Save the Blimp Base
From this Naval air station airships hunted U-boats in the Florida Keys.
- By John Sotham
- Air & Space magazine, September 2001
(Page 4 of 4)
Today, Anthony Atwood and his volunteers hope to give the HQ building its final assignment, as the official all-service military museum and memorial of south Florida. Atwood, a former Navy recruiter on temporary recall at a reserve station, has made the salvation of Richmond's headquarters building and the memory of the blimps and crews that flew here his own crusade, and intends the story of NAS Richmond to be the subject of his master's thesis for an advanced degree in history.
The year before the city of Miami's centennial in 1996, Atwood says, "there was a lot of community consciousness raising, and being a community-activist-type person, I [wanted to organize] a commemorative event at the site of the old blimp base." To honor U.S. servicemen, Atwood put together a ceremony that attracted 300 people and raised an American flag where NAS Richmond's flagpole once stood.
Bolstered by the turnout, Atwood and a core of volunteers set up a display about the base at the nearby Goldcoast Railroad Museum. As the group began to publicize its efforts, members placed on display in the headquarters building artifacts they found nearby, including aluminum fragments from the blimps and structural parts of the hangars. More volunteers came forward, some of whom had been blimp crewmen or had served at the base as civilians, and gradually the idea of restoring the HQ building took hold.
"I'd like to see this as a federal institution-an ongoing museum for young and old alike," Atwood says. "We hope to see a veterans' memorial, nature trails behind the building, and a replica of the Vietnam [memorial in Washington, D.C.] wall."
Before restoration, however, a few problems with the building's location must be solved. Although the Army Corps of Engineers owns both the building and the land around it, nearby land is owned by the University of Miami, which has its own plans for expansion, and access to the old base is limited. The solution is to raise the building by hydraulic jacks and truck it about 350 yards to a plot of federal land accessible from the neighboring Metrozoo's main entrance road. Atwood has enlisted the help of several Florida politicians, including U.S. Senator Bob Graham and Representatives Carrie Meek and E. Clay Shaw Jr., to steer the project through the competing priorities of a major university, federal agencies, and one of the largest zoological parks in the nation. Mayor Paul Novack of Surfside, a town just north of Miami, has been a key ally. "In this place, the museum would be a natural buffer between the zoo and [nearby] development," Novack says. "And when the building is moved, the land behind it will be restored to a natural state."
"It's just the right thing to do," says Atwood, whose father hit the beach on D-Day during World War II and who has the conviction-and salesmanship-of a military recruiter. Even though negotiations have been long and complicated, they have resulted in what he calls "a strange coalition of environmentalists and military people slightly to the right of Attila the Hun."
Once the officials have inked the deal and the structure is moved to its new home and restored, NAS Richmond's headquarters building-survivor of war and at least five hurricanes-will return to service, reminding its visitors that long before exotic animals roamed nearby, blimps prowled the skies.