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THOSE WHO SERVED: Hal Behnke's love of aircraft led to top secret satellite mission

POSTED: April 12, 2018 12:02 p.m.
Photo by Lawrence Dorsey/

Hal Behnke and his wife Debbie in their Hinesville home.

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Editor’s note: If you know a veteran who should be included in this series, please email Mark Swendra.

WATCH VIDEO of Hal Behnke describing his days in the Air Force.

Each year, Hal Behnke gets to share stories and reunite with a group of guys who had the challenging task of retrieving (while in midair) film canisters, about the size of a garbage can, that had been ejected from some of the earliest spy satellites.

He belonged to a top secret Air Force unit in Hawaii -- 6594th Test Group ---in the 1970s and 1980s. The group will hold its annual reunion this October in Savannah.

For seven years, Behnke’s job was to "catch" the canisters filled with spy photos that had been ejected from satellites. Those were the days before the space shuttles, and the U.S. had to have some method of retrieving the information gathered in space.

The cannisters came down with a parachute attached and C-130's flew over the parachutes and snagged them with hooks and then reeled them into the airplane with a winch.

The canisters were among the first objects sent into space that were designed to survive re-entry. Upon entering the ionosphere, they could resemble a shooting, or falling, star. Thus, the unit’s motto: “To Catch a Falling Star.”

Behnke said the job was dangerous, and especially difficult for the pilots.

“We practiced every day and played catch with 200 and 500 pound weights with the parachutes,” he said.

The time spent with the Test Group was just one chapter in the life of this Hinesville resident, who served 24 years in the Air Force, before embarking on a teaching career.

Over the years he’s been a flight engineer and examiner, flying crew chief, mechanic, teacher, translator and school administrator.

At age 68, Behnke is a study in determination and survival. He served time in Vietnam (volunteering for combat no less) and fought hard to recover from a massive stroke years later.

Through it all, Behnke credits his faith and being a “lifelong learner” for his many accomplishments.

“There is so much to learn (from the military) which is a carry-over to your civilian life later on,” Behnke said. “There is so much the military teaches you. In the Air Force they send you to school for everything. They don’t let you touch a piece of equipment unless you’re trained on it. I love that.”

Through the military’s tuition assistance, Behnke amassed several educational milestones, including a master’s degree and several teaching credentials.

He said his love for teaching was inspired when he emigrated to the U.S. from West Berlin, Germany at the age of 7. He had wonderful, role-model teachers who made learning English a great experience.

His family’s journey from Germany and his return to see the fall of the Berlin Wall is a story in itself.

Behnke said his mother Ilse, spent three years in a Russian concentration camp after World War II, accused of being a spy. But she managed to follow friends to America, settling in Long Island, NY, as a single mother with two young boys.

“We were poor,” Behnke said. “I don’t know how my parents (his mom eventually married) afforded the house we had.” 

While in high school, Behnke was active in gymnastics, soccer and track, and worked at a supermarket. He said his parents couldn’t afford to send him to college. Joining the Air Force let him continue his education and allow him to be around planes.

“I loved airplanes. I watched the planes all the time,” living near airports, Behnke said. “I put together lots of (airplane) models.”

He enlisted in the late 1960s, at the height of the Vietnam War, but admits he knew very little about that war going in.

“I never heard about the Vietnam War. I didn’t know what the heck was going on because no one ever mentioned it in school,” he said. “The only time was when one young man dropped out, went to Vietnam, and got killed. We didn’t watch much TV.”

Excellent in mechanics, Behnke was a good fit with the Air Force, becoming an aircraft mechanic for C130s in his first assignment. He later became a crew chief and a “two-striper” (E-3) before volunteering for Vietnam in 1971.

“I wanted to feel what it was like to be in combat,” Behnke said about going on patrols with the Army. “I got to see action. They (the Army) had small squads. You could hear the bullets zinging and hitting the ground and canopy. At first it’s kind of, oh man, you get scared … but you forget that.”

He added, “You’re only scared for a short period of time. Then your training takes over. You’re not afraid of the bullets flying. You know you have to be smart.”

He said he “lost a lot of Army buddies and had some Air Force planes shot down.”

But, he said, “I’ve always had faith in God, (as a lifelong Lutheran). I always felt comfortable and knew I was going to be OK. I never felt like I would be one of the ones to be killed. I don’t know why, but thank God I’m here.”

Behnke re-enlisted in the Air Force after his first tour in Vietnam for a $7,000 bonus, he said, that was too good to pass up. But, after doing so, was unexpectedly sent back to Vietnam after only a couple of months stateside.

Over the next few years he split time between U.S. Air Force bases and other countries, including Germany, which brought him back to his birthplace.

Now married to Debbie, who he met in Hawaii, the couple not only got to experience the birth of their daughter, Heidi, during an assignment from 1987-91 in Germany, but saw the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

“I had relatives from both East and West Berlin,” Behnke said. “I had not seen my uncle (who lives in East Berlin) since I was 7, and since I was in the Air Force, was not allowed to make contact with him (over the years).”

He said when the wall was no longer a barrier, “I called my uncle and he said they made a hole in the wall on a certain street and he said 'come by and I’ll meet you there.'”

After visiting with his uncle, Behnke and his wife brought home chunks of the Berlin Wall as souvenirs.

In 1993, Behnke retired from the Air Force as a master sergeant. He said he probably would have stayed longer, but the Air Force requires retirement after 24 years.

This paved the way for Behnke to pursue his teaching credentials and start a second career. He taught elementary school in California and followed Debbie (who was a school counselor with the Department of Defense Dependent Schools) to Japan. There, he taught for three years and was promoted to assistant principal of a school in Okinawa.

In 2006, he was promoted to principal of a school in South Korea, but the unexpected happened.

Just five days after accepting the promotion and deciding to move to Korea, Behnke explained, “On my birthday, I had a stroke, a very severe stroke.”

He said, “I walked into my office and dropped my keys, and picked them up,. I walked a few steps and dropped my keys again. I thought that’s kind of weird.”

As he looked at his computer screen, he said he noticed the words were gibberish. “I couldn’t feel my hand. I stood up and nearly fell.”

He called Debbie and told her he couldn’t make it to his birthday dinner and was going to drive himself to the hospital, which was just down the road about a mile and a half away. They laugh now about how dangerous that was to drive, but in Japan, they say it would have taken too long for an ambulance to arrive.

When he got to the emergency room, Behnke said the hospital staff noticed he was dragging his foot and the side of his face was sagging, so he got in quickly.

He said he had a golf ball-size bleed and it would take years of therapy and rehabilitation to recover. When he returned to work, “I had to drag my leg, literally. I couldn’t do anything with my left hand. I couldn’t remember names or anything.”  

Even years later, he suffered seizures.

Eventually, doctors managed to balance his medications and through hard rehab, Behnke does not display (at least on the outside) any visible effects from the stroke.

However, “I have constant pain,” he said, adding that he has what’s called central pain syndrome.

The couple moved to Hinesville in 2007 when Debbie accepted a job with the Department of Defense Education Activity at Diamond Elementary School. In 2016, Debbie joined her husband in retirement.

Today, they stay busy with travel, having just returned from a cruise. Behnke also substitute teaches at Liberty Elementary School.

“I love the kids. I love teaching,” he said.

He credits the military with giving him the skills to communicate with people and for its life lessons.

“Every time I open a book and teach a lesson in school, especially history and social studies, I can relate to it,” he said, “and give the kids an example of where I was and what it was really like.

“And I can talk straight to them.”

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