Personnel from Naval Air Station (NAS) Jacksonville’s Environmental Department and gunners mates from Navy Munitions Command (NMC) Atlantic Fleet Detachment Jacksonville went out looking for a gopher tortoise on base March 14, but found something entirely different.
They found part of a tail wing from a crashed World War II-era Vought F4U Corsair fighter plane.
Corsairs were stationed aboard NAS Jacksonville from 1943 to 1954 according to Ron Williamson, safety manager for NAS Jacksonville and unofficial base historian.
“Corsairs were used by 15 base squadrons,” he said. “Fleet Readiness Center Southeast worked on 2,872 Corsairs over a ten-year period.”
Williamson estimates that there have been as many as 100 plane crashes on NAS Jacksonville over the years.
“A few planes from that era may have crashed in our compound,” said NMC’s GM1 Ryan Stewart. “We were very surprised to find it.”
The wing was found in the weapons area on the southern part of the base.
The Corsair was used as a carrier-based aircraft, but it came to be known more as a land-based plane flown by the U.S. Marines in the Pacific, including the famous “Black Sheep” Squadron (VMF-214) led by Maj. Gregory “Pappy” Boyington.
“The Japanese called the Corsair “Whistling Death” because of the unique sound made by the shape of the plane’s wings,” Williamson said.
The section of wing is now on display in the Stearman Building in Heritage Park.
As for the gopher tortoise they were looking for in the first place, they found him also.
It is one of two tortoises that Environmental has been following with a tracking device.
“We had been tracking him, but we lost the signal just before Hurricane Irma,” said Angela Glass, natural and cultural resourses manager for NAS Jax. “We realized he had moved, because his burrow flooded.”
Environmental is tracking the gopher tortoises because they are a protected in Florida where they are listed as a threatened species.
“We figured he would go into weapons because there is good habitat for him,” Glass said. “He made a great new burrow.”