Streetbuzz Interview

June 1, 2005

Lenny Williams: Retired engineer, world traveler, hot rod aficionado, activist.
Lives in Burien, Washington, USA.


Lenny Williams

STREETBUZZ: Lenny, where and when were you born?

LENNY WILLIAMS: New York City, 1924.

STREETBUZZ: Childhood?

LENNY WILLIAMS: Streets of New York but it was a good tight neighborhood. We played stickball and sandlot football and went to Boy Scout camp in the summer. While in high school, I worked evenings from 5 to 10 for Western Union delivering telegrams on a bike. Good job, good pay and we always knew what was going on around town. I could tell lots of stories about that. The bad part was Pearl Harbor, in those days the family was notified by telegram, killed or missing in action. We had to deliver them. You knew what was in the telegram, but it was not an easy thing to do.


LENNY WILLIAMS: Jamaica High School, big school, enrollment about 6000. My graduating class was about 1000. I wasn't too active with extra curricular as I was working nights. I did try out for swim team, but I just didn't have time for practice. The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor December 1941, I graduated high school a month later, January '42, I turned 18 in March. I went down and signed up as did most of my buddies. My high school class year book reads Army, Navy, or Marines for most of the guys. The wimps went in the Coast Guard. There was no Air Force in those days.

I always wanted to go to the NY State Merchant Marine Academy, but they required 20/20 vision and I couldn't pass the physical. It changed my whole life, except for that my career would have been in the Merchant Marine.

STREETBUZZ: You went to war.

LENNY WILLIAMS: Since my father had been a sergeant of infantry in France in World War I, I decided to follow in his footsteps and joined the Army. I went to radio school and after that, company. They were big enough for a medium tank or a six by six truck or a platoon of infantry. I spent two years overseas, New Guinea campaign, Philippine campaign, and when the war ended we were the first troops ashore in a place called Wakayama, Kyushu, Japan. Except for your typical war stories, that was about it.

STREETBUZZ: Philippines?

LENNY WILLIAMS: We went by convoy from New Guinea to Leyte where the first Philippine landing was made at Tacloban. We did not take part in this landing and remained aboard ship. We then joined up with a horrendous convoy (I heard 1800 ships) that made the big landing, January 9, 1945, in the Lingayen Gulf, Luzon. When the infantry entered Manila, we followed up by sea with the LCM's carrying tanks, trucks and other heavy equipment. It was one of the wildest sea voyages I've ever taken. There were huge rollers, one minute you were looking up at the bottom of the LCM alongside and the next minute you're looking down into the well. Quite a thrill although I didn't appreciate it at the time.
The LCM's were all heavily loaded. One LCM with a tank aboard lost an engine and couldn't keep up. It was all Jap-held territory, so they had to just sink it. Almost lost the coxswain when they couldn't find him in the dark especially with the heavy sea.
In Manila, we spent our time unloading freighters, bringing in supplies, and taking out wounded while the fighting continued on the zigzag road to Baguio. From there we went up north and made our final  landing at Aparri, on the Pasig River. General Yamashita had retreated up north for one last stand and evacuate troops to Japan, We made the landing, then the following period of time, until the atom bomb was dropped, we were taking patrols up the river. After the bomb was dropped, these patrols played it pretty cool since nobody wanted to be the last soldier killed in the war.
Still Japan still had not surrendered, and as it was possible that they would defend the homeland, we move to La Grande, Philippines, to get ready for the invasion of Japan, new equipment and Japanese English phrase books etc. When the final surrender came, we went ahead and landed at Wakiyama where we would have landed for the invasion.  We spent our time going up and down the Japanese coast accepting the surrender of coast artillery batteries and troop installations. It was all arranged, on a certain day they would come out, stack their rifles, and the commander would surrender his sword to the US officers.  To kill time, we'd go back in those caves and see how well protected they were from the big US navy guns. The invasion would have been very costly in terms of American lives. So if people ask me about the atom bomb, with 160,000 civilians killed, it was tragic, but in the long run, a land invasion would have been a lot worse. Harry Truman said he didn't lose a minute's sleep over that decision. and I agree with that. 

STREETBUZZ: Anything more about the Philippines?

LENNY WILLIAMS: One of the things about the Philippines, there in Dagupan, a little fishing village in Lingayen Gulf. I had a Philippino friend there with a fighting cock, he taught me how to apply  the saber, which attaches to the cock's leg. In the village, he was the master. The other farmers would bring the cocks over to him to put the saber on but somehow they never trusted me to do it.
The  Japanese issued occupation currency when they occupied the Philippines but the guerrilla fighter's continued to use their peso. When they ran out of money, they issued their own hand painted currency which they promised to redeem after the war. I got one from my guerrilla friend, Gabriel Buensuseso. One of these days I'll go back and collect on it (with interest.) 

STREETBUZZ: So the war ended?

