A ceremony was held July 10 to commemorate the refurbishing of former Naval Air Station Cecil Field’s chapel and to rename a main road. The current Cecil Commerce Center’s New World Avenue is now known as POW-MIA (Prisoner of War and Missing in Action) Memorial Parkway.
The Jacksonville City Council unanimously passed the action May 22 to rename the local road in honor of prisoners of war and the more than 82,000 service members still considered missing in action.
“Mixed emotions as we come out here . . . we’ve pretty much dedicated our lives to America and I’m proud to see so many old friends, shipmates, fliers – thanks for coming out to memorialize this so we have a place for loved ones to go,” said retired Navy Rear Adm. Mike “Carlos” Johnson.
“I went to 15 different memorial services while stationed at Cecil Field between ’70-’98 and I went to three weddings, so it was kind of the circle of life. I would have gone to more but I was deployed 13 times.”
Renovations on the Chapel of the High-Speed Pass included a new roof, electrical work, window preservations and two sets of aviator wings on the front of the building. The wings were originally on the chapel, but removed when the base closed in 1999.
“I was stationed at Cecil five times and drove by (the chapel) every day. It really is something to see the chapel come to life again and to see so many people involved,” said retired Navy Capt. Edmund “Junior” Turner.
The chapel will be used for weddings, retirements, memorial services and other services as it was in the past.
A Vietnam War Memorial at Cecil was originally dedicated September 1973 by families and service members. The site currently consists of markers and trees known as Heroes Walk and Freedom trees were planted for each of the 16 pilots from Vietnam and Desert Storm War eras who were designated as POWs and MIA while stationed at Cecil Field.
One of the speakers shared why is involved with the memorial organization.
“Everything changed for me in September 1993, when we found the crash site for Lt. Cmdr. Scott Speicher, who was a Jacksonville native, a dear friend, who went down Jan. 17, 1991, during the first day Desert Storm,” said retired Navy Cmdr. Albert “Buddy” Harris, who serves as the spokesperson for the Cecil Field POW/MIA Memorial organization.
“We were told there was no chance of survival and then in ’93, we found a different story.”
In 1995, after contacting the Iraq government, Harris and others took evidence to change Speicher’s status to POW/MIA and after a struggle with numerous organizations, they eventually succeeded.
“Our answer to why we keep going is because we promised them. We owe it to them and more importantly, we owe it to the families,” Harris said. “We need to have a memorial as a place for families to go to remember their loved ones and to know they are not forgotten.”
Plans are continuing on chapel renovations and to build a museum and park at a cost of $30 million. The project is expected to take five-six years for completion.