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Historian tracks MacDill history to its roots

Growing up in Indiana, Denny Cole’s grandfather used to show him an album of pictures from back in the 1920s, when he was a member of the 6th Composite Group, a post-World War I military flying unit.

Little did Cole know at the time that his grandfather’s photo history would loop into his own future.

Fast forward to 2015.

Cole, now 59, is a retired Air Force master sergeant, who served at MacDill Air Force Base between 1974 and 1990, working on weapons systems for the F-4 Phanton IIs and F-16 Fighting Falcons when those jet fighters were based here.

An insatiable history buff, Cole knows perhaps as much as anyone about MacDill and spends so much time and money collecting memorabilia from the base that he wants to start a MacDill-themed museum. He runs the MacDill AFB/Field Facebook page dedicated to that history, posting stories, pictures and this-day-in-history snippets of what took place going back to the start.

“The base doesn’t really have a collection,” says Cole, who estimates he spends about 15 to 20 hours a week — including time with base historian William Polson over the past several years — pouring over records and sharing information. And a couple of thousands of dollars buying MacDill memorabilia.

I reached out to Cole last week after hearing about the two celebrations of MacDill’s 75th anniversary, but unfortunately did not hear back from him until after the story came out.

Cole says there really is only one 75th — which comes next year. The base, he says, was still under construction 75 years ago at this time. So air crews from the 29th Bomber Group — who were flying the B-17 Flying Fortresses — landed at what was a flat dirt airstrip owned by a farmer named John Drew, which eventually became Drew Field (now Tampa International Airport).

Cole bases his answer on what he found doing some nifty detective work, that goes back to his grandfather Jessie Snyder’s photo album.

In that album, which includes pictures of a visit by Charles Lindbergh, there was an aircraft with “Asp” written on it next to Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis.

That made Cole wonder.

So he did some research.

On a whim, he reached out to the Experimental Aircraft Association, in the faint hope that because the aircraft was custom built, the association might have some information about it. Initially, the folks at the association didn’t think they did, but after checking, they hit pay dirt. There was an article about the plane’s owner, laying out who he was and where he was from.

It turns out that the aircraft in question was built by a guy named Melvin Asp, who happened to be a basketball and baseball star at Hillsborough High School who graduated in 1913. And there was more information at the University of South Florida, which kept Asp’s papers

After high school, Asp went into what was then the Army Air Service, says Cole.

When the flying branch, later known as the Army Air Force, was looking to do an exercise in 1938, Asp used his connections to bring them to Tampa, says Cole, a move he says eventually led to the creation of MacDill.

But it took jumping a few hoops and maneuvering through the political landscape at the time, says Cole.

Robert E. Lee Chancey, Tampa’s mayor at the time, wasn’t hip on the idea of having a military base here, says Cole. But Asp, who had a lot of connections, talked to Jerry Waterman, then manager of the Maas Brothers department store, who also happened to be on the aviation committee.

Arms were twisted, says Cole, and Chancey ultimately embraced the idea of a military airfield here.

That airfield, which would be opened and dedicated on April 16, 1941 as MacDill Field in honor of World War I aviator Leslie MacDill, was under construction in April of 1940, so the B-17s landed on John Drew’s field.

Asp, a lieutenant colonel, would become the first commander of Drew Field when it finally became a military base in 1941, says Cole.

The importance of MacDill Field cannot be overstated from a military history standpoint, says Cole. A large number of crews from the storied 8th Air Force, which lost more than 26,000 men during World War II, trained there, says Cole.

Aside from being a history buff, Cole already has experience funding a museum. After retiring from the Air Force in 1994, he became president of Yesterday’s Air Force, a since-closed military aviation museum at St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport.

The museum had a couple of dozen military aircraft on display, says Cole, including old DC-3 propeller transport to an F-102 Delta Dagger jet fighter to a Phantom.

Most of those planes were provided on loan from the military, says Cole, because Yesterday’s Air Force was a Class C museum.

But there was one plane in particular that showcased Cole’s unique talent for hunting things down.

“There was a rumor of this thing out in the Everglades,” he says. “It was a real Robinson Crusoe thing.”

Cole says he got wind of a man out there who bought an old PB4Y, the Navy version of the B-24 bomber, which he turned into a house.

“He took it to Big Cypress Preserve,” says Cole, “put it on a stand and turned it into a house.”

Finding the plane after a bit of a search, Cole found a way to get it to the museum.

There’s one more bit of Cole’s past that looped into his future.

The 6th Composite Group that his grandfather belonged to eventually became the 6th Operations Group, which is now part of the 6th Air Mobility Wing.

And that’s the host unit of MacDill Air Force Base.

Fittingly, Cole says he would like to house his MacDill museum in the old photo lab on base.

But that’s a concept that hasn’t even been brought up with base officials, who say it is far too early to even comment about Cole’s concept.

In the meantime, Cole, like the folks at My MacDill, an organization kicked off by the Tampa Bay Defense Alliance to honor the base and raise awareness of the budgetary pressures facing the military, is looking for MacDill memorabilia. And he is also looking to talk to anyone interested in the museum concept.

He can be reached via email, [email protected] or via the MacDill AFB/Field Facebook page.

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Speaking of MacDill and the My MacDill campaign, the skies over Tampa will seem pretty retro next week.

Wednesday, the Texas Flying Legends B-25 Mitchell, followed by four T-6 Texas aircraft and four Russian Yak fighters, will be flying over MacDill in a “salute to veterans.” It leaves Lakeland at 8 a.m. and should be in viewing range of MacDill by 8:15 or 8:30 a.m., according to Sandy Bridges at Sun ‘N’ Fun International Fly-In & Expo. Engineered by the My MacDill campaign, the flyover is part of the 41st Annual Sun ‘n Fun expo, which takes place in Lakeland starting April 22 through April 26 in Lakeland.

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Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee, whose force includes a large number of veterans and service members, has been awarded the Patriotic Employment Award from the Department of Defense. The Patriot Award reflects the efforts made to support Citizen Warriors through their deployment. Hillsborough County Circuit Judge Greg Holder, a retired Air Force colonel, presented the award on behalf of the Department of Defense. Lauren Holley, a deputy with HCSO since 2009, nominated Gee and office. A major with the Florida Army National Guard since 2008, Holley was on active duty from 2004 to 2008 and says that HCSO has been very accommodating for her military obligations.

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The Pentagon announced the death of an airman last week in support of Operation Inherent Resolve.

Tech. Sgt. Anthony E. Salazar, 40, of Hermosa Beach, California, died April 13, at an air base in southwest Asia in a non-combat related incident. The incident is under investigation.

He was assigned to the 577th Expeditionary Prime Base Engineer Emergency Force Squadron, 1st Expeditionary Civil Engineer Group, U.S. Air Forces Central Command.

There have been four U.S. troop deaths in support of OIR and one in support of Operation Freedom’s Sentinel.

[email protected]

(813) 259-7629

Twitter: @haltman

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