LENNY WILLIAMS: Yeah, I came back and took advantage of the G.I. Bill of Rights and went to Hofstra College on Long Island. Today it's a big university. Since that was a liberal arts college and I wanted to get a degree in engineering, I transferred to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor .I met my wife Gladys at Hofstra and we got married between semesters and moved way out west to Michigan. I got an engineering degree in 1950, my wife got a B.S. in mathematics.  When we graduated, we came out here to Seattle since Boeing made me the best offer. Anyway, I always wanted to move to the west coast.
But I came out primarily to work in the Boeing turbine division, which I'd heard about. Boeing was designing and building a small gas turbine. So, Boeing? Boeing and the small turbine engine division... for the next 15 years I worked on just about every turbine installation we did at Plant One. The Kenworth truck, any number of boats, airplanes, helicopters, etc..  One of my projects was the L-19, a military version of the Cessna 170. We flew it out of Boeing field, up to about 20,000 feet, It eventually set an altitude record, I think it was 37,000 feet, that was after it was delivered to the military. Another story, the pilot was in a heated electric suit, he would climb until the fire went out in the engine and  then he had to get it back on the ground. He has the option of keeping the suit on and running down the battery and making a dead stick landing, or turning off the suit and making a restart at 10,000 feet,..well, the average temperature at 35,000 feet is 60 below zero Fahrenheit. So generally he would keep the suit on and dead stick in  That test pilot was also a 747 test pilot, a great guy, but I don't remember his name. Years later, I bought one of the engines surplus that was used in this program. That's the engine I put in my 1932 Ford Roadster. See my website.
Lots of Boeing applications, the Seattle ladder and the San Francisco pumper, they were American La France fire engines with Boeing turbines. I did all the driving during the acceptance testing, lot of fun up and down the hills of Seattle and San Francisco.
Then there was the turbine-powered oil well drill rigs up at Great Slave Lake in Canada. The turbine was so much lighter than the diesel engines they replaced that the rig was helicopter transportable. Very important in northern Canada when the muskeg turned to mud.
Boeing went out of the turbine business around 1962, the engine design and the applications were turned over to the Caterpillar Company. Part of the reason was Boeing  was designing the 747 and the SST supersonic airplane and needed engineers for these programs. so most of us went over to the airplane divisions. I could have gone with Caterpillar but  decided to stay with Boeing..
The turbine-powered Indy car was another project of mine but you can go to the website and read about that. Also my turbine Roadster is another website. 
Airplanes? Then I was in the airplane division, in the service organization for a few years, just supporting the guys in the field. Then back to the commercial airplane design group that supported the 707, 727, 737, and 747. My last job was putting the CFM 56 French engine in the 737, the most popular airplane that Boeing has produced. It was a real challenge and we had a good group doing the work. 
I intended to retire at 55, but I had an opportunity to go to Alitalia, in Naples, Italy and do the production drawings for the 767 Auxiliary Power Unit installation. It was an offer I couldn't refuse and I spent a year and a half in Napoli. It's fun working in a foreign country, you really get to know the people and the culture. 
I finally retired in 1982. I was about 56 at the time. I went right up to Whistler, Canada for six months and skied my butt off. One of the best times I've ever had.

Then I started traveling full time, to the Soviet Union, China, Alaska, down the Yukon River, Asia, East Africa, West Africa, Australia, Central America, South America, Cuba, about 96 countries, although just adding countries wasn't my goal. If I found a place I liked, I'd settle in and hang out for a while. I liked to go back to countries where I had friends
I've been around the world three times, two clockwise and one counterclockwise. I generally get a one way ticket to Hong Kong, hang out at ChunKing Mansion in Kowloon and pick up on somebody. I've been to Asia and Europe, so many times I lost count.

Almost got to Antarctica. The Chilean Navy was based in Punta Arenas. They supply most of the foreign outposts in Antarctica. If you get there before they depart, they will take passengers if they have empty bunks. You pay cash, no receipt, but that's okay.. On this one trip, they had bunks for the first ten guys on the list, but two guys didn’t show up. Four of us drew straws for the empty positions, and I lost. C'est la vie.
Traveling was lots of fun, I met some great travelers, still friends with a lot of them. In South America I followed Che's route. You know the Motorcycle Diaries (movie about Che Guevara's travels in Latin America), But I started in Peru, went down the west coast to Tierra del Fuego, then up the east coast, Buenos Aires, and back across the antiplano to Peru. I wanted to continue to Ecuador and go down the Amazon but I ran out of U.S. dollars. All I could get on my credit card was local currency which immediately depreciated as you walked out the bank.
One trip was China, Tibet, Nepal, Pakistan, India, and over to East Africa. Another was China, Mongolia and the trans-Siberian, that was the highlight of that trip. In Nepal, I backpacked up to Mount Everest base camp, that was an achievement, about 19,000 feet, the highest I’ve ever been.

STREETBUZZ: Now? Are you done traveling?

LENNY WILLIAMS: I think so, these days it's mostly computing and digital imaging and visiting the grandchildren. I still go up skiing but it's hard for an old man, 81, to keep up with the snowboarders. I tire easy, and you haf'to drain the lizard every couple hours .
I'd like to make one last trip around the world, visit friends and places I've been, but I know I won’t do it. Gladys and I have been together now since 1948, that's 57 years! These days we spend a lot of time just sitting in front of the fire.

