Save the Blimp Base

From this Naval air station airships hunted U-boats in the Florida Keys.

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Crockwell kneels and picks up a few oddly shaped glass beads from the asphalt pad. Others are melted irregularly into the surface, interspersed with a few metal fragments.

"You can really get a sense of how hot the fire was," says Crockwell. "These beads are all that's left of the windows. We find a lot of other fragments of glass and metal around-pieces of aircraft and airships."

Crockwell motions to the overgrowth next to the pad. "One of the legends of the place is that after the war was over, they dug big pits and pushed the aircraft parts into them," he says. "It's enticing to think that somewhere out here there may be pits full of World War II aircraft parts. Some of the oral accounts tell us that after the fire, you could buy a P-51 for $50."

As the Navy cleared the wreckage of the base, a demolition team dynamited the concrete pillars. One refused to fall. Now one of the highest structures in southern Dade County, it's bristling with antennas and is the central relaying station for the area's 911 service. Blimps never returned permanently after the storm, but the base's helium plant continued to supply Navy airships for years. Richmond's other buildings served a variety of uses, such as providing classroom space for servicemen going to school under the G.I. Bill, and later as space for Naval and Marine Corps Reserve units. The end came in 1992, when hurricane Andrew leveled all except the headquarters and that single, stubborn pillar.

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."

About John Sotham
John Sotham

A former associate editor of Air & Space, John Sotham is a hopelessly nearsighted frequent flyer, with thousands of hours logged in exit rows worldwide. He is a retired U.S. Air Force Reserve colonel and a former crew chief on the F-4D Phantom II and A-10A “Warthog.” He started collecting aviation books when he was eight years old. Any opinions expressed are solely the author’s.

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