KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany -- They gave him his first stick of chewing gum and were the reason he learned his first English phrase, around the age of 5: “How do you do?”
“The American soldiers, they were very, very kind to the German kids,” said Hans Becker, 61.
It was the early 1950s, the height of the Cold War, when U.S. troops began pouring into the area of Germany surrounding what is now Ramstein Air Base.
Since then, the Americans and the Germans in the surrounding communities have become integrally linked, not only through the employment the Americans offer nearly 7,000 German nationals and the hundreds of millions of dollars that flow into the local economy annually, but also in shared memories and gestures of friendship.
On Friday, the U.S. Air Force and the surrounding communities will celebrate the 60th anniversary of the U.S. Air Force presence in the rural southwestern state of Rhineland-Pfalz.
While both the Germans and Americans are marking the occasion with a tribute to the past, both say they are looking forward to a robust future. U.S. and German officials say they’re confident the U.S. military will continue to maintain a strong presence around Ramstein, despite plans to reduce the Pentagon’s presence in Europe, including the elimination of two Army heavy brigades from Germany and the expected closure by 2015 of Bamberg and Schweinfurt Army bases.
In the 1950s, U.S. Air Forces in Europe had more than 23,000 assigned positions in Rhineland-Pfalz. Today, that number has dropped to 14,000, according to USAFE officials.
Still, the Kaiserslautern area hosts the largest U.S. military community overseas, with about 50,000 Americans. How many troops will remain in Rhineland-Pfalz and what their mission will be is not yet known.
Rear Adm. Mark Montgomery, deputy director of plans, policy and strategy at U.S. European Command, said Tuesday during a conference on the U.S. future in Europe that USAFE “is very important.”
“Certainly, USAFE here in Ramstein is a significant part of our European command missile defense enterprise and plays a leadership role in that,” Montgomery said.
Other units in Kaiserslautern will have supporting roles in missile defense. Recently, the U.S. Army activated a command-level air and missile defense unit at Rhine Ordnance Barracks, just a few miles east of Ramstein.
On that same installation, military officials have asked for $1.2 billion to build a new hospital to replace the aging Landstuhl Regional Medical Center. Congress in December approved an initial $71 million for the project.
NATO announced last month that it will make Ramstein the hub for alliance missions that range from NATO’s air police operations to a growing missile defense program.
“This should tell you about the importance of Ramstein Air Base,” Lt. Col. Thomas Dillschneider, a spokesman for Headquarters Allied Air Command, told Stars and Stripes.
The region’s heyday came several years after the Air Force opened about half a dozen bases in Rhineland-Pfalz, west of the Rhine River, all aimed at countering the Soviet threat.
After the war, “this was a French-occupation zone and you also had some troops from Luxembourg,” said 86th Airlift Wing historian Silvano Wueschner. “A deal was struck with the French to construct six bases in the Rhineland-Pfalz.”
The conventional wisdom at the time was that the Soviets would invade West Germany through what was known as the Fulda Gap, Wueschner and Ramstein spokesman Juan Melendez said. The Fulda Gap was a corridor of lowlands extending from the former East German border to Frankfurt, about 80 miles away.
“This was a straight-line approach,” Wueschner said.
The idea was to put combat bases where they could provide close air support to allied forces against a Soviet advance, with the Rhine serving as a natural buffer, Melendez and Wueschner said.
At Ramstein, two bases were laid out, built over a swamp and farmlands: Landstuhl Air Base on the south side, and Ramstein Exempt Air Base to the north. The two bases consolidated in 1957 and the name eventually was changed to Ramstein Air Base.
The 86th Fighter-Bomber Wing with its F-84F Thunderstreak aircraft established a presence in the area in February 1952, according to 86th Airlift Wing historical documents.
“The Air Force presence has grown tremendously over the years” at Ramstein, Wueschner said, “especially as the mission has changed,” from a fighter wing to an airlift wing.
