In the seven-day confrontation between the east and west, Premier Nikita Khrushchev of the Soviet Union and U.S. President John F. Kennedy, leaders of the world’s greatest nuclear superpowers, stared each other down for seven days as the world watched.
For Jim Henke of Refugio, the crisis was a defining moment in his personal life as well as in his career as a helicopter pilot in the U.S. Marine Corps.
After graduating from Karnes City High School, Henke enrolled at the University of Texas.
“I was spending a lot of money on my education but I still wasn’t sure of the career I wanted,” Henke said.
So, the UT student joined the Marine Corps with a goal – to become a helicopter pilot.
Upon completing flight training at Ellison Field in Pensacola, Fla., Lt. Henke’s former fraternity brother at UT, Thomas Jeter, formerly of Refugio, pinned on his flight wings. Jeter, a lifelong friend, later became a brigadier general.
A highlight of his years spent in Pensacola was football. The Goshawks football team included Navy and Marine Corps flight students and the team was having a banner season in ‘62.
“Football has always been in my blood, and I was having a good year,” Henke said.
President Kennedy’s speech on Oct. 22, 1962, informed the world that the Soviet Union was building secret missile bases in Cuba, just 90 miles off the shores of Florida. Henke’s squadron was put on alert but football went on.
The team played Ft. Lee two weeks after Kennedy’s speech. During the game, Henke recovered three fumbles and knocked down a touchdown pass. He was awarded the game ball.
Set to play in the Leatherneck Bowl in Balboa, Calif., formerly the old San Diego Chargers Stadium, and another bowl game in Mexico City, Henke’s plans to finish the season were dashed.
The helicopter pilot received orders to New River Air Facility in Jackson, N.C. for deployment to the Caribbean, where a blockade continued off the waters of Cuba.
As disappointing as Henke was about leaving the team before the season ended, the transfer had a bright side – the Marine was destined to meet his future wife, Karen, a teacher at Camp Lejeune, N.C.
“Her father was a tobacco farmer,” Henke said. “Karen was a teacher but she also helped in the fields of the tobacco plantation. Tobacco is a difficult crop that requires a lot of work. I loved North Carolina. I was impressed by the tobacco fields, the greenery, the wild game and fish, the streams and the people who worked in the fields, who sang songs as they worked. I had a great time.”
On Thanksgiving, he received a card from Karen.
“I had never received a Thanksgiving card before,” he said.
In February, just before Henke’s birthday on Valentine’s Day, Squadron 262, 2nd Marine Air Wing, FLEET Marine Force deployed to the Caribbean for three months. He would be deployed three additional times.
“We saw a lot of country I probably would never have gotten to see,” he said. “We went to Barbados, the Panama Canal, San Juan, Viegas, Santa Domingo, Cuba, St. Thomas and Jamaica.
HMM-262 returned to North Carolina in April. During the deployment the battalion met every obstacle, from jungle training in Panama to mountain flying in Puerto Rico.
Eight months later, Jim and Karen married on Dec. 28, 1963. The couple went to New Orleans for a honeymoon.
“I didn’t check the weather,” he said. “The day after we got there, it snowed.”
They later returned to Flashing, Texas where his parents honored the couple with a reception and then they settled into military life.
Following the Cuban Missile Crisis, Henke’s assignments were adventurous and fulfilling.
He flew to Santa Domingo to fly over Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson’s entourage on a parade route.
“In case something happened, we were supposed to swoop down and pick them up,” Henke said.
After Johnson became president, he was sent to Atlanta for the Great Society tour in Gainesville, Ga.
“It was a good thing to meet all these people,” he said. “I was only 22 years old. It was my growing-up period.”
During the Cypress Crisis, the Marine pilot extended for seven months.
“One of the last things I did in the summer of ‘65 was to fly helicopters to California in support of the Vietnam War,” he said.
Henke and his fellow crewmen flew 45 helicopters, in eight-hour flights in six days with six stopovers in Atlanta, Ga., Meridian, Miss., NAS Dallas, Ft. Bliss in Yuma, Ariz., and finally to their destination in Santa Ana, Calif.
“During the trip we had two engine failures,” he said.
In August 1965, he re-enrolled at UT where he earned a degree in accounting while Karen taught school at University Junior High.
His first job was with the Treasury Department in Houston. Then he accepted a job with Hewitt and Dougherty in Refugio where he worked for 30 years and served another three years as a consultant.
The couple reared two daughters, Jennifer and Meredith, both honor graduates of Refugio High School.
Jennifer is an engineer with CH2M Hill Engineers in Seattle, Wash. Her husband, Brian Kassa, is a Nokia executive.
Meredith and Jeff Clark live in El Paso. She is a teacher and he works for the federal government.
“We’ve always believed in family life, meals together, and going to church,” Henke said.
He and the men in his Marine Corps squadron continue to keep in touch.
“We’ve held reunions regularly across the country,” he said. “We’ve met in Washington, D.C., San Diego and Quantico, Va., and we keep up with Christmas cards and by e-mail.”
Fifty years ago, while the world was on the brink of nuclear war, Henke came of age and fulfilled his dream of becoming a helicopter pilot. In the process, he found the love of his life.