Service & Sacrifice

Al Henderson: “The war was winding down”


Journal City Editor

Al Henderson is a Vietnam Veteran who considers himself lucky for a variety of reasons. He entered the Air Force just out of high school in 1970 at the tail end of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.

Rather than waiting for his number to come up in the draft, Henderson decided to join the Air Force.

After serving his basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, he went to Chanute Air Force Base in Illinois to become a metals processing specialist. He was then sent to a place very familiar to him.

“Then shortly thereafter, low and behold they sent me to K.I. Sawyer AFB. I was just 4 miles from where I grew up,” Henderson said. “And it happened that my father worked as a civil engineer out at the base, so they sent me right back home.”

He served two years at K.I. Sawyer before the Air Force sent him to serve in Taiwan and later the Philippines.

“It was a Taiwanese air base, but the U.S. pretty much had possession of it at that time,” Henderson said.

While he was there, he repaired airplanes used for transport s at the end of the Vietnam conflict.

He welded “mostly aircraft parts, jet engines – different parts. And then for the support equipment of all the aircraft. Things would break, we’d have to fix it. But the biggest thing was jet engine parts,” Henderson said. “And the C-130’s that we worked on, they would come back with bullet holes in them.”

Living in Taiwan was pleasant for the most part, Henderson said. U.S. Air Force personnel lived in the city near the base, not on the base itself. Airmen on Taiwan worked 12-hour shifts but many found time to explore the island in their free time.

“I hate to say this, but it felt like you were on vacation, you know. and the people were super friendly. We could go anywhere and do anything and everyone was friendly — except, every once in a while when you left, someone might break into your house and steal your stuff. Or, if you had a pet, you had to make sure that you really kept a close eye on them because over there they eat everything.”

Henderson said that was one of the things about the region that took him by surprise.

“There was a second lieutenant that lived right across the street because there was not base housing, so we had to live in the city, which was Taichung. We had to live off base, but everybody did. So that second lieutenant, he got a German Shepard puppy. And they had it for a few month, maybe about 6 months, and it eventually just disappeared. You know, so you kind of know what happened to it, so. The culture is completely different there.”

Despite the cultural disparities, Henderson said he enjoyed living on Taiwan.

“It’s totally different than the United States. But its a totally beautiful country there. They have some of the highest mountain ranges in Southeast Asia there,” he said.

At the end of February 1972, President Richard Nixon became the first U.S. President to visit mainland China. Taiwan’s independence was a sticking point at that meeting. By the end of the trip, the administration acknowledged that “Taiwan is a part of China,” according to the U.S. Department of State website.

The U.S. also agreed to withdraw the remaining U.S. troops from Taiwan during that meeting.

That likely played a role in where Staff Sgt. Henderson went next.

He and his wife at the time spent several months stationed at Clark Air Base in central Luzon, Philippines, which was a much different experience than Taiwan.

Clark served as a strategic supply base and fighter-squadron installation during the war.

“You had to watch your back there. Any American had to be kind of careful with what you did,” Henderson said. “The base at the time was the main hub for bringing POW’s back and a lot of the bodies from the people from Vietnam came through there too. They had a large area that just (had) coolers to keep the bodies in. But we were only there three months, so we didn’t see a whole lot of it.”

Henderson ended his 3-year, 10 month tour when the Air Force returned him and his wife to a base in California. He said they were discharged soon after.

The horror stories that some people tell about coming back and facing protesters is something he heard about but did not experience.

“Military people who were in Vietnam were kind of frowned upon.” Henderson said. “It wasn’t our fault that we were over there in support of it, you know.” he said. “When we came back there was no fanfare, no nothing. You took your uniform off and you kind of hung it in the closet and that was the end of it, you know?”

He came home and spent that summer looking for work. At that time there were no work incentive programs or anything to help former military

Henderson found work at the Tilden Mine in west Ishpeming, where he stayed for the next 36 years.

Taiwan is once again a prickly subject for U.S. Chinese relations. President Joe Biden has said the U.S. will defend Taiwan if China attacks.

As recently as Nov. 1 Taiwan said China sent 43 military aircraft and seven ships near the island.

Henderson said he hopes to go on the Honor Flight to Washington D.C. in the near future.

“My grandson just turned 18, and I’d like him to go with me.”