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SEYMOUR’S Freeman Army Air Field is far from dead and buried. Well, a good part of its history is not exactly dead but certainly qualifies as buried.
The airfield, now a civilian operation owned by the city of Seymour, was closed as an active military base shortly after World War II ended.
In one sense, part of the base was, indeed, buried in the closing operations. A trove of military equipment — much of it captured materials from the German and Japanese armed forces that were big enough to fill an estimated 42 warehouses — was consigned to the earth around the base.
As noted last week in a column about Freeman Field and its connection to the historical artifacts captured from Nazi Germany, some of those buried items have since been brought to the surface and are now exhibited at the Freeman Army Air Field Museum at the Seymour airport.
But they are only a small section of the parts, measured these days in tonnage, that have been unearthed in digs conducted at Freeman Field since the 1990s. They are still being conducted — and parts unearthed — by a small team of World War II buffs and volunteers from throughout the Midwest. A volunteer from Great Britain has even participated in the process.
Two of the key individuals in the dig are former Columbus residents.
David Gray, a Chicago resident who was born in Seymour but grew up in the Grandview Lake area, is the director of the Freeman Field Recovery Team that has been conducting operations at the old base for the past three years. He is working in coordination with another former Columbus resident, Rick Fish, a history professor at Utah Valley University, who has led teams of students to participate in the digs and catalog materials.
The Freeman Field Recovery Team is the latest in a number of groups that have been following up on what started as unconfirmed rumors that military officials had conducted clandestine missions in which enormous caches of captured enemy equipment were buried around the old base.
There was a bit of science fiction attached to the rumors, especially given the fact that a lot of the captured materials included items that were completely foreign to civilians. There were also tinges of romance associated with the rumors. Entire fuselages of planes were supposed to have been buried intact, some of them supposedly used by noted figures in history, like Herman Goering, second in command to Adolf Hitler in Nazi Germany. After all, Goering’s plane had once been put on display during an open house at Freeman Field.
It was only in 1995 that digs began, and it took several years for something to be found and the rumors confirmed ... somewhat.
“No complete fuselages have been found yet,” said Gray. “In fact, this all started when the original teams were trying to account for as many as 14 or 15 planes that had been unaccounted for when the base closed. Today, we’ve narrowed that list to two or three, and the materials we’re recovering are primarily parts.”
That would be because the material, while brought to Freeman Field from both the European and Pacific theaters intact, was disassembled for study by military experts. “They just never bothered to put them together again,” he said.
The team has unearthed some interesting pieces of history that added up to wonderful stories.
One historical footnote concerning Freeman Field history the team discovered was that the wife of the Freeman Field commander, a man named Col. Dorney, became the first woman to be a passenger on a jet plane.
“One of the fellows assigned to evaluating the captured equipment at Freeman Field was a test pilot named Harold Watson,” Gray said. “He had been testing a German ME-262 jet that was a two-seater. As a favor to Dorney, he gave him and his wife rides in the jet, the first time a woman had flown in a jet.”
The team came up with another piece of history in investigating the site where one of the German fighter planes had crashed during a testing period.
The team was aware of the location because of the crash investigation and quickly retrieved the parts. They turned out to be from a plane that was flown during the war by Josef Priller, one of the most prolific air aces in the German Luftwaffe. Priller had been credited with downing 101 planes, 68 of them Spitfires.
Gray and his team are in the third year of a contract with the city of Seymour. They’re still unearthing pieces of Freeman Field history and hope to have enough to put on display to keep the history alive for years to come.
Incidentally, the Freeman Field Air Museum has had a number of important benefactors over the years. Many of the photos and historical materials on display were made available to the museum through the website www.IndianaMilitary.org, which is supported and hosted by the U.S. Army and AmVets of Indiana. Its inventory of photos and documents is believed to be one of the largest military collections in Indiana.
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