Times have changed since the 1940s.
The year was 1938. Times were hard, and President Franklin Roosevelt was just beginning his second term, presiding over the worst depression in U.S. history. Trouble was brewing in Europe and around the world. War was on the horizon for many countries. Hitler’s regime was gaining strength, and his shadow of tyranny was soon to stretch across the globe. As many can tell you, things weren’t looking up.
Fifteen-year-old Charles Henson and his family were struggling; he could not find a job. There simply were not any to be had. At that point, any work that could be offered would be accepted, but he stubbornly clung to his dream.
Henson explained, “I had always had a hunger to go to sea. But you had to be sixteen years of age to get a seaman’s certificate from the U.S. Coast Guard. So, my mother swore an affidavit that I was sixteen and the kind Coast Guard commandant issued me my seaman’s certificate.”
Soon he had an official, paying job at the Magnolia Refinery. As a utility man aboard the S.S. Aurora (a tanker), Henson received $60.00 a month.
“This I sent home to mom. It saved our family.” he said.
From 1938 until 1941, the seafaring teen visited countries all over the world. He “made” every deep water port on the planet. Africa, China, Russia, and Burma were only a few of the exotic places that Henson visited – at such a young age.
“I could hear all the noises you heard in the old Tarzan movies,” he said, “It was an experience I’ll never forget.”
Henson soon got himself a promotion to ship’s steward.
“My job was to peel potatoes and clean the officers’ state rooms and other odd jobs. It was out of the weather, rain, and cold, so I was happy,” he explained.
On December 7th, 1941, everything changed.
“Well, time went on, Pearl Harbor took place, and the first thing you know this little ol’ seaman got himself drafted into the Army along with God knows how many thousands of others. So, I was sent to Fort Sam Houston.” Henson recounted.
“In the meantime, prior to this, while I was still sailing in the Merchant Marines, the Germans were sinking our ships at a rate of 2 and 3 a day, from Corpus Christi all the way up the coast to Portland, Maine. That’s were they operated. There was one occasion where they sunk a ship in the channel of the Mississippi River. That’s how close they came.” Needless to say, the United States was hurting badly.
The Armed Forces were getting into gear, but unfortunately the Navy was lacking.
“Been there just a couple of months when a Colonel came in one day and they gathered up all the guys that had Seaman certificates, which included me, about forty-five of us if I remember right. He said “We’re taking you to CampEdwards, Massachusetts.” Where they were going to form a brand new organization, called the Engineering, Boat, and Shore Regiment. You’ve seen pictures of the invasion at Normandy of the little boats coming in? Well, those little boats, as Germans used to refer to them as, were the Higgins Boats. They carried the troops from the ship to the shore. That’s what we first got started in at CampEdwards, Massachusetts, called the Engineer, Boat, and Shore regiment. So, we trained with those little boats for four or five months. And first thing off the bat they promoted me to Sergeant because of my experience on ships and made me a coxswain.”
By this time, trouble was really brewing. Millions of men were headed off to war, thousands to never return. Germany remained defiant; it continued its mission to conquer the world.
Henson continued, “Anyway, about four or five months after we created the Engineer, Boat, and Shore regiment, they had a notice on the bulletin board one day for everybody that held a seaman certificate to report for a big meeting they were going to have. So we did. And what happened – most people aren’t aware of what I’m fixing to tell you – out in California, there was a shipbuilder by the name of Henry Kaiser. Anyways, he taught us how to build ships. The transport ships called Liberty ships. Henry Kaiser, that was his name. And Mr. Kaiser taught us like Mr. Ford taught us to build the Model T. On an assembly line. Consequently, we were turning out two or three ships a day in our shipyards from California to the East Coast. All of a sudden we had plenty of ships, but no crews for them. Where were the crews?”
They had been drafted into the Army!
“Like I say, not many people are aware of this. Immediately after Pearl Harbor, all merchant shipping – ships, crews, and officers – were placed in direct jurisdiction of the U.S. Coast Guard. That automatically made us members of the Coast Guard. Anyway, they called this big meeting, it gave us – everyone who held a Seaman’s certificate – a choice. We could go back to sea and man these ships, or stay in the army, whichever. They could use us in either place. So a lot of us we knew ships, so we chose to go back to sea. Now we weren’t getting out of anything because they were still sinking ships up and down the coast! So we went back to sea, and that put me in the Coast Guard. Consequently I hold two Army discharges, and one from the Coast Guard.”
Henson ended up on a refueling tanker. When battle groups operated, they contained “carriers, battleships, light cruisers, destroyers, destroyer escorts, and even submarines, that’s what you call a battle group.”
“Every time a group sailed out to combat, they always had either two to three, maybe more, tankers for fuel. If they ran low on fuel, they couldn’t turn around and go into someplace, you know, to somewhere else for their fuel. So that’s what I was doing there on the refueling tanker. I did that for a number of months all over the South Pacific,” Henson said. “Well, I got the urge to go back into the Army in 1945. I got interested in law enforcement. And I don’t remember now at this point why I decided I wanted to go into the military police, but that’s what I wanted to do. So I put in for a transfer. It was turned down. Put in again for transfer, it was turned out. So I set down and wrote a letter to Admiral Emory S. Land.”
