By MARTHA SMITH
Special to the Standard
NORTH KINGSTOWN – James R. Henderson was a voracious reader, dedicated gardener and a grower of brilliantly-colored amaryllis, the dramatic houseplant with the tall stems and trumpet-like blooms.
After he retired from the U.S. Navy with the rank of Captain – his tours included flying out of Quonset – Henderson and his wife, Daphne, retired to the north end of town, near the East Greenwich border. He sold real estate, doted on his three daughters and hung out with buddies who shared his enthusiasm for airplanes.
The North Carolina native, who joined the Navy in 1942, only days after turning 18, had a 32-year military career spanning three wars – World War II, Korean and Vietnam. He flew more than 10 types of planes and served in torpedo and anti-submarine squadrons on 12 different aircraft carriers
His daughter Judy, who shares her mother’s home, calls her father and the other quiet war heroes “a lost generation” of men who served with dedication and very little fanfare.
On Feb. 4, in a ceremony at the Varnum Armory, in East Greenwich, Henderson, who died in December 2010 at age 86, will be one of six inducted into the Rhode Island Aviation Hall of Fame. In addition, a rarely-given President’s Award will be bestowed and the service of two others will be recognized during the celebration that begins with a reception at 6 p.m.
From her home in Colorado where she runs a marketing and PR firm, his daughter Janet Henderson Schoniger says her father “never considered any career other than being a Navy aviator.” Judy adds “he got his taste of flying by crop-dusting.” (A third sister, Hollie, died at 20 in a car accident.)
By the end of his military service, Henderson had logged 4,500 hours in combat missions in the Pacific and Korea.
Much of his Navy career involved anti-submarine warfare and flying off aircraft. “Dad lost a lot of his friends,” says Judy Henderson. “Flying on and off the carriers, some went off the end of the deck or ran out of fuel. It was very dangerous.”
He also served as a landing signal officer, bringing in and sending out those planes.
“He flew a lot of night missions,” she notes. “He loved looking down and seeing the dolphins following the ship.”
Henderson was later flag secretary to an admiral; a command officer and executive officer; a Pentagon official and Director of Naval Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps for the First Naval District. As Air Group Commander he oversaw all training and readiness of three air squadrons, 600 personnel and 50 aircraft.
He participated in the 1965 Gemini 5 space capsule recovery carrying Astronauts Alan Shepard and Pete Conrad. He was a founding member of the National Naval Aviation Museum Foundation in Pensacola, Fla.
Henderson was stationed at bases all over the United States as well as many foreign countries including Italy, Spain, Norway, Greenland and Saipan.
Judy Henderson smiles recalling the day her dad starred in her elementary school classroom.
“I actually brought him in for show-and-tell in third grade,” she says. When she saw TV reports on Vietnam, she would ask, “Are you going to go there? I was scared. He tried hard not to bring [his work] into the house.”
When Henderson left the military, he took graduate courses at URI, earning a master’s in public administration then he obtained a realtor’s license and worked with Dave Coldwell. When at home in North Kingstown, he enjoyed matting and framing Daphne’s original artwork that they sold at festivals in Rhode Island.
Something else he relished, says Judy, was flying a 1971 Cessna out of Quonset with his friend Vern Knott, former owner of the Beacon Diner on Route 2 in East Greenwich.
He flew with a buddy in Florida, too; Henderson and his wife spent winters in New Smyrna Beach for 25 years.
“He took all of us up in the plane,” Judy recalls of youthful adventures. “I felt safe because it was dad. I knew he knew what he was doing. He took us girls and our friends to Block Island where we’d have lunch or dinner and fly back. I always wanted him to buzz the neighborhoods.
“I understand why he loved to fly – being up there, looking down at the clouds, the beauty. He also enjoyed the physical part of flying.”
She is proud that her father is being recognized by the Hall of Fame but says, “I wish he were here so he could receive it himself. It was his life; he did what he loved doing. He was very patriotic. He didn’t like fuss but he would have been honored.
“He was fearless. He was my hero.”
Martha Smith is an award-winning journalist and author. Retired, she is an independent contractor for SRIN and can be reached at email@example.com .