60 Years of Drug Trafficking at the Venice Municipal Airport

A new multi-part series highlighting current events in Venice Florida

An investigation into suspicious circumstances  surrounding the sale of the former Huffman Aviation has unearthed an explosive secret at the heart of an otherwise unremarkable aviation facility.

Almost since its inception, the specter of heroin trafficking has hung over the airfield which would later become the Venice Municipal Airport.

During World War II, when it was known as the Venice Army Air Field, it was home to the Stateside operations of a man widely and credibly accused of using proceeds from international heroin trafficking to prop up the war machine of a corrupt Chinese warlord whose army, even after its defeat, hung on to a lion's share of Southeast Asian real estate which became known as the Golden Triangle.

Contemporary newspaper clips from the time show that the Venice Airport has had an extraordinary six-decade long history, and been the scene of covert activities including gunrunning, international heroin and cocaine trafficking, and being used as a launch pad for coups in the Caribbean and Central America.

These activities required, available evidence will show, the regular and systematic corruption of officials in Venice and Sarasota County.

The recent infamous and still-painful history of the Venice Airport, home base for Mohamed Atta and his crew of terrorist hijackers, it turns out, is just the most recent in an extraordinary history of elite deviance, criminal mischief, and international intrigue.

In an ironic twist, without the FAA’s remarkable campaign of arm-twisting and bullying of hapless local officials to secure their approval of the new owners of what used to be Huffman Aviation, hand-picked by a federal receiver who a U. S. District Court Judge in Tampa had appointed to unravel the financial affairs of Art Nadel six days before Nadel had even turned himself in… we might never have sifted through decades of newspaper clippings, and the remarkable story of the Venice Municipal Airport, which is the very definition of America's secret history, might never have come to light.

Historical plaque build up

Since the early days of the Second World War, when it was still known as  Venice Army Air Field, the pattern of covert activity at the Venice Airport has remained remarkably consistent over six decades.    

Ironically, it was an attempt to continue to conceal the airport's original mission, an elaborate cover-up in 1992 seemingly designed to prevent the airport’s clandestine role from ever becoming public knowledge, which first piqued our interest in the story of the man whose operations shaped the Venice Airport's early history.

But the cover-up backfired, and became visible, where it remains to this day, in an unlikely location:

Directly across from the Venice Airport sits an historical plaque dedicated in a ceremony in 1992 to  commemorate the airport’s beginnings as a U.S. Army Air Base during World War II.

The Venice Airport, states the plaque, has its origins in the early days of WW2, when it was known as the “337th  Army Air Field Base.” 

However there is no such entity: there is not, and never has been, anything called the 337th Army Air Field Base.  At the inception of what became the Venice Airport, as is fairly widely known, it was known as theVenice Army Air Force Base.

So, what is going on?

An American Patriot… and heroin trafficker

The Venice Historical Archives  explains:

"The plaque commemorates the 337th Army Air Field Base and was erected by the Venice Aviation Society Inc. in October 1992."

The designation is meant as “a joke:”

"The plaque has numerous errors including referring to the Base as the 337th and the entire second sentence. The caricatured mosquito, symbolic of the striking power of the P-51 and of the bloodthirsty pests of the area, was designed by Capt. James H. Archibald as the ”official” insignia of the ”337th AAF Base Unit”, the VAAF’s permanent ”Party” outfit. Both the insignia and unit designation were intended as a joke!"

We've never heard of an official historical plaque “intended as a joke,”  and doubt anyone at the Venice Archives and Area Historical Collection has, either. 

Moreover the point of the "joke," and/or why it should be considered funny, remains unexplained.

But while there was no 337th Army Air Base, we have heard of the 337th, we seemed to remember dimly… There was a 337th Fighter Group.

The Shrine of the Empty Suit

At the Clearwater St. Petersburg International Airport, home of the infamous DC9 "Cocaine One" caught with 5.5 tons of cocaine aboard  in Mexico's Yucatan in 2007,  we first saw a shrine to an aviation outfit from World War II which used to train there:

The famous Flying Tigers.

They were first known as the American Volunteer Group, states an informational wall of photos on the second floor of the nearly empty airport.

They were a "band of American pilots who literally built a fighting air force from scratch to stop the Japanese from gobbling up all of Asia."

 One of their units, the wall indicates, is the 337th Fighter Group.

Was the 337th Army Air Field plaque in Venice some kind of cryptic reference to the Flying Tigers? 

Synonymous with the Flying Tigers is the name of General Claire Chennault. While he lived, Chennault was one of the most controversial American military figures in this nation's history. He was widely disliked by his peers, though not, it must be said, by those who flew for him. 

His military career, according to newspaper reports at the time,  was sidetracked by his superiors, who may have heard hints of things ordinary Americans would begin to hear whispers about only many decades later.

