Life

Iowa WWII veteran befriends war buddy's famous son, Steven Spielberg (yes, the director)

Glen Henton served in the 490th Bomb Squadron in Burma, India

Glen “Red” Henton, 98 of Maquoketa, holds up a “Saving Private Ryan” poster May 16 signed by actor Tom Hanks and director Steven Spielberg. Henton and Spielberg’s father, Arnold, served together in the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II in the 490th Bomb Squadron stationed in India and Burma. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
Glen “Red” Henton, 98 of Maquoketa, holds up a “Saving Private Ryan” poster May 16 signed by actor Tom Hanks and director Steven Spielberg. Henton and Spielberg’s father, Arnold, served together in the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II in the 490th Bomb Squadron stationed in India and Burma. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
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MAQUOKETA — The cap that’s perched jauntily on Glen “Red” Henton’s head is from his friend Steve.

As in Spielberg.

“He’s a good friend,” Henton, 98, said. “It’s really quite a deal to be a friend of (the) guy. He’s a fairly good movie director now, Steve Spielberg. He’s very popular out in Hollywood.”

And he’s very popular with Henton, who has had half a dozen phone calls from Spielberg in the past few months, and another couple with Spielberg’s secretary, who let Henton know that Spielberg would be calling.

Their history goes back a generation, to World War II, where Henton and Arnold Spielberg, Steven’s father, served in the 490th Bomb Squadron in Burma and India, part of the war’s China-Burma-India Theater. Henton served there for 2½ years in administration, doing payroll, courts martial and the worst task — writing to inform families that a loved one was killed in action.

Arnold Spielberg, now 102, was an electronics specialist with the B-25 medium bomber planes.

“Arnold was a very intelligent man, talented,” Henton said. “We became good friends.”

And so Henton decided to write to Steven Spielberg and tell him about being WWII buddies with his father. “I just thought it would be quite a thing to let him know that,” Henton said.

“I finally wrote down there and told him, I said, ‘Steve, I was with your dad.’ I don’t think he knew it before. I had a heck of a time getting to him. Finally, I got an address down there in Hollywood.”

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Steven Spielberg received the letter, and his secretary called Henton a few months ago, for the men’s first conversation.

“We talked and talked and had a good visit about his dad and how he was getting along,” Henton said. “And the next thing I know, in the mail, here come my cap.

“I got this nice cap, and then in another couple weeks, here in this long tube comes this thing,” he said, unfurling an autographed poster from “Saving Private Ryan.” Spielberg won his second Academy Award for directing with this much-lauded 1998 epic film set during WWII.

Spielberg signed the poster: “For Glen, who served proudly with my dad in the 490th CBI!” In the other corner was a message from the film’s star, Tom Hanks: “Glen — Over the Hump!” That’s a WWII nickname for the eastern end of the Himalayan Mountains. Military transports had to fly over that “hump” to get from India to China to resupply the Chinese war efforts and the Americans there.

Unfortunately, Henton won’t get to speak to his wartime pal. Steven Spielberg noted that his father’s voice isn’t very strong, and a phone call would be too much of a strain for him. But connecting with Arnold’s son has given Henton another friend.

“When Steve found out that Arnold and I were together, then Steve became kind of a good buddy, too,” he said.

Growing up in Maquoketa

Henton, dubbed “Red” because of his bright red hair, attended village school in Fulton before moving to nearby Maquoketa, where he starred in baseball and graduated in 1938.

He eloped with his high school sweetheart, Bernice Kokemuller, on Aug. 30, 1941. After courting for four years, they were married nearly 63 years until her death in July 2004. They enjoyed 67 years together, raised two daughters — Judy and Nancy — on a rural acreage, and performed in a band.

“She was a fabulous musician,” said Henton, who took piano lessons and began singing and playing rhythm guitar in a band with his brothers. Eventually, he formed his own ensemble, Red Henton and Iowa’s Smallest Big Band.

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Henton, who spent 25 years as a rural mail carrier, now lives in his “bachelor pad” in town, with an immaculate lawn he mows and a johnboat near the back door, so he can hop in his car and drive to his favorite fishing holes on the Maquoketa and Mississippi rivers. Still in great health, he’s hoping his driver’s license will be renewed when he turns 99 on Sept. 3.

