By CHELSEA DAVIS Courier staff writer
---- — OTTUMWA — While the changes may not be evident, work on a museum dedicated to Ottumwa's former naval air station is still under way.
Stephen Black and Friends of NAS Ottumwa's board members have devoted countless hours to rehabilitating the former administration building. The roof was recently reshingled, and the next project will be to remove and rebuild the crumbling concrete steps leading up to the entryway's doors and windows, which also need to be replaced.
"And we continue to clean, which is our big project," Black said of the two-story, 23,000-square-foot building. "It doesn't have a lot of visibility and isn't going to for awhile."
The naval air base itself closed in 1947, though military was still active until the 1980s, when the administration building was used for urban assault training, scattering debris throughout the building and leaving holes in the walls and roof.
Since then, the building sat empty and fell into disrepair until Black and a crew of volunteers decided a couple years ago that it needed to be salvaged. Despite the damage and its ragged appearance, engineering consultants found that the building was structurally secure.
Today, Friends of NAS Ottumwa, a nonprofit organization, travels across the state to spread word of their mission to restore the building and convert it into a museum.
At this fall's Antique Airplane Association and Air Power Museum fly-in over Labor Day weekend, pilots will celebrate the "Diamond Jubilee," or 60th anniversary, of the AAA with a with a special air mail flight.
Temporary "air mail field stations" will be set up at the antique airfield and Ottumwa and Oskaloosa airports, where pilots will fly in with souvenir postal covers.
"Some of the aircraft originally stationed here will be back for the event," Black said.
The Oskaloosa airport is included because cadets used to practice take-offs and landings on concrete that formed a square around a section of grass, but when the base closed, two of the four sides of the concrete square were extended, becoming the Oskaloosa airport.
And Black continues to collect stories of those who served or worked at the NAS Ottumwa base. Recently, he visited Scott Carpenter, 88, in Tucson, Ariz., who was stationed in Ottumwa before he became the fourth man to fly in space. Carpenter was part of the team Project Mercury astronauts who went into orbit around the earth in April 1959.
"I told him that any of the guys who came through here were only students for a few months, but he stopped me, he interrupted me and said that this [NAS Ottumwa] was important to him," Black said. "His journey into space started here."
The problem he keeps encountering, though, is that many who were stationed at the Ottumwa base have since died. But Waterloo's Sullivan Brothers Iowa Veterans Museum and Johnston's Iowa Gold Star Museum have offered to help him with audio and visual recordings of the approximately 100 people he's talked to so far.
"Whether they were stationed here in the military, worked here, helped build it or are a family member, we want to talk to them," he said.
The organization has set a maximum time frame for completion of 10 years, though the board wants to open the doors in five years. The building is now also on the National Register of Historic Places thanks to help from local historian Molly Naumann.
For more information, go to www.nasottumwa.org.
— To follow reporter Chelsea Davis on Twitter, head to @ChelseaLeeDavis.