The Flying Tigers in Venice Florida

General Claire Chennault's Flying Tigers had a strong presence in Venice.

We found numerous references in local newspapers from the time indicating that the Venice Army Air Field training pilots for General Claire Chennault's  Flying Tigers and later for his 14th Air Force, which took over from the Flying Tigers when they were disbanded.

In fact, Venice seemed to specialize in Chinese flyers, even training an all-Chinese squadron for Chennault,supposedly at the express request of Madame Chiang Kai-Shek.  

Moreover one of Chennault's aces, Pappy Herb's, left China to became the Deputy Base Commander at the Venice Army Air Field.

According to American was correspondent Clyde Farnsworth, Chennault even created a composite Chinese and American Air Wing in which Chinese and American aviators "live together, work together, and enter combat together."

These aviators came together, received their training, and learned to fly at the Venice Airport. Chennault's presence in Venice is well-established.

So why are there so few references to the role played by the Venice Army Air Field in the CBI (China-Burma-India) Theater?

Old Soldiers Sometimes Lie

Let's take a look.

Claire Chennault, according to numerous reporters and credible news sources, was there at the start when the American military and intelligence services began their use of narcotics to fund their anti-communist endeavors.

Chennault helped Chinese warlord Chiang Kai-Shek  fund his civil war against the Communist Red Army through heroin trafficking, both during, and after World War II.

According to Joseph Trento in "The Secret History of the CIA:

"General Claire Chennault organizer of the Flying Tigers during World War II, was put in charge of Civil Air Transport as well as Taiwan's other air service while his wife Anna spent her time lobbying in Washington for more aid to help her husband's effort against the Communist Chinese."

"Chiang Kai-Shek's men, funded by the CIA, became the foot soldiers of Asia's drug armies… Hundreds of tons of opium and heroin… were carried on these CIA flights."

From Douglas Valentines "Strength of the Wolf: The Secret History of America's War on Drugs:"

"Despite the July 1949 seizure in Hong Kong reported by the New York Times of 22 pounds of heroin emanating from a CIA-supplied outpost in Kunming… the China Lobby launched a massive propaganda campaign based on the allegation by the head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics that the Red Chinese were the source of all the illicit dope reaching Japan."

"The China Lobby raised $5 million which the CIA used to purchase General Claire Chennault's fleet of planes and convert them into the CIA's first proprietary Air Force."

From Modern China: An Encyclopedia, by Ke-Wen Wang:

"No one could have foreseen that one legacy of the Flying Tigers would become Air America. Claire Chennault and the Flying Tigers symbolize the… failure of American foreign policy in the region."

From "Under the Influence" by Preston Peet:

"The practical effect of all of this was to turn Claire Chennault's Flying Tigers into flying dope peddlers.


"Think. It ain't illegal yet."

There are dozens of examples. A clear consensus of investigative reporters, authors, and scholars have reached the same conclusion…

Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.

But don't tell that to the Sarasota Herald Tribune.

It was clear that the plaque at the Venice Airport had not just made a bad joke, or a simple mistake. It wasintentionally misleading.

They have a word for the type of communication displayed on the historical plaque commemorating the Venice Army Air Field.  

That word is disinformation.

Seventy years after elements of the U.S. military connected with the “China Lobby” began a long flirtation with heroin trafficking, it still serves that purpose.

Moreover, its source, the Venice Aviation Society, was a belligerent (supporting the "Dark Side of the Force) during the recent war for control of the Venice Airport waged between elected city officials and the FAA.

The story of Claire Chennault proves that U.S. Major Generals can be excused if they have a second job as an  international drug kingpin… as long as they're anti-communist.

What makes the story of General Claire Chennault at the Venice Airport germane to the present situation? As we reported several weeks ago,  (and we'll have more about it later), the new owners of the former Huffman Aviation are in business with a private military contractor in Georgia who was involved in extraordinary renditions for the CIA.

Curiously, former Huffman owner Wally Hilliard was in business with the same man.

But then, recent owners of Huffman Aviation share a lot in common.

Just like prior owner Wally Hilliard (but even more inexplicably, since at least Hilliard was a pilot, even if a narcoleptic one), Art Nadel, for example, used substantial portions of his ill-gotten gains to purchase dozens of airplanes and aviation facilities…

One of America’s groundbreaking muckrakers,  author Upton Sinclair, once said "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his  not understanding it.”

Daniel Hopsicker

Daniel Hopsicker is an investigative journalist and the author of two books on transnational crime, Welcome to Terrorland and Barry & the Boys.

1 Response

  1. August 5, 2014

    […] overly-suspicious because of the  active disinformation—lies, really—we discovered embedded right in the damn historical plaque  out at the Venice Municipal Airport. It was supposed to be a joke, said the Venice Historical […]