New memorial highlights Duke Field’s storied past

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Dylan Gentile
  • 919th Special Operations Wing
As the 919th Special Operations Wing celebrates its 50th Anniversary, it will soon have a place of honor highlighting the sacrifice of Airmen spanning generations of service.

The initiative culminated with the 919th Special Operations Civil Engineer Squadron’s construction of a new memorial to replace an older monument honoring the legacy of the 3205th Drone Group while highlighting the legacy of service that continues today with the 919th SOW.

“We have a very cool and exciting history,” said Devon Julien, 919th SOW historian. “This memorial will give Airmen an opportunity to learn about the history of Duke Field and the legacy of our wing.”

The 1st Experimental Guided Missiles Group, established in 1946 at Duke Field, was redesignated the 3205th DG in  1951. The group operated some of the earliest drones in the Air Force.

The Group flew variations of remote controlled B-17 Flying Fortresses. They followed their remote controlled aircraft from a distance in a separate airframe so that others could use the RC planes as target practice.

“It's not like a modern drone, where you can just sit at a computer, miles away, and fly it,” said Julien. “You had to have another aircraft flying within a certain range of it and then they would control the other one using radio. This caused confusion with the B-17 that had crew members on it.”

On August 25, 1952, an F-86D Sabre pilot was performing a training exercise over the Gulf of Mexico, 60 miles southwest of Panama City, Florida, when he mistook a B-17, manned by eight members of the 3205th DG, for one of the RC airframes during a training exercise.

The pilot shot the aircraft down, killing six and injuring two. The two survivors, Staff Sgt. Charles D. Jones, and Airman 2nd Class, (E-3,) Peter R. Rosing, weathered 24 hours at sea in a liferaft awaiting rescue.

Later, the group constructed a memorial that names Lt. Col. William McWhorter, Lt Col. Leo Audette, Maj. Henry Ford, Maj. Harold Leffel, Capt. Roger Blake and Tech. Sgt. Lyle Phillips as the fallen.

“This is where we get a lot of our street names from here at Duke Field,” said Julien. “There’s McWhorter Street, Blake Avenue, Clay Street, Audette Drive, Phillips Street, and Leffel Street.”

When originally constructed, the memorial was centrally located and in a visible, high-traffic area near what is now the base dining facility. As buildings were demolished and new ones built over time, the location of the memorial was less visible to much of the base populous on Duke Field.

“I’m glad we were able to save the plaque from the original monument,” said Master Sgt. Garald Oakes, 919th SOCES non commissioned officer in charge of structural maintenance. “We moved it to the current location and added two new plaques so it still gets to be a part of history.”

Leadership from the 919th Special Operations Wing decided to build  the memorial near the track across from the lodging facility where it is more visible and gives Airmen an opportunity to learn about the legacy of the base and the Air Force.

“Having the memorial moved closer to the track where more Airmen are likely to see it is important to help educate them on the history of [the base,] the 919th SOW, and the legacy of the  Air Force,” said Julien. “This project makes me feel proud to be a part of Duke Field’s history.”

As the 919th SOW approached its 50th anniversary, leadership decided to create a larger monument accompanied by a secondary plaque to commemorate the history of the base and the unit.

On July 9, 2020, Airmen from the 919th Special Operations Civil Engineer Squadron broke ground on the project. Weather and logistical issues surrounding COVID-19 slowed progress. However, on August 8, 2021, 919th SOCES Airmen finally mounted the plaques to the new memorial site. The official dedication of the memorial will take place Nov. 7, 2021 as part of the Wing’s 50th Anniversary activities.

“When we set the plaques, all my folks who were involved actually read them, and none of us were even aware there was ever a rank called ‘Airman 2nd Class’ at one time,” said Oakes. “I’m proud of my Airmen for their work on the project and I think it was a good opportunity for them to hone their skill sets as civil engineers”

While finishing touches are ongoing, Airmen now have a place to gather and reflect on the Wing’s storied past, and the memorial to the 3205th DG has a new home.