FLEMING ISLAND – Neptune Park was already a special place in Clay County, but a new monument there has brought a new peace to the families of nine people aboard an aircraft that crashed …
FLEMING ISLAND – Neptune Park was already a special place in Clay County, but a new monument there has brought a new peace to the families of nine people aboard an aircraft that crashed there.
Neptune Park was created years ago and named in honor of the crew of a Navy P2V2 Neptune plane that crashed at the site of the park on June 14, 1951, killing seven of the crew members, and now it’s a permanent monument has been erected to remember those who were aboard. The monument was designed by Broadus-Raines Funeral Home and it features the names engraved beautifully of the seven killed aboard the ship and the two who survived into the granite structure.
“When commissioners can bring recreational improvements to our communities such as new ball fields and a concession stand, it is a proud moment for us in Clay County,” Board of County Commissioners chair Mike Cella said at the June 17 ceremony. “But, when we have an opportunity like we have with Neptune Park, to give something back to the community in the form of a permanent memorial dedicated to our brave heroes who risked everything to protect our country and our freedoms, it is truly a monumental occasion.”
And a monumental occasion it was, indeed. More than 50 people gathered right outside the Neptune Park concession stand while dozens more watched and listened from the baseball dugouts and stands.
Retired Navy Capt. Matt Pottenburgh, who is an NAS JAX commander and Patrol and Reconnaissance of Wing 11, told what led to the fatal crash 70 years ago.
“That was a P3 aircraft that just flew behind us and the P3 was the replacement for the P2V2 Neptune aircraft that we’re talking about today and as you can see, it’s still flying today and that’s pretty amazing,” Pottenburgh said. “Throughout the 1950s, these airplanes patrolled the vast Atlantic and were sent to patrol overseas, as was mentioned already, for the Korean War.”
The nine-men crew crashed flying from Palatka when an electrical piece of the wing exploded and caught fire, causing the pilot to attempt to land in an auxiliary runway near where Thunderbolt Elementary now stands. He attempted an emergency pullup maneuver a mile west of the runway, but the aircraft was not able to gain the altitude it needed. It crashed as a result of multiple other factors, too.
The plane’s nose wheel didn’t extend properly, the aircraft’s speed was too fast for a safe landing and the nearby open area was littered with livestock like cows. The plane hit the top of 50-foot pine trees and crashed soon after, killing seven: Lt. Cmdr. L.B. Worley, Lt. Cmdr. Lester C Kee, Aviation Mechanic 1st Class Clair Meek Walizer, Aviation Mechanic 3rd Class Milton Trower, Aviation Radioman 3rd Class James A Logwood Jr., Aviation Ordnance Airman Turner Eugene Jones and Airman William Fred Stewart.
Lt. Junior Grade Ralph Howell Jones and Airman Apprentice John Dabbs Barnett were the only survivors.
“We still have the fighting spirit of our Navy 70 years ago, but we are anchored in...those that have gone before us,” Pottenburgh said before introducing the daughter of fallen Lt. Commander Lester C Kee, Karen Kee Pierce, who was just four and a half years old when her father died.
“I was a daddy’s girl,” Pierce said. “He protected me from everything.”
Pierce said she remembers getting a spam-like call from someone named Rick Howard. He knew all about her father’s life, where he was from, what his journey in the military was like and how he died. Pierce figured that Howard knew far too much for him to be a spam caller, so she listened. She said it would turn out to be one of the most important calls of her life. That’s because Howard was calling to gather the information he needed to make a pitch to the BCC for Neptune Park.
This park was to be created in honor of the fallen P2V2 Neptune aircraft that crashed on what is now the parking lot of the site in 1951 and he wanted the families of those Navy men to help. He also wanted their blessing.
Cella said that it was the quickest 5-0 vote from the BCC and the park plan was soon set into action. Pierce spoke about her first visit to the park and how she wanted it to be just her, her husband and her father and so it was. She sat on a bench and admired the two-field park, the new greenery, the beautiful lighting and the transformation of a site that was once the worst place imaginable for her into a place of peace, tranquility and heart.
“Stepping onto this park for the first time, it brought such peace to me,” Pierce said through tears. “To those that built this place, I want you to know that it was an awful, awful place for me before this park, but coming here now, it’s a place of peace. Thank you.”
Cella introduced the large crowd to Michael Trower Carlucci, the son of fallen Aviation Mechanic 3rd Class Milton Trower. He echoed similar sentiments of Pierce. He was three years old when his father died in the P2V2 Neptune crash in 1951. He didn’t really know his father, he said.
“But I learned of the man he was through my mother and my grandparents,” Trower said.
He learned of his father’s heroism, his service to the country and his sacrifice. Trower said it’s an honor to have his father memorialized forever at such a special place.
The ceremony ended with Trower Carlucci and Pierce unveiling the new and beautiful monument erected in honor of the entire crew of that P2V2 Neptune aircraft. It was a moment of happiness, admiration, tears and as Pierce said, peace.
What was once the site of a fatal crash in the 1950s is now the home to two of Clay County’s most beautiful ballfields. It’s also now home to a monument that will forever memorialize the seven Navy men who made the ultimate sacrifice and the two men that survived the crash.