High-Flying War Buddies Reunite After 55 Years

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Fifty-five years ago, they were "Red" and "Junior."

Today, at the age of 76, Hal "Junior" Henson hardly resembles his military nickname, and Melvin "Red" McSpadden, 79, now has hair that's roughly as red as a silver dollar.

But that's all that's changed between these two World War II buddies, who recently reunited for the first time in 55 years.

"When I first saw Hal, I told him I'd recognize him anywhere," says McSpadden with a laugh. "But I wasn't telling the truth."

Henson, a 26-year resident of the Rim country, and his wife, Annellare the owner-operators of the new Eagle's Nest Art Gallery and Healing Center on Main Street, where the reunion took place. Born in West Virginia, Henson joined the Air Force at 18. During his 32-year service stint, he ended up first in the Valley, then in Payson following his retirement in 1974.

The Texas-born McSpadden now lives in Anacortes, Wash. He joined the Air Force in 1943, the same year as Henson.

The pair first met when they were assembled as a flight crew in El Paso and their memories of the auspicious occasion are reminiscent of the scene in the movie musical "Gigi," where two old friends sing "I Remember it Well" despite the fact that they don't seem to remember much of anything at all.

Ask them, for example, if they recall their first-ever meeting, and the resulting dialogue will go something like this:

"I don't," says McSpadden.

"I don't," says Henson. "There was just a lot of guys coming in, carrying their bags."

When was the last time they saw each other?

"We came back in January, 1945," says Henson, "and when I got married that October, Red came to the wedding, didn't you?"

"I'm pretty sure I did," answers McSpadden. "We lived right there, so I think you invited me."

"That was the last time we saw each other," Henson confirms. "At the wedding."

"I think," adds McSpadden.

What the two former staff sergeants remember with absolute clarity, however, is the 30 missions they flew together on B-17 and B-24 bombers over Germany with Henson as the tailgunner and McSpadden as the waistgunner.

It was on one of those missions that their friendship, and their lives, almost came to an end.

"Our plane was hit by flak," McSpadden recalls. "Afterward, we counted the flak holes. There were about 143 of them. Nobody got hit, but we had to come in virtually on our belly because the engines had been knocked out. We truly landed on a wing and a prayer. The pilot tried to hit the button telling us to jump, but he missed. He said, 'Well, we can make it.' And we did."

McSpadden escaped the Air Force as soon as he could, but Henson remained until his retirement in 1974, when he left as a chief master sergeant, the highest enlisted rank.

And after Henson's 1945 wedding, which McSpadden is almost sure he attended, the two men didn't speak again until a telephone conversation three years ago.

"I didn't know where Hal was," McSpadden says. "I'd been on some reunions of the 34th Bomb Group Society, and about three years ago, I finally got a telephone number from one of the other crew members."

What neither men knew was that, during one 12-year period in their separation, Hal lived in Ojai, Calif., and Mel lived in Newhall, Calif. only about 45 miles apart.

"We never knew that until we started conversing," McSpadden says. "Our paths had to have crossed."

Out of the original 10 members of their bomber crew, Henson and McSpadden are two of just three as far as they've been able to determine who are still alive.

"Our ball gunner was shot down flying with another crew over Germany," Henson says. "Our bombardier died just about six months ago. We know some of the other crew members have died, but we haven't been able to track down a couple of them."

Both men agree on the issue of why they have remained friends for so long.

"I think being in a war really creates a bond, especially within a combat crew, because you're a closely-knit group, and your life might depend on what one of the other crew members does or does not do," says Henson.

"You're more than just a crew," adds McSpadden. "You're a family."

And now, a family reunited.

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