New monument honors ‘overlooked’ WWII aviators killed in training at Columbia base

05/19/2013 10:57 PM

05/19/2013 10:58 PM

Harold Jones hopes a new monument for aviators he considers forgotten heroes of World War II attracts sightseers to a quiet area near Columbia Metropolitan Airport.

“That’s what it’s for – so people come see it,” he said of two pieces of granite engraved with the names of 230 aviators who died in crashes while training at what was Columbia Army Air Base from 1942-45.

A brief commemoration will take place Wednesday at the site, located in a small square on a side road off the airport’s main entrance. It is situated on what organizers say was a plaza adjoining base headquarters that is now home to businesses operated by Jones and others.

The markers adjoin another saluting the Doolittle Raiders, who trained at the base for their attack on Japan.

Jones, an aviation buff, raised more than $15,500 in public and private donations this fall, as well as adding some money personally for the markers.

The idea sold itself, he said. “It was meant to be.” The nearby communities of West Columbia chipped in $2,500, Cayce $1,000 and Springdale $500 for the project.

It will become the latest local salute to military veterans who were part of the Greatest Generation.

No one keeps a list of where such monuments are in the Midlands. Some of the better-known ones are at Fort Jackson, Memorial Park in downtown Columbia, the Vista, Brookland-Cayce High and Lexington County Courthouse.

Dan Neal of Blythewood, the nephew of the only aviator from the Columbia area who perished in the 57 crashes, is among those planning to attend the dedication.

“It’s about the uncle I never knew,” Neal said. “It’s part of my heritage.”

His uncle Thomas died in a crash in July 1943, six years before Neal was born, according to records compiled under Jones’ supervision.

The aviators remembered are 229 men and a woman who died during training flights from the base and its satellites in Walterboro and what is now McEntire Joint Air National Guard Base in Lower Richland.

All were killed in crashes that occurred mainly because the pilots were inexperienced in handling large B-25 bombers, organizers say.

Their deaths largely went unpublicized amid the patriotic fervor of the war, Jones said.

Jones, 80, made the new monument a personal crusade.

Recognition of the sacrifice of these aviators is overdue, he said.

“What they did has been overlooked,” Jones said. “They died in service to our country.”

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