Lenny Williams

STREETBUZZ: What can you say about the world today? You've seen it all.

LENNY WILLIAMS: The more I traveled, the more I realize that it's one world, one people. We're all looking for the same thing, family, good job, education for the kids. The old political boundaries are gradually giving way to large economic spheres of influence, the EEC, NAFTA, East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere. The US certainly dominated the 20th century with its wheeling and dealing capitalist system but it looks like the 21st century is slowly moving toward a more socialist form of government. American big business is having a difficult time competing with government-supported industry overseas. As witness the automobile industry. And the Boeing/Airbus competition. The bottom line is Airbus with it's government subsidies can sell planes cheaper than we can. They have a system that's working and we should learn from that.
The big deal today is OIL. Our economy is based on oil. We're what, 5 % of the world population and we consume a major portion of the world's oil reserves. Industry demands it and the government is responding. How long we can continue to pay the price in terms of lives and money remains to be seen. The opposition is coming on pretty strong.
I don't know what's coming, but I would certainly like to come back in a hundred years and see how things work out.

STREETBUZZ: Will humanity be here in 100 years?

LENNY : I think it will. The odds are in our favor, but its iffy. There's still a lot of "crazies" running around out there wanting to drop the bomb.

STREETBUZZ: Global warming?

LENNY : Well, it's becoming apparent to most people we have a problem. Fortunately there are some good heads out there that have known this for some time and are working the problem. Since we caused it, we ought to be able to come up with a solution.
My daughter's lab at Arizona State is researching photosynthesis (converting CO2 to Oxygen and Water), they are one group of many throughout the world working in this area. Maybe that's the solution to global warming.

STREETBUZZ: Words of wisdom?

LENNY WILLIAMS: Keep smiling, have good thoughts.

Lenny Williams

After the interview, Lenny sent me this quote from an article in the Seattle Times about the Boeing Flight Museum:
"As World War Two vets pass into history - fewer than a quarter of the 16 million who served remain - interest has never been higher in the 'The Greatest Generation', their equipment and their exploits."



May 21, 2019

Lenny Williams

STREETBUZZ: Lenny, it's been fourteen years since our first interview. What have you been up to since then?

LENNY: I've slowed down.
I turned 95 in March. I can tell you, clean livin' has nothing to do with it (laughs). I'm losing things - all day long. I put things down, and.... then can't find 'em. So I got these long strip magnets, I'm gonna hang my tools in the shop from magnets.

STREETBUZZ: You broke your hip, right? Tell us about that.

LENNY: What year was that? The lift ticket, my last lift ticket, is up there on the fridge. There it is: 2008.
Well I was skiing up at Crystal Mountain. I was 85 then. You know, they had separate slopes for the skiers and the snowboarders. I was skiing, and this snowboarder came shooting out of the forest into the skiers slope, he was going fast and out of control. First he tried to cut across below me, but then he changed course and tried to go above me. I didn't even see him because I was looking down, concentrating on the moguls (bumps) I had to negotiate. He was a big guy, like 185 lbs. and he slammed right into me. I went flying and rolled down the slope about 50 feet. I knew right away my hip was broken. The first skier to come over was a nurse, and she asked me "Can you wiggle your toes?" Yeah, I could wiggle my toes. That was good, it meant I didn't have a broken back (spinal cord injury.)
At the hospital they did a hip replacement surgery. But the doctor only replaced the male part (femoral component), he didn't put in the female part (acetabular component). So after a while the cartilage wore away in the (acetabulum) and I had the metal rubbing against my bare bone. I've had a lot of problems with it.
Anyway, that was the end of my skiing career.

STREETBUZZ: Your wife Gladys passed away.

LENNY: Yes she died two years ago. We got married after World War II. She's buried over at Tahoma National Cemetery and I miss her.

Gladys Williams

LENNY: I've been reading a lot - about everything. Lately it's been astrophysics. Somebody could calculate - our galaxy has a finite life, based on the sun's future. There was a time when there was no intelligence. What is life? Now there's a lot of people wondering: what's going on out there? How big is the universe? What happens when you get to the other side? How can humans even know (what's at the edge of the universe)?

STREETBUZZ: Well that's all a pretty long timespan. But how about the immediate future of humans? In 2005 I asked if you thought humanity would last another 100 years. Now I want to ask if you think our species will even make it another 20 years?

LENNY: Looking like it would. People today are starting to think "We're gonna blow ourselves up if we're not careful."
You got guys like Trump, he specializes in antagonizing people. But he does get things done, the economy is going great. I get the feeling that this next election will be back to the good old days, with men running for office more than women.

STREETBUZZ: Closing thoughts?

LENNY: "When in doubt, punt." (laughs).
The big thing is, we're finite. People of our description - the younger generation have considerably more brain cells than us....you start losing brain cells, then you forget stuff. So the young people, it's up to them. Some of the things these young people can do, like play piano at a very young age. Amazing.

STREETBUZZ: Thank you Lenny and I'll be back again for our third interveiw.

Dom Dellino, Lenny Williams, Chris Pforr

Dom Dellino, Lenny Williams and Chris Pforr at Lenny's house on May 21, 2019.