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Former Secretary of Defense, General (Ret) James Mattis to Lead a Commemorative Ceremony for WWII Pilots at McKee Botanical Garden

Vero Beach - Tuesday January 30, 2023: Vero Beach, One of the first and largest botanical gardens in Florida, McKee Jungle Gardens was famous for its lush native hammock, array of exotic wildlife and spectacular collection of orchids and waterlilies. The eighty-acre roadside attraction opened in 1932 and was the vision of Arthur McKee and Waldo Sexton, early land developers and conservationists in Vero Beach.

Following the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, a U.S. Naval Air Station was commissioned in Vero Beach. Mr. McKee, then the sole owner of McKee Jungle Gardens, wanted to contribute to the war effort and voluntarily closed McKee Jungle Gardens to the public so the dense jungle area could be used in cooperation with the navy in training of Naval pilots in jungle survival. In an article in the Vero Beach Press Journal, December 28, 1945, the unique contribution was described this way: “So many plants imported here during years past and now growing wild in the gardens are those which fliers would find if forced down in the South Pacific waters that the gardens proved of unmeasured importance and contributed much to the safety of these fliers of the naval air arm….”

Ed Lohman, a flight engineer, remembers going over to McKee Jungle Gardens for jungle survival training. He said, “They would send us over there with a canteen of water and a mosquito net – the town was terrible with mosquitoes back then.  They also got water from Traveler’s Palms, ate hearts of Cabbage Palms, supplemented with “coon”, possum, possibly lizard and rid the place of unwanted snakes, which were pretty good eating (if you were hungry).”

A fire in 1954 at McKee Jungle Gardens destroyed photographs and records of this significant historical period leaving oral historians to the storytelling. The history became murky until last May when a retired librarian, historian and genealogist with the Indian River County Library, Pam Cooper, recalled seeing documentation on the subject of McKee’s important contribution to the war effort. Said documentation was part of a trove of documents from the U.S. Naval Air Station at Vero Beach, which an alert citizen saw on eBay in 1999 and purchased for the Library. Eighty years later, with confirmation and new-found clarity, McKee Botanical Garden will honor the pilots who trained at McKee for the defense of our country.

Former Secretary of Defense, General (Ret) James Mattis will be in Vero Beach as a featured speaker at Riverside Theatre Distinguished Lecturer Series on Monday, February 6. When approached about leading this commemorative event at McKee Botanical Garden, General Mattis accepted without hesitation: “Anything to honor our troops.”

Peter Benedict, President of McKee Botanical Garden’s Board of Directors will welcome guests and acknowledge the distinguished participants in the commemoration to include: LTjg Scott McGaw commanding the Neptune Spear Division, U.S. Naval Sea Cadet Corps Color Guard, Stephanie Moore, Secretary and Community Liaison for the Vero Beach Pipes and Drums, whose father was the watch officer on the USS St. Louis, the only ship to make it out of Pearl Harbor December 7 and Pam Cooper, the retired librarian who presented documentation confirming McKee’s role in the war effort and whose father was the telegrapher on the USS St. Louis in 1945. Peter will then introduce General James Norman Mattis, retired United States Marine Corps four-star general who served as the 26th Secretary of Defense from 2017 to 2019. During his 44 years in the Marine Corps, he commanded forces in the Persian Gulf War, the War in Afghanistan, and the Iraq War.

A plaque, with the following inscription IN HONOR OF THE WORLD WAR II PILOTS BOUND FOR THE SOUTH PACIFIC WHO RECEIVED JUNGLE SURVIVAL TRAINING AT MCKEE JUNGLE GARDENS 1943 – 1945 will be placed on a rock at the former entrance of McKee Jungle Gardens. Shaded by a spectacular banyan tree, at the edge of a Koi Pond with quiet waterfalls, and surrounded by lush tropical plants, the recognition is acknowledgement of the memory and sacrifice the WWII pilots made in defense of our nation, and the small part McKee Jungle Gardens had in their preparation.

A reception with General Mattis will follow the dedication at the Garden Café. Invited guests for the dedication include McKee Botanical Garden’s Board of Directors, McKee’s staff, and volunteer Guides.