CLINTON, Ill. (WCIA) — DeWitt County, home to less than 16,000 people, has a little-known secret: It’s full of aviators past and present.
It all traces back to “quintessential barnstormer and aviation pioneer” Red Irwin in the 1930s. Historian and author Denis Hambucken said lesser-known Irwin rubbed elbows with people like Amelia Earhart and Charles Lindbergh.
Hambucken is designing the “Prairie Flyers” exhibit in a carriage barn just outside the C.H. Moore Homestead and DeWitt County Museum off a rural road in Clinton, Illinois. The barn, built in the 1860s, likens those that the first pilots would have flown out of in the early 1900s. That’s where the story starts.
Generations after Irwin followed suit, including commercial pilots, air traffic controllers and Air Force veterans.
Captain David Henard grew up in Murphysboro, Illinois.
“I should say I was raised in Murphysboro. I grew up in Vietnam,” he corrected.
Capt. Henard started in ROTC, which was “very Mickey Mouse,” according to him. That and flight school were his launching pad to piloting helicopters for the U.S. Air Force during the Vietnam War.
“It was the only air conditioning we had,” he laughed, referring to the wind from the propellor blades.
He was 24-years-old when he deployed, “an old man compared to my crew.” Henard said most of the men he worked with were 19, 20, maybe 21-years-old.
“It’s sad, but it is a young man’s game and that’s why it’s so important that we not send our boys over there when it’s not necessary,” he said.
He later authored a book, “Victory Stolen: The Perspectives of a Helicopter Pilot on the Tet Offensive and Its Aftermath,” detailing his account of what transpired in those years overseas. Among hundreds of memories, he recalled his first mission to reporters Wednesday.
Henard remembered hovering over a hospital landing pad in a helicopter “and they threw four bags on the helicopter,” he said.
“And I said, ‘What’s that?’ and McClendon said, ‘That’s four of our boys going home.'”
The next stop was Saigon — renamed Ho Chi Minh City after the fall of Southern Vietnam — where the bodies of soldiers were prepared to send back to the U.S.
Henard and his crew picked up the wounded “when it was too hot for the Red Cross ships to go in.” He said the troops were in need and he “could hear it in their voices on the radio.”
“Every time we did a mission, I knew I was saving American lives so I never had a better job than that,” he concluded.
The veteran pilot returned home from the war in July 1968. He lives in Clinton these days and has kids scattered throughout central Illinois.
Major Kenneth “Ken” Shaffer is a Desert Storm and Iraq War veteran from Waynesville, Illinois which is about ten miles from Clinton in DeWitt County. He loaned his desert uniform for the upcoming exhibit.
“They called us 90-day wonders,” Maj. Shaffer said. “Because you went to officer training for 90 days.”
That was it and you were off back in the 1980s because, as Shaffer explained, “they were building the military up and needed pilots.”
Shaffer flew tankers tasked with refueling larger aircrafts in flight.
“Nothing happens without air refueling in the Airforce,” he laughed.
Although he said he “never really had any close calls,” he recalled a rather nerve-racking memory from the Gulf War involving a fax document he has as a keepsake at home.
“They gave us coordinates,” Shaffer said. “It says, ‘Get to this point right now. The F-15s are engaged with some Iraqi fighters and we don’t know how this is going to go.'”
The situation ended up under control by the time Shaffer and his crew arrived.
The pilot went on to fly cargo planes for UPS before retiring in the last couple of years.
Envisioning the exhibit: “Prairie Flyers”
The entire collection of uniforms and artifacts — soon to be moved from an office downtown to the exhibit site — was donated by the people of DeWitt County, according to museum director Joey Long.
She said tagging everything has felt “like opening a time capsule.”
Some stories will be shared publicly for the first time, like that of Second Lieutenant Gordon Hall whose plane exploded during World War II. Long said Hall’s nephew and namesake loaned his billfold, including an ID card, for the exhibit.
“People will know his name too,” Long said.
John Warner, a longtime neighbor of Hambucken’s, is behind the pitch to create the “Prairie Flyers” exhibit. Warner is a pilot himself and owns Hooterville Airport just outside Clinton.
Hambucken is handling the design.
“I hope that people will be a bit surprised, frankly, when they see that there’s an exhibit about aviators in DeWitt County, but there really is a remarkably rich history here,” he said.
“Wherever you go in Illinois or throughout the country you’re going to find aviators that fought in Vietnam and other places. What makes Clinton different, I think, is that it goes back to the very beginning to the 1930s with Red Irwin, bigger than life character.”
The display will be open for about a month from May 28 through July 3.