Special to The Gardner News
The Navy Park is literally shipshape ready for Johnson County’s 24th Annual Veterans Day Observance.
And, Joe Cox of Overland Park hopes veterans of all wars, their friends and families, and Johnson County citizens will attend the celebration at 11 a.m. Thursday, Nov. 11. The public event will be a dual celebration
commemorating Veterans Day and marking the 60th anniversary of the small memorial park at the New Century AirCenter, the site of the former Olathe Naval Air Station at the northeast edge of Gardner.
“There’s lot of fond memories here,” Cox said. “There’s nothing greater than memories – good memories.”
The Navy Park, also called Naval Air Park, occupies about a dozen acres on a triangular section of land in the middle of the AirCenter. The site has two small ponds, three jets on display, and a monument with the names of 24 servicemen killed or missing in action.
Seated on a bench near an A-4 Skyhawk and two A-7 Corsair II jets (one with a single seat, the other a two-seater) that are permanently displayed on the western end of Navy Park, Cox spoke softly about his military career and the time he spent at the former military base that closed four decades ago.
A Kansas City native, Cox enlisted in the Navy a year after the attack on Pearl Harbor. He was 17, a junior in high school, serving the next year as a weekend warrior until he turned 18, making him eligible for active duty in 1943. After basic training, he was assigned to the USS Yorktown, serving18 months in the Pacific Theater, visiting Pearl Harbor five times, and once spending 121 days at sea.
Cox was transferred to the Olathe Naval Air Station in 1949.
He knows the Navy Park by heart and first hand. Cox was among the Navy enlisted men to attend the original dedication of the park on Dec. 8, 1950. The event featured then Capt. James Flatley, the eighth commanding officer at the military base and World War II hero, and the Kansas governor.
The memorial park was created to honor 16 Navy and Marine aviators who trained at the military base and were killed in the service of their county after completing their training and reassignment. Four were from Olathe.
Sixteen streets of the Olathe Naval Air Station also were named in their honor. After the base was closed 40 years ago, the signs eventually were relocated to Navy Park.
Time, however, took its toll on the signs, making some unreadable. A few signposts were missing. That fact caught the attention of Margaret Nichols, Olathe, who championed efforts to refurbish the Navy Park.
“The names are only repetitive of place names in other parts of Johnson County and have robbed us of the opportunity to honor the memory of 16 individuals who gave their lives to ensure the freedom that we enjoy to this day,” she said.
Her concerns were received loud and clear by Johnson County Government officials, including Sixth District Commissioner Calvin Hayden and the Johnson County Airport Commission. Over the past few weeks, all 16 signs have been replaced, and signposts and flagpoles repainted.
Cox and Nichols will present a special wreath at the Veterans Day ceremony to signal the rededication of Navy Park.
With his hair silver-streaked and mostly hidden under a blue veterans cap,Cox admitted he was humbled about being selected to place the rededication wreath.
“It’s quite an honor,” he said.
He also shared fond memories about his time at the Olathe Naval Air Station. During its heyday, the base, dubbed the Prairie Navy, was a beehive of activity after it was carved out of Johnson County farmland that was purchased for $72,343 in January 1942.
The complex, which was commissioned to house approximately 2,000 enlisted men and 100 officers, began training pilots by mid-1942. Stearman two-seater biplanes, which were used in the training, were painted yellow.
The planes were nicknamed “yellow perils” by the training pilots.
The military base eventually spanned about 2,000 acres with three runways, 14 secondary fields, and eventually 44 buildings; only ten remain.
“There were a lot of things happening. We had planes constantly. People were always coming and going, but they were always like family,” Cox said.
From July 1942, when the first cadets completed their training, to September 1944, the Olathe Naval Air Station trained nearly 4,550 cadets with a toll of 25 training fatalities.
John Glenn, future astronaut and U.S. senator, was in the first class to be trained at the base, making his first solo flight in a military plane. He described the airport as “a sea of mud and we made our way from building to building on wooden duck boards.”
Another notable Navy pilot who trained at the Olathe Naval Air Station was TV game show host Bob Barker.
Following the end of World War II, the mission of the base shifted to support Naval and Marine Air Reserve training programs in the Kansas City Region. In 1946, the station became responsible for the Naval Air Technical Training Unit to train reservists, air traffic controllers, and ground approach operators.
During the Korean War, three squadrons of Navy Reservists were called to active duty from the Olathe Naval Air Station. Scores of other military personnel were trained at the base. Another plaque at the Navy Park honors five men killed in that war along with three who remain missing in action.
The base played an integral part in Johnson County’s social life, including dances to Big Band music at Kinnick Hall, which also housed the first Olympic-sized pool west of the Mississippi, and numerous attractions, aerial demonstrations, and public air shows. An air show and carnival in 1954 featured both the Navy’s Blue Angels and the Air Force’s Thunderbirds in aerial maneuvers.
“It was bumper-to-bumper on 56 Highway. Some people ran out of gas while waiting in traffic,” he said. “It was quite an event.”
Cox remained at the Olathe Naval Air Station until 1960 when he was sent to Jackson, Fla. for five years. He returned to the Johnson County base in 1966 where he retired, ending his 24-year military career.
Three years after his retirement, the Navy announced the closure of the Olathe Naval Air Station in its efforts to reduce military spending. Spanning slightly more than 27 years, the base was officially decommissioned in mid-1970.
“There was a lot of heartache and pain,” Cox said about the closure. “It was like something important in our lives for so long was now missing and forever gone.”
The Johnson County Airport Commission acquired the site of the closed military base from the Navy in 1973 with the stipulation that the land be used as a public airport and naming the complex the Johnson County Industrial Airport. The name was changed to the New Century AirCenter in 1994.
In the years that followed closing the military base, Cox, along with a handful of others, saved artifacts, pictures, and other memorabilia from the Olathe Naval Air Station and operated a small museum at the AirCenter complex. Cox served as president of the museum from 1988 to 2004 when the facility, housed in one of the few remaining original wooden buildings of the bygone military base, was closed.
“It was a sad situation,” he said about shutting down the museum. “We had no volunteers to operate the museum, no money, and the building was falling down.”
Most of the museum’s materials were sent to the Combat Air Museum at Forbes Field in Topeka. Since then, many of the historic documents, papers, pictures, and military keepsakes, once only in storage at Topeka, have been returned for use at the Gardner Historic Museum.
Time and age also have taken their toll on many of the former Olathe Naval Air Station veterans and personnel who settled in Johnson County after their service days and careers ended.
Each year, a picnic in late June brings many of them back together with their families to share memories, stories, and comradeship. Years ago, the annual picnic attracted up to 200 people. This year, the attendance totaled about 35, including about 20 family members.
“They have all passed on,” Cox said about his military friends and peers. “I’m a survivor at 85.”
He stays active, working part-time at the Santa Fe Towers, a retirement complex in Overland Park where he has been employed since 1987. Prior to that, he was worked at the Coca-Cola plant in Lenexa for 18 years.
Cox also still remains head over heels in love with Pricilla Jane, his devoted wife of 60 years. The couple raised a son and a daughter. They have three grandchildren.
They met on a blind date arranged by his father and were married on Mother’s Day 1950.
“He made a good selection,” Cox said with a broad, easy smile. “It has been a great adventure.”