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HEIDELBERG, Germany — The tale of how Americans came to live in Heidelberg, a storybook town complete with its own castle ruins, is one of the gentlest chapters in World War II history.

Allied bombers firebombed Dresden, destroyed Berlin, flattened Mannheim and reduced Würzburg to rubble in 20 minutes.

Heidelberg was spared.

"We believe Heidelberg was protected by the [U.S.] Air Force," said Eckart Würzner, the city’s mayor.

Not exactly, U.S. military historians say. Heidelberg had a lot of hospitals and little strategic importance, putting it way down on the to-be-destroyed list. And when the U.S. Army got Heidelberg’s officials on the phone and demanded they surrender the city, they did so.

"It’s kind of nifty because nobody got hurt. That contrasts with — everywhere else," said Bruce Siemon, U.S. Army Europe historian.

The U.S. Army set up shop in the town, whose beauty was extolled by Mark Twain and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Soldiers settled into former German army barracks then built new houses, offices, schools. And they lived there happily for more than 60 years.

But Heidelberg began losing its luster for U.S. Army Europe headquarters because of the same seismic event that sent its soldiers into battle in Afghanistan.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York, Pennsylvania and on the Pentagon, force protection gained increasing importance. And places like Heidelberg, with troops spread among myriad little bases throughout town, suddenly seemed vulnerable.

"It’s hard to defend a place like Heidelberg," said Andy Morris, also a U.S. Army Europe historian.

Officials wanted to consolidate USAREUR headquarters operations on Patrick Henry Village, using acres of surrounding land. Had that happened, Morris speculated, "That’s probably where we’d be building a new headquarters."

It didn’t happen. The idea was opposed by city officials and local Germans who, he said, protested with signs reading, for example, "Don’t steal my family’s farm."

"There were rumors we were moving out of here as revenge," Morris said. Not true, he said, but the failed deal was one of several factors that lead Gen. B.B. Bell, then the commander, to choose Wiesbaden for the future headquarters for a new, smaller U.S. Army Europe.

Bell also decided on Wiesbaden because it had an airfield — and because it made for good politics.

Though the Army was planning to send half its troops back to the U.S., Bell wanted to apportion those remaining.

"Bell said Bavaria, Baden-Württemburg, Hesse and Rhineland-Pfalz — all four states have been very supportive," Morris said. "He was trying to balance the footprint so that each of these states had Americans and American money."

Bell, who is now retired and living in Tennessee, could not be reached for comment. But USAREUR historians recorded an interview with him before he left Germany.

So although Wiesbaden, in Hesse, was losing Rhein-Main Air Base and the 1st Armored Division as troops returned to the U.S., it would gain a USAREUR and 5th Signal Command headquarters and assorted other units to become one of four U.S. military "hubs" in Germany.

Bavaria would get enlarged installations at Hohenfels and Vilseck; Rhineland-Pfalz, installations in Kaiserslautern, as well as the U.S. Air Force.

Baden-Württemburg, though losing installations in Heidelberg and Mannheim, would retain U.S. troops in Stuttgart, in the U.S. European Command.

"For political, international, we-love-each-other reasons, we had to have a balance," Siemon said.

The airfield at Wiesbaden was another attraction, historians said. "When you’re dispersed across as much area as USAREUR and EUCOM — Russia to Greenland to Israel — how do you get around if you’re the general?" Morris said. "You fly in a jet plane."

And as the new USAREUR/7th Army headquarters is intended to be deployable, it could deploy more quickly with an airstrip right on base.

But Würzner says increasing air traffic from nearby Frankfurt International Airport will take away that advantage. "You have to wait more than an hour on the runway," he said.

Whether the move will proceed apace, be put on hold or get canceled altogether is now a matter of speculation — one of several within U.S. Army Europe.

Also unknown is the fate of the 172nd Infantry Brigade and the 2nd Brigade, 1AD, now scheduled to return to the U.S. in 2012 and 2013, respectively.

Like his predecessor, the current USAREUR commander, Gen. Carter Ham, has said retaining the heavy brigades is important to the mission. He also said recently that he was hoping for a Pentagon decision in the next few months.

According to USAREUR public affairs, the question of the two brigades has no bearing on the headquarters plan.

"This move was planned to consolidate remaining forces, gain synergy from co-location of various activities and reduce USAREUR’s footprint," officials wrote in an e-mail.

But the historians said it could make a difference.

"If you’ve got the two heavy brigades, then you have a potentially different role, and that may require rethinking of what your headquarters looks like and where it’s going to be," Siemon said.

In any event, officials say demolition and new construction for the Wiesbaden headquarters is to begin in a matter of weeks.

Würzner is hoping decision-makers will reexamine the issue.

"The problem with Wiesbaden in my opinion — Wiesbaden is not anywhere," he said.

Würzner is offering land near Patrick Henry Village.

"We have the right-sizing concept, for schools and houses. We have a very good infrastructure, and a harbor in Mannheim, which has been working well for over 60 years. Everything is there, which [the Army] would give up to build everything new around a runway in Wiesbaden," he said.

Based on their knowledge of how things evolve, the historians came to different conclusions about whether the American military presence in Heidelberg will indeed be lost to history.

"I don’t think the reasons not to move can overcome the momentum," Morris said. "We’re no more invested here than we were in that town where Elvis was — Friedberg."

But Siemon had a different view.

"I don’t know that the advantages are worth the bother," he said. "I think there’s a strong possibility people are going to want to take a long, hard look at this. But what do I know? I’m a historian, not a fortuneteller."

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