JACKSONVILLE – When Naval Air Station Cecil Field was decommissioned in 1999, its base housing was turned into apartment homes and its former administration buildings became bank branches.
Opened in 1941, the base trained thousands of pilots and brought many to Duval and Clay counties. The base theater was just sitting there. The chapel was used by the City of Jacksonville for storage.
Dismayed with the chapel’s neglect, veteran Mike Cassata began a grassroots campaign to establish the Cecil Field POW/MIA Memorial. Now serving as the memorial’s executive director, Cassata saw potential for theater to become home to a national museum.
“The place was kind of forgotten if you ask me,” said Cassata, whose father and grandfather were stationed at Cecil Field. “There’s a lot of history here. I remember as a kid what it used to look like.”
He said even a memorial for 14 pilots who were missing in action was neglected.
A group was organized that acquired a 26-acre lease and presented Jacksonville city officials plans to open a museum, restore the Chapel of the Hi-Speed Pass and install a static display outdoors. The group held a dedication for the metal wings on the outside of the chapel last summer. The street New World Avenue was changed to POW-MIA Memorial Parkway.
Cassata’s aiming for a September opening date. He’s also trying to land a national designation from Congress for the museum. He said the goal of the museum is to honor those who didn’t come home. He wants visitors to learn about one POW/MIA when they left. There are more than 80,000 veterans unaccounted for.
“This is something for the families. That’s our most important thing. People don’t realize there’s thousands out there,” Cassata said. “They don't have a place they know they’re loved ones will always be remembered.”
As for opening the museum, Cassata said the organization is acquiring memorabilia and setting up displays. Cassata said he had a volunteer group ready.
“It’s just getting everyone’s schedule coordinated and roles and responsibilities and finding a couple of people who are knowledgeable about his field as well,” Cassata said.
Across the street from the chapel, Chaplain Patrick Archuleta, a 30-year U.S. Air Force veteran, refers to the restoration as a mission rather than a project. The city gave the chapel a landmark designation.
The chapel’s interior just received a new paint job. He’s waiting on 28 rows of pews and to install new carpet. The chapel won’t hold regular services, but will host events like weddings, funerals and reunions.
Late March is Archuleta’s tentative opening date.
“It will serve as a focal point if you will,” Archuleta said.
Museum spokesman Buddy Harris had finished giving a speech at Florida State University when he was asked to join the project. Harris worked extensively with reforming the military’s POW/MIA processes. The military’s interest would wane if the veteran was missing for a year, Harris said.
Harris said families might have gravestones, but they knew there was no one there. He recalled a family of a Korean War veteran from Kansas. Harris said a few members of his family doubted what bringing him back would accomplish.
“The brother said we were creating all this stuff that doesn’t need to be created, he said he moved past it and we were making things worse,” Harris said. “I’ll tell you what (when the veteran’s body was returned), it was a complete metamorphosis. The brother started crying and thanking everybody. It’s a huge weight on these people’s shoulders. When I brought Scott Speicher home, I saw it in my own family.”
Pilot Scott Speicher was missing in action during the Persian Gulf War in 1991. His body was found by Marines and returned in 2009. Harris was best man at Speicher’s wedding at the Cecil Field chapel and present for Speicher’s memorial at the same venue.
“It’s always been near and dear to my heart, Harris said. “When they showed me what they planned on doing, I had to be a part of it.”
Bob Buehn, of Fleming Island, is the executive director of the University of North Florida Military Veterans Resource Center and POW/MIA Memorial board member. A U.S. Navy pilot, and former Jacksonville Mayor John Peyton’s Chief of Military Affairs, Buehn served at Cecil Field and said he is excited to move the project forward.
“It’s nice that this little section is going to be preserved,” Buehn said. “We want to remind people or teach someone for the first time (of their sacrifices.)”