The Hideaway Times: Article
Thursday, July 5, 2001
Wings over DeLand
Active group shares memories of war era
By OWEN FOGLEMAN | News-Journal Correspondent
The DeLand Naval Air Station was built in 1943 to train air crews to fly and fight with the SBD, the "Dauntless" dive bomber that saved the day for the U.S. Navy at the Battle of Midway by sinking four of Japan's largest carriers.
Today, the DeLand Naval Air Station Museum, at the DeLand Airport, is not just a building that houses World War II artifacts. It's an active organization of naval air enthusiasts dedicated to keeping alive the memory of naval wings over DeLand.
Only a few of the 75 active members are World War II types and membership is open to anyone who shares their interests. Many are the stirring war stories told and retold at meetings of members.
One of the most popular stories occurred in a day when the whine of divebomber engines was a common sound over DeLand. A squadron had just completed its mission, dropping training smoke bombs on designated targets when an SBD pilot, zooming over the air base -- now the DeLand municipal airport -- with his wingman, radioed the other plane: "Where is your gunner?"
"Sitting right behind me," said the wingman, flicking his thumb over his shoulder. The shocking reply, "No, he isn't," caused the wingman to snap his head around.
Indeed, the gunner was not in the rear seat. Instead, he was wrapped grotesquely around the plane's tail assembly. His body, with parachute pack in place, appeared intact and the pilot seemed OK.
Both pilots, with hand signals, urged the hapless crewman to jump. But, in fear, he clung tightly to the plane. The two conferred by radio with the base executive officer.
"Climb to 4,000 feet," the pilot was ordered. He did.
"Now, roll him off," the officer ordered. The pilot complied, and for a first-time parachute jumper, the frightened gunner did quite well. He settled to the ground along State Road 11, safe, but covered with mud from the pigpen where he landed.
A resident of Umatilla, with the last name of Parrish, visited the museum one day and told that story. "I was the pilot," he said.
At another time, "a long, lanky fellow from Holly Hill, named Moe Westberry, came in and said he had an interesting story to tell," said Ed Carson, vice president and treasurer of the museum group.
Westberry told the same story, then added, "I was that gunner."
When he was asked how the accident happened, Westberry grinned and said he couldn't remember.
The Navy commissioned three Central Florida air stations in November 1942, as air training facilities. One, in DeLand, would train in dive-bombers; another, at Daytona Beach, would train in fighters; another, at Sanford, would train in patrol bombers. All three training stations became municipal airports after the war, Carson said.
The DeLand base was completed in 1943 and trained Navy and Marine fliers in the SBD. Later, when the need for dive bombers waned and the need for fighter planes increased, the local base began training fighter pilots -- in dive bombers -- because there was a lack of fighter planes available for training purposes.
The Navy decommissioned the DeLand facility in April 1946.
Sitting at the edge of the property, an old building of hand-hewn foundation timbers, built in 1926, had been used by the Navy as a residence for the "Master of Arms," because it was near the main gate to the base.
In later years, after the base was closed, the old house became the property of the city and finally fell into disuse. By the 1990s, it was termite-ridden and derelict. It was being used by city firemen who set fires inside barrels in the house and used the smoke-filled rooms for training.
Mayor David Rigsby, in 1993, suggested the old house might possibly be refurbished and used as a museum to celebrate the airport's beginnings. The DeLand City Commission in 1993 gave its permission to restore the property known as the Scherer house.
A DeLand Naval Air Station Museum Task Force was appointed to accomplish the task. Elwood Titcomb, president of the DeLand Rotary Club at the time was named president; Bill Dreggors was vice president; J.D. Hayes, secretary and Mary Swiderski, treasurer.
Rotarians, said Carson, literally stripped out the interior and rebuilt the old house. Rotarians have been major supporters of the museum since its inception, he said.
The interior, today, is nicely appointed and air-conditioned. Attractive glass cases, walls and display tables hold a great number of memorabilia and artifacts, which have been donated by active members, veterans and widows of veterans. Some training items, such as 50-caliber bullets and cartridge cases, have been collected from airbase gun ranges; other items came from war-era repair shops and a variety of other sources.
There also is a leased hangar housing Korean war helicopters and a red biplane, resembling a World War I German fighter with a life-sized replica of the Red Baron standing by. Also present is a variety of World War II memorabilia.
The museum serves as an educa tional resource. It has a veterans' speakers bureau which supplies speakers to schools and organizations interested in military affairs. This service is more readily available in early November near Veterans Day. Carson said he would like to see it utilized more. Teachers frequently send students who are doing term papers of military interest to the museum as a source of information.
Each year, during the museum's "Air Fleet Weekend" observance, with assistance from the city of DeLand, a big-band hangar dance is sponsored, generally accompanied by an air show and a Veterans Day parade Nov. 11.
Annually, during that busy week, Bob Sanford organizes and is host for a dinner for surviving DeLand NAS veterans.
Current board of directors are: Melvin Rollins, a Vietnam veteran, president; Ed Carson, a Korean War veteran, vice president and treasurer; John Allen, a Vietnam War veteran, secretary; Ken Torbett, Bob Sanford, Bill Dreggors and Elwood Titcomb.
Officers of the museum have issued an invitation to interested persons to become members of the organization. About one-third of the current 75 active members are women. No military background is required.
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