Memories of war WWII in Asia

Shortly before the couple’s first anniversary, Henton was called into service at age 21. He served in the Army Air Corps and was inducted in Des Moines on June 10, 1942, then was sent to the administrative school in Fort Logan, Colo. Bernice visited him there right before he went overseas. As luck would have it, she became pregnant with their first daughter, Judy, who was 2 years old before Henton saw her.

“When I came up the steps to the house she said. ‘Mommy: Daddy.’ She said ‘Daddy.’ And as I went in, she said, ‘Shut that door!’ She was talking to me,” he said with a laugh.

While he certainly saw his fill of peril, he also brought home pleasant memories from his years in India and Burma: riding elephants in the jungle; taking chickens to a Bengal tiger who would be waiting for him along the Burma Road at the jungle’s edge; landing in Karachi, which was in India at that time; the sights and sounds of Calcutta; playing softball with the officers and enlisted men; singing with a vocal trio, like he had done at home; watching soccer matches in India with about 100,000 spectators; and seeing the pyramids in Egypt on his way home.

A special highlight began after a year in the service, when the soldiers were sent to a rest camp for three weeks at Ranikhet, India. There, Henton could watch the sun rise and set over Mount Everest.

“It was the greatest thrill,” he said. “Not many people witness that. Mount Everest was a tremendous mountain. I spent a lot of time there, in Ranikhet.”

He also befriended the local inhabitants everywhere he went, which is how he got to go scouting for panthers outside Ranikhet; was invited to a family home in India for a meal of chicken, rice and curry; and got to ride elephants in Burma.

Air raids by the japanese — and Cobras

Among the pleasant memories are memories of warfare — especially Japanese air attacks.

“They bombed us a couple of times when I was down in Burma,” he said. “They come in with low-altitude bombing, and we were all running — they were trying to hit our runway. They missed that. And then they got a little closer.

“We were in a little outdoor movie when they came. We thank God they didn’t hit our outdoor movie, because there were three- or four hundred of us sitting there looking at that movie. And so anyway, I ran. You don’t know which way to run — you don’t know where they’re coming from. And they came in there and I started and ran a little way, then fell over an old metal pail of some kind and cut my leg real bad. And the guy wanted to give me the Purple Heart. I said, ‘No, I don’t want any Purple Heart — I just fell over an old pail and cut my leg.”

Another time, Henton jumped into a trench with a different foe.

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“It was raining, and they sounded an air raid. They said the (Japanese) might be coming. So I jumped in the slit trench, and here was a cobra. He was probably 6 feet long and that big around,” he said, gesturing. “A big old cobra. He was over at one end and I was at the other end, and I never interfered with him at all. He just coiled up and laid there — he didn’t try to get after me or anything. I finally got out of the thing and it was raining. But I never messed with him.”

Burma had all kinds of snakes, he said, recalling the time he saw a krait snake bite a Nepalese Gurkha soldier in the head. “He was dead before he hit the ground.”

While the Japanese could do serious damage with their armor-piercing bullets and bombs loaded with shrapnel, the 490th “Bridge Busters” prevailed, destroying 1,000 bridges with their own low-altitude bombings, crippling the Japanese supply line.

Henton left Warazup, Burma, in 1945, and was discharged as a sergeant at Fort Sheridan, Ill., on Sept. 9, 1945.

world record horseshoe player

That’s far from the end of Henton’s story.

“I had a pretty good life,” he said.

He’s pitched horseshoes across the United States and in South Africa; holds 19 Iowa horseshoe championship titles; was the top horseshoe player in the nation in 1977; landed in Guinness World Records for “the greatest horseshoe game of all times,” throwing 175 ringers out of 194 shoes pitched during the 1965 world championship tournament in Keene, N.H.; and of course, is a member of the National and Iowa Horseshoe Pitchers Hall of Fame.

A star baseball pitcher at Maquoketa High School, he was signed to the Chicago White Sox out of high school in 1938, and was sent to the farm team in Grand Forks, N.D. With 14 inches of snow on the ball field, it was “colder than blazes” and he didn’t know when he’d get to play. Fearing his sweetheart might find another fellow if he stayed away too long, he wanted to return home.

Henton left and got his girl.

l Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

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