CLEARWATER — The two men stand under a knot of palm trees on Sand Key beach, their gaze trained on the horizon far offshore.
One man wears the uniform of a World War II pilot, his flight helmet resting on his right hip. His silent and still colleague to his left wears the uniform and cap of a U.S. Navy sailor, a pair of binoculars in his hands.
They are not home yet.
The soldiers — life-sized sculptures — represent members of the U.S. military who died during World War II. When the time is right, they and other concrete soldiers representing other military branches and other wars will be placed on the sandy bottom not far from Veterans Reef.
Two dozen of the military statues, which stand 6 feet tall, will be placed in a 100-foot circle around a 4-foot high memorial. The 5,830-pound monument in the center of the circle will feature five bronze emblems, each representing one of the U.S. armed forces — Air Force, Army, Marines, Navy, and Coast Guard.
The project, known as “Circle of Heroes”, is the brainchild of Heywood Mathews, a professor of oceanography who taught biology, ocean sciences, and scuba at St. Petersburg College for 49 years. Mathews has been a local booster for attracting scuba divers to Pinellas County, especially Clearwater and Dunedin waters, for decades.
Mathews has been involved in attempts at artificial reef building off Pinellas since the 1990s. The area around Veterans Reef — designed with five kinds of man-made structures — was a test spot to attract fish for anglers and divers, he said.
According to Mathews, the reef has evolved since he received a $277,000 grant from the Florida Boating Improvement Program to experiment with concrete and other materials to attract fish there in 1999. As the county’s artificial reef advisor, Mathews helped sink chunks of limestone, three steel barges with big holes for fish to hide in, a hundred hollow pyramids, as well as large concrete culverts and tetrahedrons.
At the height of his efforts, in 2000, he enlisted the help of the former Florida Military Aviation Museum in St. Petersburg and some demolition experts.
“I put an airplane down there on Veterans Reef, a Neptune Bomber,” Mathews said. “I shortened the wings and chained it to a barge and we floated it out there.”
The demolition team blew holes into the barge and sank it, sending the Lockheed P2V Neptune, donated by the museum, to the sandy bottom.
In October, just three months after the well-publicized sinking, divers discovered that the large bomber was gone, a victim of storm tide and underwater currents, Mathews and others involved in the project said at the time. A large chunk of the plane was found on the bottom some distance away from the sink site.
The memorial will be between 300 yards and a quarter mile to the southeast of the artificial fish habitats Mathews has sunk over the years at Veterans Reef.
Mathews considered other military items for the Circle of Heroes, including retired Army tanks, but realized the armored vehicles would rust and probably suffer the same fate as the aircraft.
“While the existing materials on Veterans Reef have proven to be very attractive to both anglers and divers, this new project is not designed to provide habitat for food or game fish,” Mathews said. “Having a reef designed especially for veterans would also be the first of its kind in the country and make Pinellas County a dive destination for the whole country and elsewhere.”
The college professor, whose nephew is former U.S. Rep. David Jolly, determined the concrete statues would be the best material to stand the underwater ravages of time. Jolly’s nonprofit website, brighterfutureflorida.org, is spearheading the fundraising for the memorial.
Pinellas County and other sources have provided $50,000, which went toward the purchase of the first four statues at $4,300 each. The money also paid for a barge and a tugboat to install the first dozen statues, each of which weighs 1,300 pounds, Mathews said. The rest of the $450,000 has yet to be raised.
“We hope to have the first 12 statues installed at the reef by April,” Mathews said, with Veterans Day the target date for the second dozen.
Mathews said each of the custom statues will be more expensive, costing as much as $20,000 each and take from two to three months to design and fabricate.
Mathews said veterans’ groups will help choose which statues will be created for the site.
“We’re even thinking of having specific people immortalized on the reef, like Army Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf,” Mathews said, referring to the man who led Operation Desert Storm, which forced the Iraqi Army from Kuwait in 1990.