By: Heather Salazar
While the name, Wings of Freedom Aviation Museum, has a relatively short history, the beginnings of displaying aircraft at Willow Grove began shortly after World War II. In May 1946, LCdr. David Ascher arrived at NAS Willow Grove as the station’s first Aircraft Maintenance Officer. A few months later, a local high school acquired a P-40E “Kittyhawk” from the Army Air Force but after deciding they did not want to keep it, they turned it over to the Navy. Ascher led the movement to modify the aircraft and change the markings to a “Flying Tiger,” thus becoming the first aircraft displayed at Willow Grove.
With a large public response, Ascher decided to pursue acquiring additional aircrafts. A former shipmate of Ascher’s, Navy Cdr. John Schwirtz, informed him that two Japanese seaplanes were removed from the captured German battle cruiser, Prinz-Eugen, in Philadelphia. Along with some of his personnel, Ascher went to NAF Philadelphia and picked up the seaplanes returning them to Willow Grove. The seaplane, a German Arado, became the second aircraft displayed in early 1947.
Ascher then heard about several captured Axis aircraft scheduled to be scrapped at NAS Patuxent River, Maryland after they underwent evaluations. Seeing the potential for something great with these aircraft, Ascher along with the base’s training officer LCdr Hass, flew to Patuxent River in spring 1947. Together they chose several unique enemy aircraft flown during World War II and gained approval for their return to Naval Air Station (NAS) Willow Grove. First, barged to the NAF Philadelphia, Ascher’s selections then had their wings removed for transport to NAS Willow Grove. These unique aircraft then made their way along the narrow roads north twenty-five miles under local police escort to NAS Willow Grove for display. Reassembled and repainted with their original markings, the aircraft were placed on display for the public to see.
LCdr Ascher remained at NAS Willow Grove until 1952 when he was transferred to the Naval Reserve Air Station at Niagara Falls Airport, NY. Ascher passed away in 2006 at the age of 94 but his acquisition of several aircraft and his dedication to preserving them began Willow Grove’s long history of displaying military aircraft for the public to view.