The 86th conducts airlift, airdrop and aeromedical evacuation operations as well as provides rapid mobility and expeditionary combat support for military operations, according to information provided by the wing. On average, there are more than 80 arrivals and departures daily at Ramstein, according to base officials.
Bitburg and Hahn air bases as well as Zweibrücken — formerly a Royal Canadian Air Force Base — were shuttered in the early 1990s after the Cold War ended. Sembach was turned over to the Army in 2010. Only Spangdahlem and Ramstein remain as air bases in Rhineland-Pfalz.
Ramstein Air Base and the surrounding community are embracing the opportunity to review their joint history.
The 86th Airlift Wing recently showcased its mission for media members as part of the 60th anniversary celebration.
A historical exhibit focused on “60 Years of U.S. Air Force in Rheinland-Pfalz” opens Friday at the Ramstein-Miesenbach Museum. The exhibit, produced by the Center for Documentation and Exhibition of the History of U.S. Americans in the Rhineland Palatinate, features about 120 letters solicited from local residents about their experiences with Americans over the past six decades. Some of their stories were published in the local Die RheinPfalz newspaper, which collaborated on the project.
The exhibit’s theme is “Mein Ami,” (slang for “my American”), said the center’s director, Michael Geib. Germans were asked to “tell us the story about your American,” someone “who made an impact on your life.”
Most of the letter writers talk about the end of the war and the 1950s, said Claudia Gross, an assistant at the documentation center. The Rhineland-Pfalz area was freed by Americans, then turned over to the French until the early 1950s.
“I have a feeling when I read these letters that these people were waiting all this time to show their gratitude to the Americans,” she said.
“The Americans had a good reputation,” Geib said, overcoming an initial distrust bred during the war.
During the Nazi regime, children were taught to be fearful of “the black man,” he said. “All of a sudden these children are coming across true black men. A lot of them were afraid,” but found black soldiers were kind to them.
“They gave them oranges, chewing gum, chocolate, smiles, gentle words,” Geib said.
The American presence here “changed the people,” Gross said. “That is one thing that is very clear from all these letters received. The federal state of Rhineland-Pfalz was a very rural area; there were many farmers.”
When scores of Americans became stationed here in the 1950s, “this part of Germany suddenly was becoming international,” she said.
Today, the relationship has changed. Germans don’t need to go to an Army store to buy blue jeans or ask an American to buy them soda.
“You can buy your jeans here, your cola,” Geib said.
In the early 1950s, Americans were “like big brother” to Germans, Geib said. “They felt protected. They actually were protected,” he said. “We shouldn’t forget this. This was the time of the Cold War.”
Others remember a time of unfettered access to U.S. military bases, when the annual Ramstein Air Show drew hundreds of thousands of Germans to the base to enjoy aerial displays and tours of planes and facilities and to taste American staples such as ice cream. Those air shows ended after a midair collision in 1988 that killed 67 spectators and injured more than 500 people.
“We were always going to the NCO club” at Germersheim, a U.S. Army depot in Rhineland-Pfalz, about 45 miles from Kaiserslautern, said Ludwig Hans, a Germersheim city historian. “You could walk or drive” onto the base.
Hans, now 54, and his teenage friends headed to the club’s bar for the hamburgers and the tunes. “When I was 18 years old, it was the time of funk music,” he said. “It was very great for us. It was the world behind the fence. It was something that was not our reality.”
Hans’ proximity to Americans fanned a lifelong interest in American cars with big engines.
He remembers a day in 1977 when, while Hans was driving around Germersheim, a soldier in a black Chrysler Cordoba with red interior asked for directions to the base. Hans led him to the gate, where he asked the soldier if he could look inside the car.
“He let me drive the car,” he said. Hans was about 18 at the time. “That was a great experience for me. It was the first time I drove an automatic transmission vehicle.”
Geib and Gross said examining the influence of Americans in Rhineland-Pfalz is a contemporary history.
“Which influences remain on both sides?” Geib said. “The story is still ongoing.”
Stars and Stripes reporter Marcus Klöckner contributed to this report.