On Feb. 16, Franklin County re-named its airport in honor of a dedicated aviator that helped to bridge the two eras.
The airport is now known as the Franklin County Apalachicola Regional Airport – Cleve Randolph Field in recognition of the significant role Randolph played in founding and developing the airport ever since the Army constructed the airfield as a training facility on the eve of World War II.
At the ceremony attended by about 200 people, inside the hangar of Garlick Environmental on the airport grounds, dignitaries paid tribute to Randolph’s work, outlined in the resolution passed unanimously by the county commission on Jan. 4.
“This is a great day, and one we have been waiting for for far too long,” said Ken Tucker, a World War II tail gunner who was a contemporary of Randolph’s. “He dedicated his life to the airport. You did a great deed when you dedicated this airport to him. It has great potential; keep in mind what you have here.”
Former Clerk of Courts Pal Rivers, a retired Navy aviator who earned his pilot’s wings together with Randolph when the two trained during the war at the Pensacola Naval Air Station, was given the honor of reading the resolution to the gathering.
The resolution summed up the life of a man dedicated from his youth, when he worked summers at the airport as it was being constructed, to the expanding field of aviation.
In an interview after the ceremony, Rivers told of how the young Randolph, while away at school in Cullman, Ala., had secretly used the money his parents sent him to take flying lessons, and then flew home one day to the astonishment of his parents.
Because he had prior military service as a cadet commander in a civilian role, Randolph entered the service as an aviation cadet, and after the war, returned to the county and later opened a flying school at the airport, where he lived with his wife Smiles, and their four children, in the abandoned Army barracks there.
Another of Randolph’s contemporaries, Bubba Gander, who also earned his naval aviator wings after the outbreak of the war in Corpus Christi, Texas, sat in the audience’s front row, and clapped appreciatively at the recounting of his friend’s exploits. Another military contemporary, retired Army Col. Harry Buzzett, who served as best man at the Randolphs’ wedding, was absent due to medical treatments he is receiving in Tampa.
The resolution went on to mention that Randolph taught more than 100 local people to fly at the airport. Among them, said Rivers afterwards, was Rivers’ wife of 61 years, the former Anna Laurie McLeod, who learned to fly from Randolph while her husband was at sea on duty assignments during his Navy career as an operations officer.
Randolph opened a seaplane landing base west of Apalachicola, which became a favorite of the late Homer Marks, a prominent businessman who loved to fly to Lake Wimico to hunt geese, Rivers said.
Randolph, who operated the flying school for almost three decades and was the first to open a round-the-clock fuel station and office, regularly flew patients to larger hospitals for medical services, reads the resolution.
Rivers, a native of Green Cove Springs, began his friendship with Randolph after the war, when he would visit his wife’s hometown. Among these trips were the times Rivers flew a Douglas DC-3, like the one on display at the airport Saturday, on cross-country trips out of his duty station overseeing a reserve squadron in Akron, Ohio. “We’d come down here and pick up a load of shrimp,” he said.
Apalachicola resident Bill Spohrer, a member of the International Air Cargo Association’s Hall of Fame, gazed lovingly after the ceremony at the cargo plane, similar to the three such aircraft his company, TAN Airlines, owned in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
That airplane, as well as the Curtiss P-40E Warhawk next to it, were flown down by the Liberty Foundation in honor of the occasion. Pilot Dan Brooks spoke at the ceremony, outlining the historic significance of the aircraft.
“The (P-40) was the most advanced fighter the Army Air Corps had,” he said, comparing it to the equivalent of today’s F-16 or F-22 jets.
With a 1,200-horsepower Allison V-12 engine, the P-40 flew combat missions out of Cole Bay in the Netherlands Antilles, before it was outclassed by the P-51 Mustang. “The military built over 12,000 of them and very few survive today,” he said. “Some guys dug it out of a dump in the ‘80s” and it was later restored by a Kissimmee businessman and is now on display by the Liberty Foundation.
The Douglas DC-3 on display was in the Normandy invasion, Brooks said, and was flown back to France for the 50th anniversary of that historic beach assault, the largest in human history. Later it would be used as part of the Greenland Expedition Society’s rescue of lost aircraft from nearly 270’ below the surface of the ice cap off Greenland.