Once we got a flight of AC ready to depart, the Soviet flight crews appeared and took over possession of the AC. I’m assuming that whatever turnover process was required took place prior to that. We did assist in pulling chocks and power carts and heaters just prior to departure.

– Can you say anything about the Soviet personnel assigned there? What were their specialties? Did they appear to be well trained in their specialties? Did they have good basic technical skills?

Soviet personnel that I came in contact with were usually there in a supervisory capacity and dealt with our line chief or inspectors. They had several female interpreters that usually went with them. I never had occasion to have any close inspection of my work by a Soviet inspector.

– Were wing guns (.50 cal pods) removed from P-39-Qs at Fairbanks? Or did you turn the AC over with wing guns still installed? Photographs of P-39s en route show them with guns installed, but we know for sure that they were removed and did not get to combat units with wing guns – Q version).

I’m sorry, I can’t answer your question about wing guns. I don’t recall ever seeing a P-39 with wing gun pods. I’m sure I would have noticed because one of my first jobs in the industry was fitting wing gun covers to the Republic P-47 when I worked at the factory prior to my entry into military service in 1942. I do recall being fascinated by the cannon firing through the prop shaft. I also remember seeing some A-20s come through equipped with extra nose guns, giving the AC at least eight or 10 .50 cal. guns firing out the nose. I also recall seeing the B-25s that were equipped with a 75mm cannon firing forward. I always wondered how that worked out.

– How did the Soviet personnel live? Were they billeted in a separate building? Did they eat in a separate mess hall? Was there a deliberate effort to keep them apart from the American personnel or were you able to mingle, both during working hours and time off?

Soviet personnel all lived in quarters separate from US enlisted personnel. I’m not sure where they were quartered. I didn’t see them in our mess hall. They could have been living in US officers’ quarters and I wouldn’t have known about it. I’m pretty sure that all of the permanent Soviet detachment was officers. I was always under the impression that they were under orders to avoid contact off the job.

– Did the American side impart any technical training to the Soviet side in aircraft maintenance? How about tools—did you give them any or did they work with their own?

All aircraft maintenance that I saw was performed by US mechanics. The only tools I saw used by Soviets were screwdrivers to open access panels during inspections or by flight crews stashing personal items just prior to departure. I know nothing of any formal training programs, but I’m pretty sure there was some on-the-job training occurring; I was never involved.

– Did the American side gain any know-how from the Soviet personnel? You mentioned that you did not have direct contacts with Soviet ground personnel and some limited contact with flight personnel. What impression did you have about the Soviets: lifestyle, behavior, work ethic, etc. Was there any explicit or implicit propaganda against the Soviets? If yes, how did you react?

My impression of the Soviets was that they were very strictly controlled. They seemed to be very careful of how they communicated with us and what was said. Their reserve could have been caused by the language problem. At that time in history we all knew the Soviets lived in what was considered a closed society, entirely different from the US lifestyle. While in the military I never received any direction on how to behave or treat the Soviets that I met. I knew little about the USSR before I enlisted, just that we had a common enemy in Germany. My feeling about turning over aircraft to them was just furtherance to a common goal.

– A number of aircraft were sent to the Soviet Union that head nose art on them, Examples include inscriptions of school mascots, fundraising slogans, etc. Can you recall any of them? Perhaps you can find photographs of such aircraft in your collection?

All the Aircraft that I saw delivered were straight from the factory. They all seemed to be devoid of any “nose art.”
North American B-25Js destined for the USSR came in unusual camouflage scheme—black on the bottom and olive drab/dark earth (British color)/slate gray. Do you recall if slate gray was green-gray color, a bit off from OD, or was it dark gray? If needed, I can send some pictures of them (b/w and some color as well. The reason for my question is that color photographs are contradicting at times.)

Sorry, I can’t help you on this one. I never had any occasion to note the paint schemes.

One other thing you might be interested in. I recall seeing three P-47s being delivered to the Soviets while I was at Ladd field. I had once worked at the Republic factory, so I introduced myself to the Republic representative who was at Ladd at the time. I never heard any mention of the Soviets using that AC before or since. Were you aware of this fact?

While at Ladd, I remember one fatal accident we had. A Soviet pilot crashed his P-39 on what was probably an orientation flight. The story I heard was that he had just taken off and the tower noticed he seemed to be having trouble with a cockpit door which was not properly closed. He circled the field, came in short, and landed in the river at the end of the runway. I watched as the recovery crew raised the plane from the river. The pilot was still inside.

We also had another crash with a P-39 when an American pilot on a local flight came in short and hit the gravel at the end of the same runway. He sheared off one main gear and ground looped. He survived without injury. One other crash we had was a B-25, with an American crew that crashed on takeoff. The story I heard was that the pilot reached up to scratch his head during the takeoff roll and the copilot retracted the landing gear. The only problem was that they had not reached flying speed. The plane settled on its belly and spent the next three months getting re-skinned. Nobody was hurt.

We occasionally had visits from famous people sponsored by the USO for entertainment purposes. I remember meeting actress Ingrid Bergman and Eddie Rickenbacker, the World War 1 ace, on separate occasions. One other dignitary I recall seeing was the Mayor of New York City, Fiorello Laguardia. He was returning home after he made a trip to Russia for some reason.
He arrived via a US C-47.

