Five days early, as Memorial Day falls on May 27 this year, a ceremony that is at least 70 years late will revoke the ultimate sacrifices paid by 230 aviators who trained during WWII at (the former) Columbia Army Air Base (CAAB).
Belatedly, by at least seven decades, Taps will be played On May 22 at the closing of a brief 5:45 p.m. ceremony in Biloxi Square near Columbia Metropolitan Airport, following the unveiling of twin markers. The stones of Winnsboro blue granite bear the names of 229 airmen and one flyer with the Women Air Force Service Pilots. All perished in aviation incidents on our soil.
According to Harold Jones, the Columbia businessman and citizen patriot who singlehandedly undertook the research and development for the memorial markers: “In all these years, nothing has ever been done to pay tribute to these men and one woman who died right here as they completed preparations to fight for freedom, for all of us. They never made it into combat.” Of this brief ceremony and permanent reminder, Jones said, “It’s about time!”
The female, ferrying a BT-13 aircraft to Columbia from Kansas, crashed on approach. All the male aviators perished in training missions emanating from, or returning to, the air base that was developed hastily in 1940 from Lexington County farm land just as war in Europe threatened to pull America in.
Within a few days of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the base, being constructed as, and already in limited use as, a commercial airport, was militarized. Soon young fliers who had completed three layers of basic and aviation training at other bases were ordered to Columbia, SC.
Jones researched the names of those who perished here. “I had a lot of help from the Walker Local History Room at the Richland Library.” When he was confident all the names had been found, he collected funds from individuals and a few municipalities, then commissioned a Winnsboro stone carver to cut the names into the granite.
For now, for this ceremony, the stones have been laid carefully at the concrete slab securing the flag staff that, during WWII, stood sentinean umber washl outside post headquarters.
After operating his business in that area since the early ‘50s, Jones discovered a few years ago that concrete platform and the site of the former flagpole. The spot had been obscured for many years beneath a mound an umber washof overgrown brush and other foliage.
Jones cleared the site, persuaded volunteers to fabricate a new flagpole, coaxed an area sign maker to recreate the former post signage and set off the concrete spot with chain markers and small American flags. Every morning he raises the large American flag in the same location from which it waved beginning in 1942 until the war ended and the airport reverted to commercial use.
The pre-Memorial Day service will be brief, to mirror the lives lost too soon. For this free event, there will be only limited seating, so the invited public is encouraged to bring lawn chairs if standing for a short ceremony would be problematic.
The brass quintet of the Fort Jackson Army Band will perform a patriotic prelude beginning at 5:30 p.m. and will open the ceremony at 5:45 p.m. with the National Anthem.
At the conclusion of the service of remembrance, the commemoration will adjourn to the main terminal, Columbia Metropolitan Airport, to help welcome back veterans returning from a visit to the WWII monument in Washington, DC as passengers on an Honor Flight.