By Allison Brown
Scottsdale Airport is fourth in the world for business aviation departures, often chosen as a base for leisure, too, due to its proximity to award-winning resorts, restaurants and championship golf courses. But what many don’t know is that the airport began in 1942 as Thunderbird Field II, with the sole purpose of training WWII Army Air Corp pilots.
“A lot of people never knew that this was a training ground for WWII and that’s how it actually originated,” says Nolan de Graaff, a board member of the Thunderbird Field II Veterans Memorial.
“I think it’s important to preserve that, because if you remove all those remembrances, you’ll never know how or where we’re going. It’s important, too, to have a place for veterans. They come from near and far to come here and … they sacrificed a lot for us.”
Thunderbird Field II graduated more than 5,500 students, making it one of the largest training facilities in the world, de Graaff says. The training facility peaked in November 1943, when there were 615 cadets flying an average of two hours a day. Overall, Thunderbird Field II pilots flew nearly 26.5 million miles. A little more than two years later, Thunderbird Field II was closed after the end of WWII.
The airport then had a number of owners, who continued to use it for flight training, until it was purchased by the city of Scottsdale in 1966 for a whopping price of $100.
The Thunderbird Field II Veterans Memorial is a nonprofit that was founded in 2014 to ensure the area’s history was not left behind.
“The intent of having a Thunderbird Field Veterans Memorial is to commemorate the rich history of this field,” says Stephen Ziomek, the memorial’s president and chairman and a veteran of the U.S. Coast Guard.
“It’s important to know the history here, because it’s people like all of these people, these veterans, it’s because of them that we’re able to talk like this and be free. It’s all about that.”
Ziomek was formerly a member of the Scottsdale Airport Advisory Commission and says during monthly meetings he heard frequent complaints about the noise. He thought if residents knew the history of the airport and its contribution to U.S. freedom, then maybe they wouldn’t be so quick to complain.
When a new Aviation Business Center was being built at the Scottsdale Airport in 2018, the organization was in the process of creating a memorial exhibit. Ziomek says the timing worked out perfectly for the Thunderbird Field Veterans Memorial to partner with the city of Scottsdale to create a memorial exhibit there.
The centerpiece of this exhibit is a vintage Boeing-Stearman PT-17, the exact aircraft used for training Thunderbird Field II, which is hung outside the business center. Ziomek says the plane was manufactured in 1941, and he has records of the plane dating back to 1960. Ziomek flew the antique, open-cockpit plane from its previous location in Arkansas to Scottsdale. The plane was flown a few more times for fundraisers before being retired in 2018 and permanently hung on display.
In the same outdoor courtyard, visitors can learn about various aspects of the aviation industry through two 55-inch touchscreen kiosks that have videos, articles and photo galleries. There is also a monument in honor of all who served and plaques for all of the military services as well as one for the POW/MIA.
Inside the business center is the Memorial Wing, which houses original pictures from the ’40s featuring pilots and aircraft and various memorabilia, most of which Ziomek says was donated by veterans or their families.
There is also a special tribute to WWII-era Capt. Jerry Yellin, who is known as the last fighter pilot. Ziomek says Yellin flew the last combat mission of WWII, which actually took place about three hours after Japan had surrendered. However, due to radio malfunctions, Yellin was unaware, hence the nickname.
Yellin trained at Thunderbird Field II and was invited back to see the memorial.
“When we had our first Veterans Day party, we invited him out and he was our guest,” Ziomek says. “I flew him in that Stearman airplane, which was neat because his first flight ever was in a Stearman identical to that at this exact airport in 1942. I got to give him his last ride ever; he passed three weeks later.”
Yellin’s uniform and hat were donated by the family to the Thunderbird Field II Memorial, where it remains on display, along with a photo of him in his last ride.
The Thunderbird Field II Veterans Memorial aims to do more than just preserve the past, though. It also offers scholarships.
“We provide six scholarships a year, two- to four-year schools and four- to two-year schools,” Ziomek says. “They have to be Arizona students going to Arizona colleges and enrolled in some sort of aviation program. We sponsor pilots, mechanics, aviation technicians, air traffic control, aircraft and airplane management, and airport management.”
In addition, the organization financially supports Dogs4Vets, an Arizona nonprofit that helps disabled veterans live a more productive life with the use of service animals. Ziomek says Thunderbird Field II Veterans Memorial organization wanted to be able to provide an actual service to veterans, in addition to the memorial. In researching ways to help, Ziomek says he discovered that there are roughly 95,000 veterans in Arizona and a third of them are disabled. Dogs4Vets provides lifetime service animal training and support for veterans.
To provide these services and maintain the memorial, the organization is always trying to raise money. De Graaff adds that 100% of proceeds go toward the scholarships, Dogs4Vets and preservation of the memorial — the board is completely volunteer-based and there is no payroll.
De Graaff says one of the organization’s biggest fundraisers is Swing Time at the airfield each Veterans Day. The event is a throwback to the ’40s, when Thunderbird Field II started, complete with a swing band, WWII memorabilia, Army Jeeps, bagpipers and costumes. The evening starts with champagne and hors d’oeuvres outside under the airplane, and moves upstairs for dinner, dancing and an auction. Marshall Trimble, a veteran, Arizonan, historian and author, will be a special guest at this year’s fundraiser. Tickets and sponsorships are available for purchase at the Thunderbird Field II website, tbird2.org.
“The main point of doing this (memorial) is to raise awareness. There’s a lot of people that just don’t even know this exists, and it’s a great way for veterans and people who are descendants of veterans, like myself, to share in the memories,” De Graaff says.
“Secondly, we raise money as an organization to do things like scholarships and supporting other veterans organizations. Our Swing Time event is a great way for us to bring the community together and raise money for our organization and the preservation of the memorial.”