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Remy de Haenen: “Lord of the Air”

Image_10The first time I learned of Remy de Haenen was in Boys town "Brakkeput" on Curaçao. Harold Levenstone, son of the then Commissioner Matthew Levenstone, received a telegram on February 9th, 1959, from his father. It stated; "Plane landed safely. Pilot O.K." What plane landed where? Which pilot was O.K.? This was the great question among the boys from Saba for at least a week. In those days there were no cell phones. Communication with the Boys town was by mail only and it took forever it seemed. The slow boat from Saba had to connect with the twice weekly plane to Curaçao. Everything with that arrangement could go wrong and it usually did. Consequently sometimes it was weeks before you heard from your old folks. For us Brakkeput was the main depository of homesickness. Many lonely days in semi-isolation away from that secure nest which had been provided by your parents. And so a much anticipated letter when it arrived was read a number of times. It was then stored away for reading when homesickness became overpowering. I can never remember throwing away a letter from those days.

Finally the mail arrived announcing that a Frenchman named Remy de Haenen had landed at Flat Point. He had flown over the island and surveyed the best possible landing spot. He was friends with a French contractor Jacques Deldevert, who had done some work on Saba building the schools and so on. Deldevert also thought that an airport on Saba was possible.

There were those who wanted the airport at Tent Bay. Village politics played a role then even more than now. However, Remy de Haenen insisted that Flat Point was the only place possible for an airport. This is a small spit of land thrown out of the mountain in one great flow of lava. It turned out later to be God's gift to Saba. I once heard a Rabbi on the BBC state that the olive tree was God's gift to the Mediterranean. Since then when I study countries I seek to find out what was God's special gift to them.

Anyway, the people led by the late Mr. Eugenius Johnson and others enthusiastically volunteered to work clearing a landing site. The owners of the farmland represented by my father Daniel Thomas Johnson gave permission to tear up what for them was prime farm land. My father was a red head and could be temperamental like his Neanderthal ancestors. Many years ago when I came across a theory by someone that the Neanderthals had red hair, I concluded that they had not died out as some would have wanted us to believe.

In a matter of a week the land was cleared and Mr. de Haenen came by boat from St. Barths to check the work and to give last minute instructions on what more had to be done so that he could land and take off safely. And so on February 9th, 1959, with almost the entire population looking on, Mr. de Haenen realized his dream and landed on the small airstrip. He also made one of Saba's biggest dreams come true. He opened up Saba to the outside world as never before or since.

I should have known about Mr. de Haenen. After all he had landed on Saba before. Not on land of course, but in the waters off Fort Bay harbor. The plane he landed in was a Vough Sikorsky type O.SS. 2 U, seaplane and the year was 1946. He made two landings here in that same year.

Who was this Remy de Haenen? Although in his last years we became good friends I only knew him from afar. I would see him often, when I worked at the airport on St. Martin, carrying passengers back and forth.

When he was awarded the Medal of Honor in pioneering aviation by the French Government, he called and insisted that I come to St. Barths to be present for the occasion. I used to think that he had confused me with my brother Freddie. However, once he invited both Freddie and I to a lunch at Queen's Garden. Despite his age he called me Will, with his heavy French accent, so then I was convinced that he really knew me and even seemed to like having me in his company. Yet another time he invited me to attend his birthday. It could have been his 80th one. His young Argentinean "nurse" had my attention so much so that I cannot remember now which birthday he was really celebrating. I do remember the "nurse" though, the contours, the movements, the laugh, all of that I do remember.

In the 4th edition of the magazine "PURE Saint Bart" there is a wonderful article on the life of our friend Remy by Victoire Theismann. The article is accompanied by a series of wonderful photos of St. Barth's from the late nineteen forties and fifties. Besides my personal memories of him, I will also quote from PURE magazine. He was still in the land of the living when that article was written.

Saba was not the first place where he landed. In 1945 he landed a plane on the grassy plains of La Savanne in St. Barth's. I remember hearing stories that he had also landed on the cow pastures of Mr. Jo Jo Flemming, just outside of Marigot on St. Martin.

Remy was born in London on February 12th, 1956. Some say that his mother was a Dutch woman from whom he got his name. At the age of 18 he became a naturalized French citizen and entered the Merchant Navy school at Le Havre. He then discovered the world and particularly New York and later on the Caribbean to which he returned in 1938 and remained here.

He criss-crossed the region until he discovered St. Barths, and was seduced by this rocky part of the world. When the Second World War broke out Remy opened a small shipyard in Gustavia. A gentleman smuggler he trafficked between the US Virgin Islands, the British West Indian islands and those under German domination – Guadeloupe and Martinique. My first boss on St. Martin, Mr. Joseph Alphonse Constantine O'Connor, used to tell me that Remy also supplied German submarines with anything edible from fish all the way up to vegetables and donkey meat. Fons claimed that the German submarines used to pay in gold bars.

