Clay Memories 8/29/19

Mary Jo McTammany
Posted 8/28/19

Clay Memories

Cutline: In 1941, the Navy’s auxiliary air field in Green Cove Springs was dedicated and named in honor of Ensign Benjamin Lee. Lee was one of the first naval aviators and a …

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Clay Memories 8/29/19

Posted

Clay Memories

Cutline: In 1941, the Navy’s auxiliary air field in Green Cove Springs was dedicated and named in honor of Ensign Benjamin Lee. Lee was one of the first naval aviators and a posthumous recipient of the Navy Cross during World War I.

Family of World War I hero had special ties to Clay County

On March 12, 1941, a reserved group of military and civilian dignitaries gathered to officially dedicate NAS Jacksonville’s newly completed auxiliary airfield at Green Cove Springs.

It was a windy, bitingly cold day and the ritual was brief but touching with the usual pomp and dignity that the military brings to any ceremony. They were gathered to both name the facility and honor a young naval hero, Ensign Benjamin Lee, who at age 23 gave his life in the service of his country.

Standing in that distinguished company was a woman who was there to honor both a hero and her son. Mary Justice Lee Chase gave birth to Benjamin at home in an affluent Philadelphia neighborhood on Nov. 4, 1894.

Ben and his two brothers were just boys when their father was killed in an accident and their mother later married Joshua Coffin Chase. Chase and his brother formed the highly successful Chase and Company and revived the citrus industry in Central Florida.

The family settled in Jacksonville in 1904 and built a grand home in the section of Riverside known as “Millionaires Row.”

Meanwhile, Ben attended his father’s alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania, became a third generation Sigma Chi and edited the school newspaper. He graduated with a degree in economics and business administration and seemed destined for a place in the family business.

But that was not to be. Young Ben enlisted in the Navy less than a month after the United States Congress declared war on Germany in April 1917 and began training as a naval aviator.

Ben was stationed in Killingholme, England, piloting a sea plane and protecting allied ships from enemy planes and submarines in the North Sea and the English Channel.

Word was received of an advancing German fleet intent on a last ditch effort to attack ships of the Royal Navy. Ensign Lee flew the 1st pilot’s seat in the lead plane of the trio of sea planes that took off that day. As he banked to move into the lead position, the plane floundered, crashed into the Humber River, and the fully fueled gas tanks erupted in flames. Twenty-three-year-old Benjamin Lee’s body was never recovered. The Navy Cross for Valor was awarded posthumously.

In their grief, Mary and Joshua Chase sought a change of pace and moved to Winter Park to be closer to his business but kept close ties with long-time friends John and Karrie Ferguson in Orange Park and others in Jacksonville.

Those friends helped influence the Navy’s decision to honor Benjamin’s memory and many joined Mary Chase at the assembly on that cold March day. So, many in the crowd were remembering a hero but others were also remembering a boy, a young man and what might have been.

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