The last letter did the trick. He was sent to the 382nd Military Police Battalion in Bremerhaven, Germany. He “put in” the next three years in the MP Corps in Europe, the New York First Army, and the San Antonio Fourth Army. Henson had some fascinating memories there.
“While serving in the 382nd in Germany, with… an O.D. (Officer of the Day) , I saw two sides of this man. He always carried a Thompson sub-machine gun when on O.D. duty. One night, while I was on duty and part of the emergency squad of six men, I was relaxing at the booking station.” Henson said. “We suddenly got a call of a shooting at a local carnival the people of the city were giving for the children. We had a list of wanted deserters to look for; MP on duty at the carnival spotted one of the soldiers who was wanted for desertion. When challenged, the deserter fired at the MP on duty. The MP fired back but missed – and hit a little girl who was at the carnival. Fortunately, she survived. The deserter ran into one of the bombed-out buildings and locked himself in the bathroom, lined with tiles. In Europe, buildings had very little wood – construction was different, and they used much more tile and stone. We, at the station, responded to the call. Upon arrival, the MP on duty showed us where the deserter was. This O.D., a first Lieutenant, walked up within ten or twelve feet of the door. He demanded the deserter come out. His reply: ‘You come get me!’ The Lt. never said another word. He slung that Thompson and fired the entire magazine of 32 rounds of 45 caliber bullets into the door, making an ‘x.’ Then the Lt. said, ‘Drag his ass out of there.’ Well, you can imagine what those 45 slugs did to him as they ricocheted off the tiles – and into him. This was the one side of that First Lieutenant O.D. About a month later, in the dead of winter, we responded to a call to the railroad yard. Civilians were taking coal from the fuel dump. There was snow and ice everywhere, and old women and barefooted children were trying to keep warm. I ask the Lt., ‘What do you want us to do?’ After a few minutes, he said to me, ‘Not a damn thing. Let them have it or they will freeze.’ This was the other side of the same man – compassion. What memories.”
Henson’s story is undoubtedly very powerful; it shows that those who do not remember their history are doomed to repeat it. After seeing oppression in such a forceful, personal way, Henson’s mission is to warn Americans of what could very well be there fate if they don’t take action.
Involved politically and following issues, Henson wants to awaken the slumbering citizens around him. They haven’t seen what tyranny is like yet. One way Henson gets his message across is writing down his memories of war, bigotry, regulations, big government, concentration camps, and the incredible effects that the government has on family, children, and education. Wartime Germany – or in fact, Germany at any stage of Hitler’s rise to power – was not pretty. His firsthand experiences illustrate this well.
“All of the history you can study and read about what happened to other countries can happen here. And is. We feel safe. Don’t you? ‘Here in the United States, we’re the most powerful country in the world.’ We were…In a way it’s good that young people have this feeling of protection. But don’t ever forget that the only thing that you have that’s for sure and concrete is faith. Faith in God that He meant what He said. The people of Germany didn’t realize this. One day we sailed into Hamburg, Germany. This was before the war. Hitler was just beginning a speech to his own. And he was ‘blah blah blah’ on these loudspeakers attached to telephone poles up and down the street. All you could hear was Hitler ranting and raving about ‘Deutchsland Deutchsland uber alles!’ That’s ‘Germany, Germany over all.’ Today Germany, tomorrow the world. That was his ambition. I was still just a kid, but I’d followed my fellow crew members into a sort of German bar. If I remember right, there were five of us. One of them was the boatswain, he had like a foreman’s job. I don’t drink, never have drank, and never will drink. But I enjoyed going and seeing, you know, all these things and sights. So I had a soft drink and the boatswain was leaning back in his chair, and Hitler was talking. Talk, talk, talk, talking. We saw these two guys come in who they referred to as the brownshirts, what they call storm troopers. What they were was Hitler Youth ranging from 18-25, and they were dressed in the boots and tan trousers, and the brown shirts. And the first thing Hitler did was to take over, however he did it, the children in schools. A child as you well know, when it’s born, in one sense, is a brand new computer. And whatever you program into that child’s head is going to be there, from now on. They call that brainwashing, brainwashing you into believing something that isn’t true. That’s what Hitler did to these young men. As they graduated, they became Storm Troopers. Now these guys were very vicious. They were absolutely vicious. Meanwhile, the boatswain was leaning back in his chair, and these two guys had come in and were standing at the bar looking around. They carried, besides their pistol, a nightstick, a rubber nightstick about this long, called a truncheon. Hitler was still talking over the loudspeakers. The boatswain said, uh, a profanity. ‘Won’t that *** shut his ***** mouth?’ One of the brownshirts looked up, and he started walking over to our table. One the way over to our table, he undid his truncheon and backhanded the boatswain upside the head and across the mouth. Knocked all his front teeth out, split his lips. He was on the floor and of course there was blood flying everywhere. And the brownshirt said to the rest of us, ‘Take him back to the ship.’ That’s just an example of how you control people, once you get the power to do it. Anyways, that was just one of my experiences. This was before we got in the war.”
History has a way of repeating itself. Henson’s quest is to prevent his beloved America from becoming the next victim of totalitarianism.