Several years before landing on St. Barths, Remy de Haenen rented the island of Tintamarre from its owner, Mr. L.C. Flemming, who was then Mayor of the French side. Remy made it both his aviation base and his home. That home was the home of the former King of Tintamarre, Mr. D.C. van Romondt. I remember sleeping once there on the verandah all by myself in the sixties when I was there on a fishing trip and I did not want to sleep on the boat. Remy settled there with his wife Gisele from Martinique. It was also there that the oldest of his three daughters Helene was born.

On Tintamarre Remy built a 300 meter runway, near a lagoon that could also accommodate sea planes. In 1946 he founded, but did not register with the French Government, the West Indian Airline Company, the CAA. He bought planes from the United States Army. He also employed the later famous Jose Dormoy and a cousin, as well as other young pilots who were willing to take risks. He traded between the various islands and if Fons is to be believed he traded with the German submarines as well. Was it Shakespeare who said:"All is fair in love and war?" Tintamarre was the main base for the fleet. In 1947, there were several air crashes, which weakened the company; in one crash a nun and pilot were killed. But it was the hurricane on September 1st, 1950, that dealt a fatal blow to the young company. That same hurricane destroyed St. Barth's fleet of schooners. By creating a runway in St. Jean five years later, he enabled that island to open to the world.

In 1953 Remy bought a rock on the bay of St. Jean. No one wanted it and at the time he paid 200 dollars for it. The best purchase since the Dutch claimed to have purchased Manhattan from an Indian tribe whose principles of faith were never to sell any part of Mother Earth. I won't tell you here how in the mid nineteen sixties I could have bought a large piece of land on St. Jean Beach for US $1,200. My friend Georges Greaux told me that he nearly bought that same land, but his father discouraged him, telling him that St. Barths would never amount to anything and better he put his money on the bank in St. Kitts or wherever.

Remy with the help of friends built his house on the peninsula jutting out into the Bay of St. Jean. The small hotel that he started from his house hosted many internationally known people, one of which was his friend Jacques Cousteau. I remember once watching a film of Cousteau on his ship the Calypso looking for the treasure of the Concepcion, a Spanish Galleon which had sunk in 1641. Who but Remy was a guest on board. He liked that sort of thing and was forever diving around the islands looking for treasure. That is besides the tall blond, curvaceous, Argentinean "nurse" and other such treasures which he found in his old age while living in Santo Domingo.

In 1953, Remy de Haenen became "Councilor General" and from 1962 to 1977, Mayor of St. Barths. He was elected against an outstanding native of the island, Alexander Magras.

Remy was at the origin of change in the political status of the island. He was the initiator, the origin of the idea. Remy also created many of the roads on the island and promoted many development projects. All was waiting to be created. The electrical supply network, the water supply, and the roads and so on. He was the first to start the construction of a seawater desalination plant. According to PURE MAGAZINE, Remy was a humanist, a lord, a prince of life, and nothing could ever stop his determination to always go towards the best, the new, the out-of-the-ordinary. Sometimes he made mistakes and he paid dearly both in reality and figuratively. Several times he was ruined, but like the phoenix he always rose again and set out, each time more combative, more determined, more generous. Remy was an idealist, an inventor, a pioneer. He ushered in the development of trade, tourism, and the well being of the people. Risk taker, brilliant dreamer, impassioned adventurer, great lover of life and of women (oh boy, I wonder where that Argentinean nurse is now), Remy de Haenen was an exceptional man. And that is no exaggeration.

I personally felt that Saba had not done enough for him. Hurricane George blew away the airport building in 1998. We were able to get funding from the Dutch Government for a new building. I was once again at the helm of the Saba Government and decided to dedicate the building to him in a ceremony of Saba Day, December 6th, 2002. Many people here felt that he had been treated badly. Not only was his pilot's licence suspended for a month after making what was considered an authorized landing on Saba, but he was not allowed to fly here on a commercial basis after the airport was built either. What V.H. Friedlander says about pioneers was applicable to him, "We shall not travel by the road we make etc. For us the master-joy, oh pioneers - We shall not travel, but we make the road." He was kind of frail then, but extremely pleased to have been honored in this fashion. And guess what. At the lunch he gave me a long phone number and asked me to call the person. And guess who answered the phone all the way from my favourite country? The nurse from Argentina!! I got the impression though that she had taken on a new nursing career and was not too happy with the call. Remy was 83 then and he still remembered the good things in life. In the airport building besides the propeller from the plane which he landed at Flat Point with, there is also a plaque honouring him.

Remy died in the latter part of 2009. I was unaware of it until my friend Elly Delien on St. Eustatius brought it to my attention. By that time he was already buried so that I did not make it to the funeral. Saba will never forget you though Remy. I don't want to make light of it but rather as a tribute to you my friend I will never forget that tall, blond, bombshell of an Argentinean "nurse" who seemed of some comfort to you in some of the last of your golden years.

Your friend

Will

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