– What were your whereabouts after the war ended?

When I eventually left the Air Force in 1945, I used my benefits as a veteran to attend an aircraft and power plant mechanics program at Roosevelt Field Aviation School. This program lasted about a year, and with my previous experience in the military qualified me to take the FAA’s A and P mechanic’s license test. With the successful passing of the test but with no job, I felt qualified to get married to my present and only wife, Grace. When I went for my first job interview with Lockheed Aircraft, I asked for my start of work to be delayed for two weeks so we could go on a honeymoon. The optimism of youth. Fortunately, everything worked out well.

Most of the people with whom I went to school at Roosevelt Field also successfully completed and passed their FAA tests and did get jobs with the aircraft industry. Many of them went to work at the same facility I did. This was a new maintenance center opened at MacArthur Field in Islip, NY. The base was set up primarily to service foreign airlines using the Lockheed Constellation for airline service into NY. Eventually, however, we worked on many different types of civilian and military aircraft. During the Berlin Airlift we worked on many C-54’s, during the Korean War we refurbished many P-51 aircraft, and during the Cold War period we serviced all of the RC-121 and WV-2 early warning aircraft operating out of the East Coast. In addition we had a contract with the USAF to do all the heavy maintenance and refurbishment of the fleet of aircraft used for government VIPs, including the president of the United States. This included all of the aircraft later on called Air Force One, up to and including the Boeing 707. In addition we did major modifications on any aircraft we could fit into our schedules. I can recall the oldest aircraft I worked on at this time was a Lockheed Model 10, which was the type of Aircraft flown by Amelia Earhart when she was lost in the Pacific. Most of the time I worked at this facility in Islip, I worked as a hydraulic Specialist.

About 1951, when Idlewild Airport was open in New York City, we moved our operation to that airport and expanded it to include new model jet transports as they came into use. We expanded it to include turnaround operations for many foreign airlines. We expanded our shops to include more technical skills such as radio and radar, expanded our capabilities to refurbish aircraft interiors, and increased our jet engine capabilities. My job at this time was more in the supervisory ranks and eventually I supervised mechanics working in all of our overhaul shops. These included hydraulics, instrument, sheet metal, machine shop, engine shop, accessory overhaul, weld shop, wood shop, upholstery and trim shop, radio and radar, and paint shop. The policy of our company was to promote from within whenever possible. They would pick a likely candidate from the ranks throw him in the pond and let him sink or swim. Quite novel. In any event, I survived the immersion and kept going. I did so by continuing my education on my own at every opportunity. As I had access to a very good technical library, I was able to keep ahead of my job by studying on my own. I often worked a night shift and things were less hectic at nights, so I had plenty of time for this.

At some point it was felt that I had sufficient knowledge that could be used to better advantage and I was offered a job in our training department. We were required to have an in-house training system in order to qualify to maintain our status as a major repair station. My appointment to this new position caused another surge in technical training opportunities. I attended factory schools and airline training schools of various types. This covered Pan American Airlines schools for Boeing 707, 727, 747 aircraft; Lockheed aircraft school for the Lockheed Jetstar; Pratt and Whitney schools for jet engines; and General Electric for jet engines. I also attended some Boeing schools for the 727 and 747 aircraft. We also had some in-house schools for the Douglas DC-8 and the Canadair CL-44. The purpose of this training was to pass on to our mechanics the necessary skills for them to do their jobs. In addition we also prepared and held management training programs for our supervisory personnel.

The highlight of all this training activity came when our company started to downsize because of corporate problems and at the same time we needed to start work on a 747 training program to meet the needs of our customers. I was asked to set up this program and teach enough of our people to handle it. This left me with a big responsibility, because I was the only person in a position to do the job. I had to first obtain the knowledge myself and then figure how to transfer it in a condensed version to our mechanics. It ended up with the necessary result and I became sort of a technical expert, available to answer all of the difficult problems as they came up. Turned out to be a very interesting opportunity. One of my responsibilities was to train and certify our mechanics to taxi and run-up aircraft as part of their job. As it turned out, when it came time for our first run-up and taxi operation of the 747, no one on board had ever done the job before, including myself. so I had to authorize and certify myself. A very interesting situation. Fortunately, everything went well.

A few years later, in 1975, Lockheed closed our facility in New York and I was offered a position with the company in Saudi Arabia. I spent the next three years, accompanied by my family, setting up a training program for the Saudi Arabian Air Force in Riyadh. Wishing to return to the United States, I retired from Lockheed in 1978 and returned with my family. After coming home I worked for the next 11 years for a company called Camp Systems as an aircraft maintenance analyst setting up computerized aircraft maintenance programs for various corporate jet aircraft. It was a fitting and comfortable end for a long career in aviation maintenance. I finally retired for good in 1989.

By Ilya Grinberg and James F. Gebhardt

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1 comment

Robert J. Henke (son) 13.06.2019 - 23:52

The photograph at the top of the page Sgt. James R. Henke is second from the right. Referencing a related article on a
P-39Q 44-2911 recovered intact in Lake Mart-Yavr, located approx 50 to 75 KM west of Murmansk, Russia. Lt. Ivan Baranovsky, the pilot, died in the forced landing on the lake. The date was 19 November 1944. The birthday cake in the photo is my Fathers, his 22nd birthday. Photo was taken on 19 November 1944.

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