The sounds of the radial engines of Grumman Avengers and Vought Corsairs have long faded from the Cape May County Airport, located in Erma, N.J., but the memory of the valiant aviators who flew them is kept alive at Naval Air Station Wildwood Aviation Museum.
In June 1997 the Naval Air Station Wildwood Foundation purchased the original air station’s Hangar #1 from the county. Under the foundation’s stewardship, the 92,000-square-foot, all wooden structure has undergone extensive restoration. Listed on the New Jersey Register of Historic Places and the National Register of Historic Places, it is the home of an aviation museum.
Welcome to 1943
With the advent of World War II, the U.S. military was looking for locations to train Navy aviators. And Cape May County, the southernmost county in the sate, was surrounded on three sides by water. It was a suitable place.
Naval Air Station Wildwood was commissioned on April 1, 1943. Its original name was Naval Air Station Rio “Grande. The name was changed to Wildwood because the station’s mail, telegram and telephone service often were confused with Rio Grande, Texas.
The air station served as an active dive-bomber squadron training facility from 1943 to 1945. Aircraft stationed at NAS Wildwood included Grumman TBM Avengers, Vought Corsairs, Douglas Dauntlesses, and Curtiss Helldivers.
More than 200 aircraft were stationed at Naval Air Station Wildwood during its heyday.
Navy airmen who trained at NAS Wildwood went on to fight in some of the decisive battles of World War II. During the peak of activity in 1944, more than 2,000 Navy and civilian personnel were stationed at NASW, as well as more than 200 aircraft.
More than 16,000 takeoffs and landings occurred per month. Forty-two known aviators perished while training at NASW between 1943 and 1945. NASW Foundation is dedicated to commemorating their ultimate sacrifice.
NAS Wildwood Aviation Museum now boasts more than 15 aircraft displays as well as exhibits of military memorabilia, engines, photographs and more. Many of the aircraft are on long-term loan from the U.S. Army or the National Museum of Naval Aviation.
Included in the aircraft collection is a Grumman TBM Avenger, of the type of aircraft flown by President George H.W. Bush in World War II, and built in Trenton, N.J. This Avenger is listed on the New Jersey Register of Historic Places and the National Register of Historic Places, a designation applicable to only seven other aircraft nationally.
Several aircraft are actual war veterans, including a Grumman F-14 Tomcat that saw action in the first Gulf War and three helicopters that comprised a “kill team” during the Vietnam War. This team includes a Hughes Cayuse OH-6, Bell Cobra AH-1 and Bell Huey UH-1M. All three of these helicopters were shot down and subsequently recovered and put back in service.
A hands-on experience
A unique feature of NAS Wildwood Aviation Museum is the ability of visitors to get up close and personal with the aircraft. Many aircraft are accessible to visitors, giving one the perspective of the brave aviators who flew in the aircraft.
The Franklin Institute of Philadelphia, Pa., has provided NAS Wildwood with a wealth of interactive exhibits that allow museum visitors to discover the science of flight. In addition, visitors may catch ongoing aircraft restoration work being conducted in the hangar by the dedicated museum volunteers.
Details for visitors
The museum, located at 500 Forrestal Road, is open year round. Hours vary slightly, by season. Admission is $6 for adults and $4 for children 3 to 12. Parking is free, and the lot can accommodate motorhomes of all sizes.
The museum has a food vending area (known as “gedunk” in Navy parlance) with a view of the runway as well as a recently expanded gift shop. Antino’s Cornerstone Café is located within walking distance of the museum, in the airport’s terminal building.
More Info: (609) 886-8787 or visit www.usnasw.org.
Settled in 1635, Cape May County is located along the “Atlantic Fly-Way” and attracts thousands of bird watchers during the annual spring and fall migration periods. Its pristine beaches and proximity to the casinos in Atlantic City attract many visitors.
For those interested in the history of the county, be sure to visit Historic Cold Spring Village, an Early American open-air living history museum located approximately two miles from the NAS Wildwood.
More than 20 campgrounds are located in the county and many are near NAS Wildwood. For campground information, go to www.newjerseycampgrounds.com.