Cecil Field Memorial Center Rendering

An elevation drawing of the proposed MIA Plaza at the Cecil Field POW/MIA Memorial.

The Cecil Field POW/MIA Memorial will begin taking shape in the coming months with the restoration and dedication of the chapel, a static display of aircraft and a museum.

That’s just Phase 1 of the project that Executive Director Mike Cassata hopes will become the national memorial and museum that will tell the story of the more than 83,000 military personnel who are still unaccounted for, going back to World War II.

The organization reached an agreement with the city in August to lease the 26 acres at the former Cecil Field Naval Air Station, which was decommissioned in 1999.

The base chapel was gutted and turned into storage. The building wasn’t maintained and needs to be completely renovated, said Sam Houston, who was base commander from 1992 to 1994.

Renovation work, which is expected to cost between $400,000 and $500,000, will begin after the first of year. The building will be rededicated and renamed Chapel of the High-Speed Pass during an open house at 11 a.m. Nov. 3. The work should be completed by next summer.

An area will be cleared and readied for a static display of aircraft. The base, established in 1941, was home to the first Atlantic Fleet Squadrons to fly the A-7 Corsair II, the F/A-18 Hornet, the S-3A and S-3B Viking, and the ES-3A Shadow. Cecil Field squadrons were aboard every Atlantic Fleet carrier deployed to Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War.

Thirteen pilots from Vietnam and three others from more recent conflicts were listed as POW or MIA and are remembered with a Hero’s Walk and Freedom Trees behind the chapel.

Phase 2 is more ambitious. It is expected to cost between $10 million and $15 million and take five years to complete.

The names of the 83,000 missing and unaccounted for will be on display in a tunnel.

“The ones who are still missing will be projected on the wall. You won’t be able to touch and feel them,” Cassata said. “But when they are identified they will be etched on the wall. When you can touch them, you know they are home.”

Above the tunnel will be an observation deck overlooking the site that will include a reflection pond with a deck in the shape of the bow of the USS Saratoga. A small museum will be in the old base theater.

Nearby will be a field with 83,000 disks.

“From 20 feet, when you look down on the field, you’ll see the volume. It’s an amazing number of people,” Cassata said. “It’s about the same number of seats there are at the Florida-Georgia game when they open up all the seats at EverBank Field.”

The number of missing changes on a weekly basis as more remains are returned to their families. Advances in forensic pathology and the use of DNA are enabling the identification of remains from World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm and the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

One of the names that will be etched on the wall is Frederick W. Wright III, commander of Carrier Air Wing 3, who was shot down Nov. 10, 1972 over Vietnam. It was 18 years before his remains were returned to his family. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

His daughter, Cynde Covington, was 10 years when her father was shot down. She remembers his memorial service at the base chapel.

The family lived at the base from 1970 to 1973. Covington said she and her brother did almost everything on the base — shop, go to the movies, hang out at the teen center.

Covington said her mother was active in the wives group that included Mary Hoff, who inspired the creation of the black-and-white POW/MIA flag. Her husband, Lt. Cmdr. Michael Hoff, was shot down in 1970.

“We would spend hours sorting flags and [POW/MIA] bracelets that the wives were doing to raise awareness for the men. I remember when I was 10, 11, 12, sitting on the floor sorting them in boxes,” Covington said.

“Having grown up at Cecil Field, I was pretty frustrated when they closed it. It was my last military home,” she said. “We didn’t know what was going to become of the memorial trees that were dedicated for my father and all those other men. I was really stunned to see what happened to the chapel.”

Covington describes herself as the “emotional family adviser” to the organization as plans for the site have developed.

“I am very, very pleased with the design,” she said. “The first time I saw it, I was moved to tears. So all this that is happening now, that we will have a place of honor for all the military branches who have unaccounted, is huge for me.”

Houston said he thinks the memorial will become a national destination. “There’s lots of walls and memorials and exhibits but there’s not a single memorial that lists all 83,000 MIAs,” he said. “We would be the only one of its kind. We’d like for it become a national park.”

The group also is trying to rename New World Avenue along the site to POW/MIA Memorial Parkway.

To publicize their efforts, the group is dedicating a POW/MIA chair at EverBank Field on Dec. 3. A similar one was dedicated in September at the Baseball Grounds.

“It’s a reminder that they will never be forgotten,” Cassata said.

For more information, go to www.powmiamemorial.org.

By Lilla Ross
Resident Community News

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