NEW IBERIA, La. --- From 1960 to 1964, the sky above New Iberia was filled with fledgling Navy pilots in training, all based at the New Iberia Naval Air Station (NAAS). Four of these former Navy men are planning "Navy Air and Cajun Fare," a 50-year reunion of former support personnel, instructors and student pilots who served at the base.
Event planners Bud Forrest, Dick Spears, Paul Fair and David Degroat expect more than 200 attendees on Oct. 11 - 13, 2013 at the Ramada Conference Center in New Iberia.
"Our reunion will be held the same weekend as New Iberia's World Championship Gumbo Cook-off, and will include a get together at the old hangar, visits to local attractions, golf at a Robert Trent Jones layout, more varieties of Cajun food and gumbo than you can imagine, plus several opportunities to renew old friendships and retell old sea stories," Forrest said.
The planners wanted people associated with the base to experience the gumbo cook-off, which did not exist back in the 1960s, Forrest said. He added that the reunion received tremendous support from the community, including the Greater Iberia Chamber of Commerce and the Iberia Parish Convention and Visitors Bureau.
"These planners were exceptional to work with," said Fran Thibodeaux, IPCVB's executive director. "They started planning early, were very creative in attracting people to the reunion, and very wisely sought out local community resources to assist them like the chamber, our office and others in the community."
Chamber President/Chief Executive Officer Janet Faulk said she was thrilled to hear the reunion was scheduled on gumbo weekend. "The World Championship Gumbo Committee immediately went to work at recognizing that reunion and the engagement of all our military forces in the theme and design of this year's event," she said. "It has been interesting to learn more about the impact of the NAAS on our parish. The organizing team has been a pleasure to work with."
The chamber chose the patriotic theme "Red, White and Roux" for the cook-off to honor the reunion (see bottom picture). The Iberia Medical Center gumbo team also plans on wearing t-shirts with the reunion's logo, Forrest said. Designed by Sharon Whitcomb Arthur, the wife of former NAAS student pilot J.R. Arthur, the caricature features a "retired" plane, complete with cane, glasses and dentures (see top picture).
The 1,000 pilots who trained at NAAS learned to fly these airplanes to find, track down and destroy Russian submarine fleets. "The Navy designated these planes 'S2F'," Spears said. "The manufacturer, Grumman Aircraft, called them 'trackers.' The pilots called them 'stoofs,' which is a corruption of the Navy designation."
The planes carried bombs, torpedoes and nuclear weapons, recalled Forrest, who earned his wings at the base before becoming a flight instructor. Forrest has fond memories of that time: "We worked hard and we played hard," he said. Like about 20 other young pilots, Forrest, a native of Minnesota, met his wife while training in New Iberia.
The reunion is the "last chance" for those who left New Iberia to return from as far away as California and Rhode Island, and catch up with their former students, instructors and co-workers over a cup of gumbo.
"These people really enjoyed their time in New Iberia," Forrest said. "Our theme is a reunion of people who thought fondly of New Iberia and are anxious to come back and enjoy it again."
For more information, contact Dick Spears, 337-288-2326 or Bud Forrest 337-380-2288.