The POW/MIA memorial complex at Cecil Commerce Center is a big step closer to a sought-after national historic designation that could help net funding for further development.
It also has a new name: The National POW/MIA Memorial & Museum.
Retired Navy Capt. Robert “Bob” Buehn said that U.S. Reps. John Rutherford and Al Lawson introduced legislation to the House Sept. 20 that would federally designate the memorial as the National POW/MIA Memorial and Museum.
The legislation is currently in committee but could be out on the floor for a vote as soon as mid-October, said memorial Executive Director Mike Cassata. From there, it would go to the Senate and, if passed, on to the president for signature.
“It’s a big step,” said Buehn, the keynote speaker at the memorial on Sept. 21, National POW/MIA Recognition Day. “We are going from just a base to a national memorial and museum.”
The event included status updates, a missing-man table ceremony by the Filipino American Veterans Society, a flyover, a car and bike show and an address by Buehn. Attendance was 400 to 450 compared to last year’s 350, said William “Bill” Dudley, retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, another event speaker.
Perhaps more importantly, the event foreshadowed big things on the horizon at the memorial.
While the legislation is not yet a done deal, Buehn told the crowd that “we are confident it will be a national memorial that honors all POWS and the 82,000 still listed as missing in action and unaccounted for.”
Cassata said that the volunteer group that staffs the non-profit memorial has now begun officially referring to it as the National POW/MIA Memorial & Museum. He said that in addition to possible funding opportunities, the national designation would comfort the families of POWs and those still missing in action.
“There is not a national memorial in the country,” Cassata said. He believes Jacksonville’s memorial should be that memorial, noting that the national flag devoted to prisoners of war and those missing in action – the iconic black flag with the soldier in the white circle – was created at Cecil Field.
He said that growing up as a military dependent, he was fortunate to have his father come home. Other families didn’t, he said, and for those who never learn what happened to their loved one, grief can be never-ending.
“We could move on,” he recalled. “These families couldn’t. It’s a big deal, it’s an issue, and I am shocked that our nation does not have (an officially designated) national memorial.”
The memorial is situated at the former NAS Cecil Field Master Jet Base (now Cecil Commerce Center) and has an existing memorial to NAS Cecil Field aviators stationed there during the Vietnam and Desert Storm conflicts. It contains markers for 16 pilots who were lost, a pavilion with a stage and a metal aircraft display.
The current memorial non-profit has a 26-acre lease with the City of Jacksonville and its volunteers plan to continue improving the property. They dedicated its Chapel of the High-Speed Pass in March after more than a year of restoration and renovation.
In November 2018, the Jacksonville City Council voted to designate the chapel as a historic landmark.
There are also plans to bring historic Viet Nam-era planes to the park soon, and parts for one of them are already nearby. Buehn said a nearby hangar contains an A-7 Corsair fuselage that will need to be rebuilt.
Albert “Buddy” Harris, memorial spokesman, said plans are on the table for at least four aircraft. He said those planes include the Corsair, an A-4 Skyhawk, an S-3 Viking and an FA-18 Hornet.
“There may be more in the future, but these four are definite,” Harris said. He said the first to go in would be the A-7, perhaps as soon as March 2020.
Meanwhile, Buehn encourages county residents to lend a hand at the memorial.
“If you can, get involved,” Buehn told the crowd at the gathering in September. “We are going to make it beautiful.”
But there were already would-be volunteers in attendance.
Frank Lange of Port St. Lucie, a retired aircraft mechanic, drove up especially for the event presentations and the car show that came after.
Local ties prompted him to offer his help.
“I was stationed here for almost 14 years,” Lange said. “And I had an uncle that was a POW.”
He hopes the name of his uncle, Joseph McCarthy, will join other names at a memorial wall that is among other future projects possibly in the works for the memorial.
By Jennifer Edwards
Resident Community News