Neptune memorial still stalled

Some 85 airmen stationed at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station lost their lives from 1948 to 1967 when P2V Neptune aircraft crashed into mountains in the middle of blizzards, experienced engine trouble hundreds of mile from safety, or were shot down over hostile territory.

Crews of the unique jet and prop-powered patrol airplane, which was the predecessor of the P-3s that are currently flying at the base, patrolled the Pacific from Alaska to Asia in search of submarines, sought out gun-running boats during the Vietnam War, dropped monitoring devices on the Ho Chi Minh trail, kept tabs on ice fields in the far north, followed marine traffic, and flew search and rescue over Korea.

Despite this history and sacrifice, the average person probably doesn’t known much about the airplane and the men who flew and worked with them, not even in a community that hosted them for 25 years. While there are memorials and displays in the Oak Harbor community honoring Prowlers, Intruders and Orions, there is nothing specific for the Neptunes.

“Our frustration is this community doesn’t seem to remember how key this aircraft was and how key the squadron was,” said Cpt. Dave Bowen, a retired Northwest Airlines pilot and a former P2V pilot in VP-2. “They just seemed to disappear.”

Bowen, retired Cmdr. Don Hanson and retired Master Chief Don Grove are members of a group that endeavors to change that, but they have been hindered by city bureaucracy.

The members of Whidbey Patrol Squadron Memorial Committee has been working to create a VP-2 memorial in Oak Harbor for more than four years. They raised money and came up with a design featuring a statue of a fallen airman and a three-piece granite wall featuring the names of men killed in P2V operations. They would like to place it in the city’s VFW Park Memorial Park on Pioneer Way.

The effort, however, has been stalled by the city’s Park Board for the last year as the board developed a policy for accepting gifts and memorials. A recent City Council action exempts the proposed memorial from a restrictive new policy, but it doesn’t clear away all the obstacles.

The matter finally came to a head at the Tuesday night City Council meeting, resulting in an angry exchange between the mayor and a city council member, followed by a 10-minute cooling off period and an apology.

Members of the City Council discussed and ultimately adopted a revision to the city’s new Parks Gifts and Memorials Catalog, which outlines the policy for accepting gifts. The revision basically bans any new memorials or tributes in city parks that are specific to any group or person, whether it’s firefighters, a former councilman or a Navy squadron. It also states memorials should be designed as a park amenity, like a waterfall, park bench or gazebo with a plaque on it.

“The City of Oak Harbor,” the policy states, “respects the desires of individuals to commemorate special events or the lives of loved ones; it also recognizes the desire of other community members who visit public places to not be burdened with a constant reminder of death.”

The policy states that specific military groups wishing to put up a memorial “are encouraged to look to other agencies, government or private property.”

Yet Councilman Paul Brewer wasn’t happy that the policy would essentially put the kibosh on the Patrol Squadron Memorial Committee’s plans for a memorial. He argued that this memorial should be “grandfathered in” since it was proposed before the new policy was envisioned.

He was also upset that the city has made the Patrol Squadron Memorial Committee wait so long for an answer. “Every delay means someone else has passed on...” he said. “If we wait and wait, eventually all the veterans are going to be gone.”

Another councilmember made a motion to accept the revision as written, but Brewer kept arguing that the P2V memorial should be exempt. Mayor Patty Cohen interrupted him, pointing out that he was repeating himself. Brewer became angry and said he had a right to speak. He made a motion, than changed it to an amendment to “honor the P-2” proposal, but Cohen shut him down.

“I’ll call a recess if you can’t control yourself,” she said. When Brewer wouldn’t be silenced, she pounded the gavel and called a recess. Brewer exclaimed that he had a right to make an amendment and they marched into a back room, closing the door behind them.

When the council returned, a more relaxed Brewer made his amendment without interruption. His amendment was that the new policy would not effect the P-2 application. It passed on a 4-2 vote, followed by the policy revision, which passed unanimously.

Brewer later apologized for becoming angry and Cohen thanked him.

Only Councilman Richard Davis spoke out against the amendment. “What we want to do is avoid a cascading series of amendments,” he said, pointing out that a proliferation of memorials and tributes would fill the open, green-space of parks, detracting from the ability to throw a Frisbee or other activities.

Also, there’s a concern about city staff’s ability to maintain a bunch of different memorials.

The passage of Brewer’s amendment, however, doesn’t guarantee that the P2V memorial will be allowed in a city park. The next step for the Whidbey Patrol Squadron Memorial Committee is to return, yet again, to the Park Board. The board members will make a recommendation on the proposal, which will be forwarded back to the City Council for a final decision.

Hanson said he and the other members plan to go to the Park Board at their meeting Monday, July 12. He said city staff originally told him the board members would discuss the proposed memorial at that meeting, but then that was changed.

Hank Nydam, city parks director, said the board members are now only going to discuss the review standards for the VFW Memorial Park. “It’s not our intention to vote on any specific projects,” he said.

That means the memorial proposal won’t likely return to the CIty Council for at least another two months.

According to Nydam, the reason that the decision on the P2V memorial has been delayed so long is because the Park Board wanted to develop a policy to guide the decisions. He said the Board received another proposal for a memorial at the park — a local man wants to commemorate his son who was killed in the war on terrorism — plus there were “other ideas floating around” about a year ago.

“With the combination of all these proposal coming in at one time,” he said, “we decided to step back and look at the whole picture.”

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