In 1943, the U.S. Navy leased an airfield built in 1939 from Cape May County. The 900+ acres that had three runways was called NAS Rio Grande. NAS Rio Grande was activated on 1 April 1943. Due to the inability to get telegrams and mail, based on confusion with the more famous Texas town with the same name, two months later the base was recommissioned as Naval Air Station Wildwood. By the end of 1943, the base had completed the main facility, Hangar No. 1. From 1943-45, the base acted as a training facility for Helldivers and Avengers. Squadrons of these aircraft would hone their dive & torpedo bombing in the nearby Delaware Bay before they deployed overseas.
The war ended, and on December 1st 1947, NAS Wildwood was decommissioned and again became Cape May County Airport. Most of the facilities were sold off. Hangar No. 1 was used but eventually fell into disrepair and was completely abandoned from 1992-1997. Out of use for several years, Hangar No. 1 was purchased by Dr. Joseph E. Salvatore, M.D. and his wife with the intent of creating a museum that commemorated the men and women who served at NAS Wildwood during the 1943-45 era. It also would serve as a memorial to the 42 naval aviators who perished while training for war at NAS Wildwood.
Exhibit One: Hangar No. 1
It’s not often I say the most important museum piece is the piece that holds the museum. In this case it is. Hangar No. 1’s restoration was the primary objective of the Naval Air Station Wildwood Foundation, when it was purchased in 1997. The 92,000 square-foot wooden building was rotting and much of it was in serious disrepair. The telescoping doors wouldn’t open; there was a 50-foot by 100-foot hole in the roof, and most of the 4,440 windows were either cracked, boarded up, or even worse—non-existent. Eventually, under the guidance of Dr. Salvatore and the NASW Foundation, 1.4 million dollars were raised to repair the building. The building is now a working hangar as well as the museum. A portion of the hangar is leased to active aircraft. Currently, the hangar is having the main wooden support beams reinforced to continue its structural improvements. This, and another grant to make the facility ADA-(American with Disabilities Act) compliant, will open up the second floor to visitors. An accessible second floor will give the Museum the ability to display the officers’ quarters and ready rooms, and with the new elevator being added, the area will be open to everyone. Hangar No. 1 is on both the National Registry of Historic Places as well as the New Jersey Registry of Historic Places.
Exhibit Two: Something for everyone
The Museum has a diverse collection of aircraft and aviation memorabilia. Some of the aircraft represent those that flew at NAS Wildwood, and some do not. The Museum has a TBM-3E Avenger, which is now designated a National Historic Site, one of only seven currently in the United States. It was built in the General Motors factory in Trenton, New Jersey. Another TBM is being restored on the other side of the hangar to flight-worthiness. It has a storied history as a Fire Bomber. Other examples of aircraft that flew from NAS Wildwood are a PT-17 Kaydet and a Vultee SNV Valiant.
If you like helicopters, the Museum has a gaggle. There is an OH-47, of M*A*S*H fame, a Hiller TH-55 Osage, a Hunter Killer team of a OH-6, an AH-1S, and lastly, not one, but two UH-1s, a UH-1D, and a UH-1B Huey. All of the helicopters are open and you can climb right in.
If you feel the need the need for speed, the Museum’s second centerpiece is a F-14D Tomcat in VF-103 “Jolly Rogers.” It is escorted by a VMFT-401 “Snipers” F-5E Tiger II. The Museum also has a MiG-15, two T-33s, and an A-4B. The collection is growing, and during my recent visit, I was informed that an F-16 will be arriving shortly.
In all, there are 26 plus aircraft in Hanger No 1. There is a large section in tribute to the U.S. Coast Guard. USCG Cape May is one of the largest training bases for the Coasties, and is a short drive away. A Falcon Cockpit simulator, a Cessna 150 and a HH-52 SeaGuard from the Polar Star, an Icebreaker, surround the exhibit. Some of the other unique aircraft are a T-28C, a pair of Gyrocopters, and an OE-2 “Bird Dog.”
Hidden Jem: The home front!
The Museum is not just about airplanes. It tells the story of NAS Wildwood and the surrounding area during the 1943-45 period. The Museum has a slogan “Visit 1943!” As you walk into the Museum, you see exhibits about the music of the period. There are records and albums, and you can see how the music influenced the war fighters and the war influenced the music. In the “Ready Room” you can sit in 40’s vintage airliner chairs and watch a video.
Towards the back of the museum is a ready-room that has been transformed into an exhibit showing what Cape May County was like during that War Period. One wall has letters to and from the Sailors about what life was like at the base. A replica Coca Cola Soda Fountain is set up with Soda Machines “10 cents a bottle.” On the other side of the room a small, period home is recreated that starts with a door adorned with a Blue Star, showing someone from the household is serving overseas. Beyond that are the spinet, a RCA Victor Radio and other details like the old Frigidaire “Icebox.” You truly get a feel of the homes of the period.
The Museum is a work in progress. On our last visit, workers were generating sawdust, as they repaired the beams holding the old Hangar No. 1 together. It is a museum growing and changing for the better. Both my wife and I make regular visits. It is a children & family-friendly Museum, with many hands-on experiences. Also, it’s an active airport still, so the kids can watch the planes come and go.
Across the parking lot in the main terminal is the Flight Deck Diner. Good food, good prices, and lots of talk about airplanes—a great Airplane Geek way to start or end your visit. For the adults who want a beverage, check out the Cape May Brewing Company on the Airport grounds in one of the old base’s warehouses. On Saturdays, they give tastings and often have a barbeque for sandwiches in the back. It all makes for a fun day at the airport.
A visit to Naval Air Station Wildwood Aviation Museum is a great couple of hours, either as an escape from the beaches or as a destination visit.
Children (3-12): $8.00
Under 3: Free
Active Military (with ID): Free
The hours are:
April 1st through October 15th: Everyday, 9AM to 5PM
October 16th through November 30th Everyday, 9AM to 4PM
December 1st through March 31st Monday – Friday 9AM to 4PM Closed Saturdays & Sundays.
Closed Major Holidays