CLOSE

77 years after the seven member crew of a WW II bomber perished in the Florida wilderness, a memorial was held close to Christmas, Fl.

Florida Today

On June 19, 1943, two startled ranch employees noticed a twin-engine bomber spinning and spiraling to the bottom via damaged clouds —  the airplane crashed and exploded amid freshwater marshes and pine flatwoods close to the St. Johns River.

Seven U.S. Navy and Marine Corps personnel misplaced their lives. Their doomed PV-1 Ventura had taken flight on a routine instrument-training mission from Naval Air Station Sanford, about 35 miles to the northwest.

But the World War II bomber crash location was forgotten as generations handed. And the tragedy grew to become the stuff of native legend at right this moment’s 31,000-acre Tosohatchee Wildlife Management Area, stated Charlie Matthews, who served as superintendent from 1985-2004.

“Every now and then, someone would show up in my office with — I want to call it a Captain Kidd’s treasure map, X marks the spot — saying, ‘I’ve got information about a downed military aircraft,’ ” Matthews stated.

“They had some sort of very, very crude map that could narrow things down to 20 square miles,” he stated.

Autoplay

Show Thumbnails

Show Captions

Last SlideSubsequent Slide

The thriller was solved in 2015. That’s when Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission employees stumbled upon the bomber crash site after a brush fireplace scorched surrounding vegetation. The stays of the misplaced WWII airmen are nonetheless there, at a distant, undisclosed location throughout the Tosohatchee WMA.

“It is a war grave. Just like the USS Arizona. Or the graveyards above the beaches at Normandy,” stated Matthews, who served in the Navy from 1973-77.

“This is a war grave,” he stated.

Buy Photo

Barbara Dunn Storz of DeLand Naval Air Station Museum, tells about of the crew members. Officials devoted a memorial plaque to the seven crew members of a World War II bomber who died in a routine coaching crash in June of 1943 in what’s now the Tosohatchee Wildlife Management Area, in Orange County, close to Christmas.  (Photo: TIM SHORTT/FLORIDA TODAY)

Friday morning — on the 77th anniversary of the crash — officers devoted a memorial honoring the seven misplaced airmen at Parking Area 2 of the wilderness space, simply south of Christmas between Orlando and Titusville. Seven small U.S. flags had been organized in a semicircle round the marker.

“Our liberties and values stand safe today because of the brave men and women who have been ready to face the fire. We are thankful for each and every one of them,” Barbara Storz, DeLand Naval Air Station Museum particular occasions chair/treasurer, advised the small crowd.

“We dedicate this memorial site as a place in Christmas, Florida, where from this day forward, people for generations will be able to pause for a moment to remember and acknowledge those who have sacrificed so much for our freedom,” Storz stated.

The Tosohatchee WMA in japanese Orange County borders the St. Johns River and the Brevard County line, extending from State Road 50 southward past State Road 520 to Lake Poinsett.

More: WWII Eau Gallie B-24 bomber crash that killed 10 airmen marks 75th anniversary

More: D-Day 75th anniversary memorialized by Tico Belle, a C-47 that flew troops into Normandy

Scott Storz is special projects manager with the DeLand Naval Air Station Museum. In April 2018, he helped assemble a team that surveyed the crash site, finding the plane’s radio and bulletproof glass. Cadaver dogs with Florida Airboat Search & Rescue confirmed the presence of human remains. 

“I think this is one of the smallest crash sites that we’ve ever seen — because it was totally melted. (The bomber) was fueled up with about 13,000 gallons of fuel, and it only made it about 35 miles from the Navy base at Sanford,” Scott Storz said.

Storz submitted geographical coordinates to the Naval History and Heritage Command in Washington, D.C., which located the archived aircraft accident report.

The report said investigators could not determine why the PV-1 fell into its fatal spin, and the bomber “burned to complete destruction.”

Buy Photo

Officials dedicated a memorial plaque to the seven crew members of a World War II bomber who died in a routine training crash in June of 1943 in what is now the Tosohatchee Wildlife Management Area, in Orange County, near Christmas.  (Photo: TIM SHORTT/FLORIDA TODAY)

Barbara Storz recited information on the seven crash victims Friday before observing a moment of silence:

• Marine Maj. George Brockway, 31, from Douglas, Wyoming.

• Navy Lt. Frederick Speiser, 27, from Ekalaka, Montana. He was the pilot.

• Navy Lt. Alan Schirmer, 25, from Aberdeen, South Dakota.

• Navy Reservist Philip Eichelberger, 23, from Berkeley Springs, West Virginia.

• Navy Reservist Melville Hess from New York.

• Navy Reservist George Morris, 25, from Cook County, Illinois.

• Navy Aviation Machinist’s Mate 3rd Class George Eckels, 19, from Woodlawn, Maryland.

Five members of the flight crew have memorial graves at Arlington National Cemetery.

Naval History and Heritage Command officials have advised that the crash site should remain untouched, Scott Storz said.

By the end of WWII, U.S. military personnel were training at 40 airfields across the Sunshine State, the Florida Center for Instructional Technology reported. NAS Sanford is now Orlando Sanford International Airport.

A PV-1 Ventura, on loan from the U.S. Navy Aviation Museum, will go on public display at the Sanford airport with the opening of a $60 million passenger terminal expansion. The vintage bomber was unveiled to thousands of onlookers during the airport’s January 2019 Aerospace and Aviation Day.

“This is the only restored PV-1 Ventura in the world that is restored and on display. It will be unveiled in our terminal on Sept. 1,” said Lauren Rowe, Sanford Airport Authority spokeswoman.

A similar WWII air disaster occurred in Brevard County. In March 1944, a U.S. Army Air Force B-24 bomber crashed into trees and exploded in Eau Gallie’s Sunset Terrace neighborhood, killing 10 airmen. 

The B-24 was on a training flight, taking off from Chatham Army Airfield near Savannah, Georgia, and traveling to Grand Bahama Island and Key West. After an engine failed, the crew unsuccessfully tried to land at Naval Air Station Melbourne — the predecessor of Orlando Melbourne International Airport. 

A small historical marker commemorating the crash stands outside Melbourne Fire Station 71, facing Eau Gallie Boulevard.

Rick Neale is the South Brevard Watchdog Reporter at FLORIDA TODAY. Contact Neale at 321-242-3638 or rneale@floridatoday.com. Twitter: @RickNeale1. To subscribe: https://cm.floridatoday.com/specialoffer/

Read or Share this story: https://www.floridatoday.com/story/news/2020/06/19/wwii-bomber-crash-site-florida-wilderness-memorialized-77-years-later/3191149001/