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A native son goes to sea
In 1943, the U.S. Draft Board gave Imer Henry a mission he couldn't refuse. He had to grow beans with his dad.
There was a shortage of working men, so Henry spent February to September of that year on his father's 10-acre farm in Silverton, planting rows of Blue Lake Green Beans that were sold exclusively to the U.S. Army.
But World War II soon ferried Henry, now 93, away from the fertile fields of western Oregon. He landed near the shores of the New Hebrides islands east of Australia and, later, the Philippines during his three-year service in the Navy.
As a pharmacist's mate second class, Henry was stationed on board the U.S. ABSD-1 — a massive floating drydock more than 900 feet long and 28 feet tall from keel to welldeck. The ship had a full complement of almost 700 men, according to the Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships.
"We could pick up the biggest things the Navy had, including aircraft carriers, and lift them up out of the water," the Gresham resident noted.
The New Hebrides, now called Vanuatu, seemed like a tropical paradise. Islanders lived in bamboo huts — the only permanent structure was a Catholic church made of cinderblocks.
"It was a half mile to the beach," Henry reminisced. "A big rain would come up and soak you, but by the time you got to the beach, you'd be dry again."
The ABSD-1 was actually nine separate ships, each so wide they had to be tipped sideways to squeeze through the Panama Canal. When joined together, they formed a huge platform where seamen could perform vital repairs.
After Gen. Douglas MacArthur expelled the Japanese forces from the Philippines in 1945, Henry and his ship were moved by tugboats to the island chain.
It was a 30-day journey, and all the food for each ship was packed in a Quonset hut, the prefabricated steel buildings commonplace in the Pacific Theater. The chef on board his boat told Henry all the men could eat ice cream — if someone else would make it.
"We didn't have any flavoring, but we had powdered ice cream. I would dump a whole can of peaches (into a blender). That was the only thing I did that day," Henry remembered.
Other memories from that time stick for a different reason.
"The commander had a big pimple on his back," Henry recollected with a yuck, "and I had to open that up."
Of course, the native Oregonian's story begins much earlier, in the once thriving town of Monitor, southwest of Woodburn.
"When I was born (in 1924), it had a railroad, post office, trucking company, lumber yard, a big feed mill and a barbershop and a shoe shop," Henry said during an interview. "But as soon as (U.S.) Route 99 went through, that did away with that."
His mother, Beatrice, died of pregnancy complications before Henry turned 5. His father, a Canadian named Carmon Henry, became the sole caregiver for Imer, older sis Elvena and younger brother Carmon Jr.
"We never had matching dishes or table clothes, we never had anything like that living with dad," Henry said. "I don't think my dad ever hugged us. But he let us make ice cream every day."
On the weekends the family strung up wires for the Monitor phone co-op. From age 8 to 13, Henry and his family moved to Alberta province near Edmonton, Canada, to run his grandparents' farm.
The next stop was Silverton, east of Salem, where Carmon Henry tried his hand operating a flour mill. Though he was only 17 and without a driver's license, Henry got a job trucking apples to Portland for the military.
"I stayed out of high school three years, just so I could keep hauling those apples," he said.
Eventually, he enrolled in Portland Adventist Academy, though he also worked part-time in the Navy shipyards that paid lavishly.
After leaving the service in May 1946, Imer Henry soon enrolled in Walla Walla College in Washington and moved in with a young married couple. They set Henry up with a young woman, Maryetta Trusty, during a trip south to Pendleton.
"We rode 40 miles in and back, and by the time we got back we knew we were meant for each other," Henry said.
Three months later, they were married.
The couple decided to drop out of school, and spent time working in candy shops in Portland and Eugene. After that, Henry worked 18 years for All Maple Furniture in Albany, and another 21 at Design Group Inc.
Maryetta worked as a secretary for the Beaverton School District for 14 years.
They had two children, Vernon, a medical equipment supplier; and Norman, who retired as the vice president of finance for Leatherman, the multi-tool company.
After 35 years in Beaverton, Maryetta and Henry moved to The Village Retirement Center off Powell Boulevard in 2004. Maryetta died of rheumatic heart disease in 2012.
Henry — now a grandfather and vegetarian — says they shared a wonderful time together.
"My wife had a way of helping people," Henry recalled. "Everything seemed like a joy all our lives. After we got older, we were just happy we had the life we had.
"I had a better life than I can imagine any man had."