Gardner chamber gets private tour of CAF military museum

Lynne Hermansen
Gardner News

Hangar 3 at New Century Airport used to be home to the Olathe Naval Air Station.

On Wednesday, the Gardner Chamber of Commerce held its chamber coffee networking event at Hangar 3, which is now home to the Commemorative Air Force Heart of America Wing.

Formed 25 years ago, the CAF was established to restore and maintain the military history of the area. The Olathe Naval Air Station was commissioned in 1942 as a primary training facility for U.S. naval pilots.

Bob Robinson, member and operations officer, said when they took over the hangar it was bare bones.

“Our membership took a pile of steel and aluminum and molded all these beams together, strung all the installation and put this thing together,” he said.

Robinson said they hired out the work for other utilities and amenities to enhance the four walls and one bathroom. Today it has a second floor that houses their museum and four bathrooms.

Robinson said the amenities have helped boost their membership.

“Keeping history alive is our goal,” he said. “‘Lest we forget’ is the motto.”

Robinson shared the history of the hangar starting from its roots as the Olathe Naval Air Station. In 1942, pilots were trained for combat in World War II and the Korean War. The air station occupied 640 acres when construction began. The land was purchased for $72,343, with an initial development cost at $13 million. This would be about $289 million today. The station began with 2,000 enlisted men and 100 officers and eventually expanded to 2,000 acres, three runways, 14 secondary fields and 44 buildings.

John Glen, an astronaut and former U.S. Senator famously known for being the third American in space and the first to orbit the earth in 1962, was part of the first class of pilots trained at the base. He would make his first solo flight in a military plane at the Olathe Naval Air Station. T.V. game-show host Bob Barker was also trained as a navy fighter pilot at the station.

The Johnson County Airport Commission formed and purchased the Olathe Airport for $1 in 1967. It would be renamed the Johnson County Executive Airport, then the Johnson County Industrial Airport in 1973 and then New Century AirCenter in 1995.

Robinson said some of the original artwork was designed by Walt Disney.

The museum, he said, is their way of not only preserving history, but honoring the men and women in combat 75 to 80 years ago.

“When you see the (Honor Flight) flag T-shirts they give the veterans they say, ‘If you can read this thank a teacher, if you can read this in English, thank a veteran,’” he said. “This is kind of why we are here.”

Robinson said anyone who cares about preserving the area’s military history can be a member even if they are not a veteran.

“It is just people liking the thought of keeping history alive,” he said. “We want the younger generations to know that cliche of ‘Freedom isn’t free.’ It is no joke.”