The Hideaway Times: Article
Wednesday, January 9, 2002
DeLand´s naval heyday preserved
By OWEN FOGLEMAN | News-Journal Correspondent
DELAND — In 1941, a little country town airport represented aviation in West Volusia. A hangar for two or three small planes sat on the edge of a large grass and dirt landing area.
In 1942, that country airport had become home to long rows of powerful naval aircraft flying training missions under the direction of an air control tower. War planes like Douglas SBDs and Venturas lined the aviation ramp as hundreds of pilots flew training missions over West Volusia´s lakes and forests.
An old photograph from the time shows a man walking alone through the morning mist past scores of dive bombers. The little country airport came a long way in a short time.
Eventually, the Navy constructed approximately 100 structures of concrete, steel and wood on the sprawling air base. The small town airport hangar, which in the 1930s had been used to service a handful of lo cal planes, soon had two other much larger hangars and thick concrete runways to handle war planes.
A small construction army built many kinds of structures to support the training operation. There were nine long barracks for trainees, and housing for cooks, nurses, instructors and officers, as well as a mess hall, a hospital, an officers club, an armory and a sprawling administration building. There was a flightline briefing room, bunkers for bomb storage, a photo lab, a brig, guard dog shelters, a fire station, maintenance and service facilities of many kinds, including heating and refrigeration buildings and a complete sewage treatment plant.
The DeLand Naval Air Station was completed and operations in full swing by 1943. It was one of many hastily constructed facilities around the nation at the beginning of World War II. The training was so efficient and the military might was so great that America and its allies overwhelmed first the Germans, then the Japanese. The war was over before the end of 1945.
The end of the war foreshadowed the end of the naval base in DeLand. It was closed in March 1946.
Like many cities around the nation, DeLand greatly benefited from the government´s largess when the air station was turned over to the city in 1947. That same year, DeLand Memorial Hospital transferred its operation to the base hospital, where it remained until Fish Hospital was built about five years later. Stetson University´s law school used airport buildings, too, as did many local businesses.
During the next two or three decades, the city sold or leased airport property to various commercial interests. Florida Military School acquired some 73 acres in 1956 and operated there until it closed in 1973. At one time a furniture store operated in one of the original buildings. A dress factory moved in, too, as did Brunswick Corp., Deltona Transformer, Holiday House, Seco Dairies and a long list of others.
Over the years, the structures built by the Navy slowly disappeared. Some were moved, some were demolished, some were renovated, some were ignored and some caught fire.
Today, after nearly 60 years, few buildings remain and only one has been carefully preserved for posterity -- the old home now serving as the DeLand Naval Air Station Museum. It was a private home, taken over by the Navy, and used to house the base´s chief petty officer. Now it holds World War II memorabilia, old photographs and historical items from the days of the air base.
Except for the museum building, there seems to be little else of historical interest worth preserving at the old air base, according to Ed Carson, vice president of the museum. Several buildings remain, however, including two flightline buildings.
Fragments of several buildings also exist, but aren´t easy to find. One of five wings of the Navy´s Subsistence Building, or mess hall, has survived as a cold storage company. The rest of the building is gone. A tattered piece of the former sprawling officers quarters is used by a metal fabrication shop.
During the war, almost a dozen buildings lined the busy flightline, including hangars, control tower, magazine, armory and bombsight vault. Only the latter two still exist.
The Navy´s flightline armory predates the base and may be the oldest building at the airport. Today, it houses the Airport Restaurant. In the 1930s, historians say, it was a watering hole on the brick road to Daytona Beach, but the Navy filled it with bullets and practice bombs.
One of the most unique buildings, and perhaps the strongest structure on the base, is a small, windowless bunker of steel reinforced concrete almost a foot thick. It was the Bombsight vault and protected top secret bombsights when they weren´t in planes. The vault has been the Civil Air Patrol´s offices for many years.
Seco Dairies operates in the former Navy heating and refrig eration plant. Outside stands a virtually unchanged landmark: the 80-foot chimney built by Alphons Custodis Chimney Co., New York.
“It´s no surprise what has happened to the Navy´s buildings,” said Airport Manager Keith Riger. “The wooden buildings were designed and configured for the Navy´s use to have a place for temporary wartime training,” he said. “Permanence wasn´t a consideration. As times changed, and the airport grew, the old, deteriorating buildings were torn down and replaced by new construction, appropriate to the needs of new commercial interests.”
Officials don´t see the city´s airport as a relic, but as a growing commercial success. Its growth has been in the hands of the DeLand City Commission from the beginning, with the help and advice of an economic development committee. Industrial parks have sprung up at the airport.
“Commercial growth there has greatly accelerated over the past seven to eight years,” Riger said.
More than 100 manufacturing and commercial interests now are at the airport, including Skydive DeLand, an internationally known parachuting school. These businesses provide many jobs and a strong tax base for the city, said Riger.
A flight school operates at the airport, as does several flight-related businesses and industries.
New T-hangars are being built, too. The small hangars are called T-hangars because of their shape and are used to store a single private aircraft. Soon there will be 95 T-hangars constructed and leased by the city.
The airport´s five-year growth plan has recently been revised, said Riger, to add a modern instrument landing system and to lengthen runways to 6,000 feet. Today there are almost a dozen large hangars with nearly that many more planned.
Riger points out that the biggest and most significant Navy structure at the airport is still being used for its original purpose - the runways.
Although much of the original thick concrete ramp and runways have been resurfaced, they´re still being used by planes today. Parts of other concrete runways not used for takeoffs are used as foundations of industry buildings, radio controlled aircraft clubs, taxiways and ramps.
“More than half of the old aviation ramp, where hundreds of Douglas SBDs, Venturas and other WWII training aircraft were tied down (during the war), is still in place and in use,” said Riger.
The building that houses the DeLand Naval Air Station Museum was originally a private home. The Museum documents the years the airport was used as a naval flight training school during World War II and is one of the few remaining buildings from that era.
(Photos: News-Journal/PETER BAUER)
Go back in time
Hours of operation: Noon to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays.
Address: 910 Biscayne Blvd., DeLand Airport.
Admission: No charge; donations accepted.
Information: (386) 738-4149.
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