Monday, November 17, 2014

Monument in the Sky

November 10, 2014 © Thomas J. Kollenborn. All Rights Reserved.

Breaking ground for the original site for the monument on Apache Trail at Saguaro Drive in 1965 are (l-r) Albert Rather, Roy Hudson, Jack Weaver, and Harry Caldwalder.
An Air Force T-33 Jet plane at its new home on South Meridian Drive.
The Apache Junction area does not have many distinct monuments dedicated to the past. One monument, dedicated to Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America, lies some eight miles east of Apache Junction on Highway 60. This particular monument was erected in 1943. 

Another local monument is the Dutchman Monument,  dedicated to Jacob Waltz and the Dutchman’s Lost Mine in April of 1938 by the Phoenix Don’s Club. It was built to commemorate the history of the prospector, burro, and Superstition Mountain. This monument is located at the intersection of the Old West Highway (old Highway 60) and the Apache Trail in Apache Junction.

Another monument in Apache Junction is the Veteran Memorial Park and Gazebo at Idaho Road and Superstition Blvd.

There is another monument in Apache Junction, far more significant in many respects because of its longevity in our community. This monument is dedicated to the men and women of the armed forces who served their country in peace and war, and has stood by the American Legion Post 27 since 1965. It was the very familiar T-33 jet trainer setting atop a steel tower on Apache Trail at Saguaro Drive until the year 2000. The American Legion Post moved to its new location on South Meridian Drive, and the monument was moved as well. This column is to recognize the effort and dedication that went into the construction of this community icon.

Apache Junction is a melting pot and new residents often become involved in a variety of community activities. This was true of a man named Ken Gardiner, an American Legionnaire who thought that Apache Junction’s American Legion Post could acquire an Air Force T-33 jet trainer and install it on a steel post beside the American Legion.

Gardiner believed such an addition to Post 27 would bring attention to the men and women who served in the armed forces. The Legion committee responsible for the request of the aircraft and its installation was headed by Gardiner. Other members included Al Kennedy, Glen “Hap” Hawkins, Harry Cadwalder, Roy Kelchner, Joe Yanson and Roy Hudson.

Roy Hudson was the post commander at the time. He later became the first mayor of Apache Junction. He also later served as our State Representative and for eight years was our Pinal County Supervisor. Hudson, like many other Apache Junction Legionnaires, dedicated much of their lives to their community.

The project got started late in 1964 when a request for a surplus T-33 was forwarded to the officials of the Air Force Logistics Command headquarters at Wright-Patterson AFB in Ohio. A T-33 slated for retirement was located and flown here from March AFB, California in June 1965.

Air Force personnel of the 3525th Field Maintenance Squadron at Williams AFB demilitarized the aircraft for the American Legion Post, and the men of the squadron volunteered to take the jet to a final resting place atop a steel tower on Apache Trail.

Under the direction of SMSgt. John Hancharik, a group of the field maintenance men loaded the plane on a tractor-trailer before dawn and proceeded toward Apache Junction from Williams AFB. The trip took two hours over a pre-planned route. The convoy was led by a legionnaire’s truck with a large sign reading, “Slow – Airplane Following.” The convoy was also escorted by two Pinal County Sheriff’s cars.

When the convoy arrived at the post, a large mobile crane was waiting to hoist the jet to the top of the steel tower where airmen bolted it into place. After the installation was completed the legionnaire committee of Post 27 was really proud of their achievement.

The T-33 jet trainer served the American Legion as important community icon for thirty years before it was moved in 2000.

On December 31, 1999 American Legion Post 27 moved to their new home on South Meridian Road.  Now the T-33 would be moved again.

Bud Hansing, a past Commander of Post 27, had chaired the building committee for the new American Legion Post 27, and also chaired the committee to move the airplane from its original home on Apache Trail to its new home on Meridian.

The moving of the aircraft was a genuine community effort supported by the veterans of American Legion Post 27 and the entire community of Apache Junction. Without the community support the moving of the plane would have been impossible.

For five decades the monument has honored the men and women of Post 27 who served their country. It is a constant reminder of those who sacrificed so much for the freedom we enjoy today. The plane is a very noticeable and noted landmark in Apache Junction, and has called attention to the community work of the American Legionnaires of Post 27. 

If you haven’t driven down Meridian south from Broadway and looked at the old plane... you should. This monument represents a very important part of our local history and expresses what a group of determined individuals can accomplish; not once, but twice.

We would like to remind you that Veteran’s Day was set aside to honor those who paid the ultimate price and can’t be here for the freedom we enjoy today in America. Our nation’s greatest resource is our young people who serve in the armed forces of the United States today insuring our freedom will bepreserved.

Take a moment and say thanks to a veteran this Veterans Day.

Editor’s note: Tom Kollenborn is a veteran of the U.S. Air Force.