Americans close door on operations at Bitburg after more than 60 years
By JENNIFER H. SVAN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 7, 2017
BITBURG ANNEX, Germany — As the sun set Monday, the last cars drove off base, past sidewalks overgrown with weeds and rows of darkened, empty buildings.
The gates to what was once a bustling housing community for U.S. military personnel and their families stationed in this western Germany city known for its Bitburger brewery would soon be locked, perhaps forever.
The U.S. Air Force formalized the return of the annex to the German government at a ceremony Monday, marking the official end of U.S. military operations at the base that began in 1952.
About 200 Americans and Germans with ties to the area were on hand for one final farewell. Thousands of marriages and friendships were formed and births recorded over the years in this hybrid community.
“I wanted to be here because it’s in here,” said Donald Nicholson, 64, pointing to his heart. Nicholson spent four years of his 20-year Air Force career at Bitburg, and it’s where he met his German wife, Birgit, now a host nation teacher at Spangdahlem.
“We’re saying goodbye to an old friend,” he said, with glistening eyes.
Though many waxed nostalgic, Bitburg’s glory days as an air base ended years ago. In its heyday, the base hosted three squadrons of F-15s and about 15,000 people. It was returned to Germany in 1994 as part of a larger U.S. military, post-Cold War drawdown across Europe.
The U.S. Air Force held onto the annex – about a half-mile from the former air base — while building up and expanding the once-Spartan Spangdahlem Air Base, about 10 miles down the road. The annex provided extra housing for airmen and their families, as well as numerous support facilities, such as schools, a commissary and hospital.
But the plan was to eventually return the annex, too. The goal had been to hand over the keys by next summer, said Andrea Salomone, 52nd Civil Engineer Squadron installation management flight chief. But the timeline shortened after the Air Force managed to close Bitburg High School last May and move students to temporary school facilities at Spangdahlem, the final piece in the transition, she said.
That’s when the real work began. Eighty-two buildings spread across the annex, including hundreds of family housing units vacant since 2014, had to be cleaned before passing inspection by a joint American-German team.
The Air Force considered hiring contractors for the job but decided to do the job itself and save about $2 million, Salomone said.
Teams from the civil engineering squadron spent from March through most of October tidying the buildings and grounds. “Everything had to be removed from the facilities: equipment, trash. It had to be broom-swept, hazard-free,” she said.
Nothing interesting was found, she said. Mostly just old signs, a lot of cobwebs and a few dead birds and mice.
Giving the keys to Bitburg Annex back to the Germans saves the Air Force about $5.1 million annually in utilities, maintenance, and manpower costs, Salomone said.
What will become of the annex isn’t known. Local officials had put a bid in for state funding to convert the annex to a garden exhibition but were turned down, Bitburg Mayor Joachim Kandels said Monday.
The city faced a similar conundrum in 1994, after the air base was returned.
Then-Mayor Horst Buettner tried to find a buyer willing to pay about $50 million for the vacated air base, according to a story by the Los Angeles Times.
The land was eventually converted to a commercial and industrial area. One can find before-and-after photos of some of the buildings posted online by Americans once stationed there; at one point, the base chapel was turned into a dance hall, according to one posting from 2000.
Back in 1994, the mood of the Bitburg community may have been more dour, with fears that the return of the air base might mean the Americans and the economic boost and jobs they brought would eventually leave for good. Though the Germans were assured that Spangdahlem would remain open, rumors persisted for years that even Spangdahlem might close. But as that base continues to expand, in both infrastructure and mission, that possibility seems unlikely.
At Monday’s ceremony, the continued presence of Americans in the community — where many still live — was a silver lining.
“In terms of our relationship, there’s no change,” said Col. Jason Bailey, the 52nd Fighter Wing commander at Spangdahlem. “Our people remain here. They’re an integral part of Bitburg. We have many people who have made this their home since even the ’50s. We see no change with that.”
Andrew Thomas, a former staff sergeant, is among the Americans who have put down roots in the area. He spent his entire 10 years in the Air Force at Bitburg, where he was an F-15 maintainer from 1982 to 1992.
Thomas, 53, never left.
“I got married to an Italian German,” he said, with a chuckle, while looking at old base newspaper clippings before the ceremony in the old high school auditorium. “We have two girls. They’re married. The grandkids showed up a couple years later.”
He remembers the importance of the mission, of constantly being on high alert.
“We always had four airplanes on alert, with missiles,” he said. “It was still the Cold War. Germany was considered collateral damage. If a war broke out, we’re all dead. That’s just the way it was.”
Mission aside, there was something special about the base, he said.
“Oh, it was nice,” he said. “This was always the best. You couldn’t compare it to Spangdahlem. Bitburg, to me, it’s like family. You drove around, it was tight. Everything was close.”