Harold Jones wants to put up markers near Columbia Metropolitan Airport commemorating what he says are the “forgotten heroes” of World War II.
His goal is to raise $15,000 by the end of the year to put up two granite stones engraved with the names of 230 aviators who died in 57 crashes around the state while training from 1942-45 at what was Columbia Army Air base and its two satellites.
“They are just as important as those who went overseas,” said Jones, a Springdale resident who is a member of the South Carolina Historic Aviation Foundation.
Jones and supporters are seeking donations from private sources and a handful of Lexington County communities to put the markers at a small monument on a side road near the airport’s main entrance off S.C. 302, next to one that salutes the Doolittle Raiders who trained there.
“They gave their lives for our country,” said Bill Hamson of West Columbia, a photographer at the base during the war who went to the scene of some crashes. “They should be honored and memorialized as much as those shot down in combat.”
By their count from U.S. military records, the list of those who died includes 229 men and one woman on flights out of the Columbia Army Air base, as well as stations it oversaw in Walterboro and what is today McEntire Joint Air National Guard Base in Lower Richland.
The crashes occurred mainly because the pilots were experienced in handling smaller aircraft but not the larger bombers, Hamson said.
Islands in Lake Murray were a popular practice site for crews training for aerial combat.
At least three crashes occurred in the 47,500-acre lake.
One B-25C bomber was recovered in 2005 after 62 years underwater. It is displayed at the Southern Museum of Flight in Birmingham, Ala.
Another bomber pulled from Lake Greenwood is in a hangar at Jim Hamilton/L.B. Owens Airport as restoration continues.
Hamson says the recognition of the aviators is overdue, saying crashes often went unpublicized.
“It wasn’t considered a secret, but you didn’t talk about it,” he said.
There are several markers around the Midlands saluting World War II veterans, though no one keeps an official list.
“I don’t think anybody really has a handle on it,” Richland County veteran affairs director James Brown said.
Some of the better-known ones are at Fort Jackson, at Memorial Park in downtown Columbia and honoring the Raiders in the Vista.
Others less-known are at schools like Brookland-Cayce High, public buildings like the Lexington County Courthouse and in small towns like Gilbert.
The passing of many members of what has been called The Greatest Generation underscores the need to compile a master list of local markers commemorating what they did, Brown said.
Jones will leave that task to others.
His focus is on gathering money so the markers he envisions at the Columbia airport can be dedicated in mid-2013.
In a way, it’s a personal crusade for him.
He remembers waving to flight crews as they flew over his home in Cayce while he was a youngster.
“Even those that didn’t go into combat because of crashes while training here were serving our nation,” he said. “They are forgotten heroes.”