What many call the “bunker” at the Brooksville – Tampa Bay Regional Airport (BKV) is getting an extensive facelift to commemorate Veterans of World War II (WWII), and in time for its 80th birthday in November. Commissioners unanimously approved the plan.
At the April 12, 2022 Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) meeting, Economic Director Valerie Pianta introduced Don Etchison a local pilot and tenant at BKV, who gave a thoughtful and thorough history of the gunnery backstop — the official name of the structure at the entrance that many thought was used for storage, perhaps of ammunition.
“The structure was used to set the airplanes up, tie them down and shoot into it. The Gunnery Bunker is really a target so they can dial in their guns so they were aimed properly,” Architect Ed Hoffman explained.
With the end result being a more beautiful and informative historical spot, “As well, it would commemorate the WW II Veterans on this anniversary,” Pianta said. The site will include a historic marker, and features detailing its significance to WWII and how it changed Brooksville and Hernando County.
Etchison has partnered with the Greater Hernando County Chamber of Commerce and has set up a 503(c) charitable organization to accept donations to fund the project. Other partners include the Hernando County Veterans Council and the Department of Parks and Recreation. Pianta expects other business and community organizations to join.
Etchison’s parents both served in aviation in WWII, driving his passion for planes. As a Doctoral student at the University of Miami, he worked in the anthropology department, fueling his love of history. He has also served on the Illinois Museum Board.
After 30 years of wondering what the structure was, Etchison read its history, which he found compelling. When the US had just entered WWII, Florida became the central location for aviation training, with BKV being one of 170 facilities in the state. Of Brooksville’s approximate 1000 residents, around 500 were soldiers.
“Those young men didn’t know that the fatality rate (in war) was close to 30 or 40 percent. A lot of the airmen didn’t come back. It really is a story of bravery and courageous action.”
He then gave an account by Elwood Webb who was working at the airport on July 20, 1944.
“(Webb) heard a tremendous explosion, and ran outside to see a silver leaf, actually one of the wings of the B-17 come fluttering down. Two B-17 bombers had collided about 10,000 feet over the airfield at Brooksville.”
Ten men perished in the accident, and eight were able to parachute to safety.
Charles Elisha, age 19 was one of the men killed. According to Webb’s account, he located Elisha’s identification bracelet and sent it to the fallen soldier’s family. In 1991, his brother Walter Elisha of Fort Mill, SC started a 10-year memorial donation of $5,000 annually to the Hernando County Library System. Walter died in 2017.
Hoffman is also a pilot who flies at BKV. He has drawn the conceptual plans pro-bono. The planned renovation will have room for three car spaces for visitors to pull over to visit the monument. Other features include sidewalks, seating, low perimeter rail, brick walkway and retaining wall, back wall décor with lighting, and a small commemorative monument. An official Historical Marker has already been approved. A B-17 propeller is also planned as a monument.