Aviation enthusiasts, history buffs, students, and local dignitaries gathered outside a modest hangar at Brooksville-Tampa Bay Regional Airport on September 30th to mark the 80th anniversary of a tragic aviation accident that still haunts the airport’s history.
The event was sponsored by the local Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) chapter and was dedicated to remembering the eleven crewmen of a B-17 bomber who lost their lives in a crash near the field on October 3, 1943. This commemoration was the result of extensive research conducted by EAA member Don Etchison, who delved into the airport’s early years when it was known as Brooksville Army Airfield.
This ceremony was a first of its kind at the airfield, shedding light on a chapter of history that seemed to have been forgotten. The event commenced with a Color Guard from Central High School Navy JROTC presenting the national colors while an ensemble known as “The Flying Musicians” played the National Anthem. Several speakers, including Don Etchison, shared insights about the airport’s history, standing against a backdrop of World War II aircraft and a massive American flag.
Don Etchison’s address to the crowd was passionate and moving as he recounted how his research had taken him deep into the history of young US Army Air Corps trainees beginning their journey to World War II with training in Brooksville. Etchison emphasized the challenges of those times, stating, “No one knows what went on here. Young men from all over the country came here for training when an unprepared country was rushing to prepare for war.” He noted that Brooksville Army Airfield was hastily constructed as a bomber training base in January 1942, just one month after the devastating attack on Pearl Harbor. “America was in no way prepared to fight a war,” he explained. “Training was being rapidly thrown together for thousands of pilots, just as thousands of aircraft were being mass-produced as fast as factories could make them. That haste led to a lot of mistakes in both training and hardware, which ultimately cost some trainees their lives.”
Etchison underlined the perils of training flights, which he said were often as dangerous as actual wartime missions. Nationally, around 16,000 troops lost their lives during training, and tragically, thirty-three of them met their fate at Brooksville. “The people who had a loved one killed here have never forgotten Brooksville, Florida,” Etchison said.
Etchison recounted the events of the early morning of October 3rd, 1943, when twenty-eight-year-old pilot Herman Keppen of Pennsylvania assembled his crew for a routine training flight in a B-17 bomber. Tragically, one of the engines failed shortly after takeoff, leading to a desperate attempt to return to the runway. After several maneuvers, the aircraft crashed near what is now the Spring Hill Target store, claiming the lives of Keppen and his entire crew. This disaster marked the worst aviation accident in the airfield’s history, a record that still stands.
Following Etchison’s riveting remarks, Navy Veteran and County Commissioner Brian Hawkins expressed gratitude to the JROTC Cadets from Springstead and Central High Schools who were in attendance. Hawkins drew a poignant parallel between the feelings following the Pearl Harbor attack on December 7th, 1941, and the emotions subsequent generations experienced after the attacks on September 11th, 2001.
In a particularly moving moment, as Robert Schwindt played “Taps” in the distance, local pilot William Smith solemnly read the names of each member of Keppen’s crew. The ceremony was concluded with a heartfelt prayer by Pastor Paul Castelli of Cross Point Church, paying tribute to those who had been lost.
The ceremony was just the beginning for aviator turned historian Don Etchison. Etchison has made it his mission to keep the extraordinary history of the Brooksville Regional Airport alive in the hearts and minds of Florida’s citizens and visitors. With the help of numerous community businesses and volunteers, planning for Etchison’s next project, building a permanent historical site at the airport, is already underway. Watch the Hernando Sun for more details on this project as it develops.