World War II / Cold War

Henry Hansen

World War II / Cold War Oral History Interview
US Army, Combat Engineers
Date: August 28, 2001
Interviewer: Bob Pontecorvo
Summarizer: Walt Borkowski
Veterans History Project


Henry Hansen was born in October, 1917 in Staten Island, New York.  His military service spanned five decades, from the era of the Great Depression, when he joined the Civilian Military Training Corps in 1935 “to get three good meals a day and have some fun,” until he retired from the New Jersey National Guard in 1977 as assistant logistics officer at the National Guard Training Center at Sea Girt, New Jersey.

Hansen recalled that the Civilian Military Training Corps (CMTC) [a military version of the better known Civilian Conservation Corps of the same era] trained at Camp Dix, New Jersey when there was only one permanent building on the base. All of the CMTC trainees lived in tents. He was in the organization from 1935 through 1937 and remembered that the culminating event of one encampment was a boxing tournament.

Henry Hansen (right)

During World War II, Hansen served as a sergeant in the Army’s Combat Engineers and took part in the April 1945 invasion of Okinawa.  He remembers that when his landing craft hit the beach on Okinawa under Japanese mortar fire, the young lieutenant in charge froze and couldn’t give the order for his men to get off the boat.  Enemy shells were falling closer and closer to the landing craft as they waited, and Hansen recalled whispering to the officer that they had to get off the boat, and that the lieutenant then snapped out of his paralysis and gave the command.  The lieutenant was a good officer, Hansen remembered, but “he just couldn’t give that first order.”

Hansen recalled being given a “strange assignment” on Okinawa.  Although an army sergeant, he was given command of twelve Marines and ordered to mop up any Japanese troops who might be hiding in caves on the island. The cave clearing procedure began with ordering the enemy soldiers to come out, using Japanese commands.  If there was no response the team then used flamethrowers or Bangalore torpedos [a British invented pipe-like explosive device usually used to clear mines or break up barbed wire barriers, and occasionally shoved into enemy pillboxes] in an attempt to flush the enemy out of their caves.

After the Japanese surrender that ended World War II, Hansen was assigned to the American force that occupied Japan. His initial assignment was to destroy all the planes at an aircraft manufacturing plant, and he ordered his men to bulldoze all but one training plane, which he saved for the use of his unit, but he was subsequently ordered to destroy it as well.  Hansen returned to the United States and was discharged in 1946.

Henry Hansen remained in the Army Reserve and was recalled to active duty in 1950 at the outbreak of the Korean War.  Now a Warrant Officer, he was assigned to an operation so top secret that he couldn’t tell his wife where he was going or what he was doing.  As the Korean War heated up, the growing Cold War with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics grew more intense as well.  The United States government decided that an airbase above the Arctic Circle was essential to counter the Soviet threat, and launched “Operation Blue Jay,” to build an airbase in Greenland.  Hanson was assigned to help find a site for the base, and then requisition the equipment needed to complete its construction. He recalled that he and a colonel flew over Greenland and settled on a coastal site near an Eskimo village. He noted that the Eskimos actually lived in wooden huts and only used igloos as temporary shelters while on hunting trips.

Hansen’s first big assignment in the project was to build eight piers on the Thule, Greenland waterfront, each large enough to hold two mobile cranes used to unload heavy construction equipment.  As an alternative to constructing the piers from scratch, Hansen visited the naval junkyard in Baltimore and requisitioned eight World War II surplus Landing Ship, Tank vessels (LSTs) due to be scrapped. He had the ships’ superstructures cut off and their hulls towed to Thule and run up to the beach to serve as pier foundations.  With the LSTs on their way north, Hansen then traveled to Texas and requisitioned the mobile cranes. During his interview, Hansen described other construction problems he encountered and resolved during the pier building and base construction process.

Hansen still has vivid memories of an Operation Blue Jay incident that occurred on February 28, 1952. He received a phone call at home ordering him to report to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey, from where he and fourteen other Blue Jay participants were transported to Roosevelt Field on Long Island, New York, where they boarded a C47 plane for a flight to Thule for a meeting.  He remembered that most of the personnel on the plane that night were either generals or colonels. On the way to Thule the C47 landed at Westover Airbase in Massachusetts for a brief break, but the passengers were rushed back on board with hardly enough time to finish their coffee. The pilot was in a hurry because he was trying to outrace a winter storm over Canada. He would not make it.

Hansen recalled that he had a view of the cockpit and saw how hard the crew and pilot worked trying to land the plane through the snowstorm at Sydney, Nova Scotia. The pilot apparently had no training in instrument landings, and was unable to make a visual landing due to low visibility. After several hours of trying, the pilot entered the passenger cabin.  He was sweating, said that they were low on fuel, and announced that it would be safer to bail out and allow the plane to crash rather than attempt a landing through the storm.

A sergeant handed out parachutes and instructed the passengers on what to do and what to expect during the jump. He told them to count to ten before pulling the cord and to expect a jolt when the chute opened. Hansen was afraid of heights, had never jumped before, and requested that he be the last one out. When it was his turn, he recalled, “I ran to the door, dove through it, counted to three and pulled the cord. He did not feel a jolt, yet the chute did open, and he found himself “not going down but was being blown sideways by the wind.” He landed into a snowbank in a “…ten by ten clearing in the trees….”

Hansen disengaged himself from the parachute and it blew away into the storm. He then wandered through the snow, thinking all the while that he might be walking in circles, but found a barbed wire fence and followed it to an empty farm house. From the farm house he worked his way to a nearby road, where he was picked up by two Royal Canadian Mounted Policemen in a jeep, who were out looking for him. The police advised him that everyone on the plane was safe and he was the last one to be accounted for.

The Mounties took Hansen to a nearby farm, where he began to shake uncontrollably and went into shock as he entered the warm house.  He was put into a bed and remained there for three days, cared for by the farmer and his family.  He showed the interviewer a scrapbook with pictures of the plane crash and articles from a Nova Scotia newspaper describing the incident, as well as pictures of the airbase at Thule and the local Eskimos.

Henry Hansen was discharged from active duty in 1953 and later joined the New Jersey National Guard, retiring from that organization in 1977.

Henry S. Hansen passed away on May 5, 2004.