Saying goodbye to Rhein-Main
RHEIN-MAIN AIR BASE, Germany — As it flew overhead, the mighty metal bird wiggled its wings, a fitting final salute for a place known for lifting spirits near and far.
The U.S. ceremoniously returned Rhein-Main Air Base to Germany on Monday, an event that drew military veterans, well-heeled politicians and hundreds of other well-wishers. The Air Force still needs to pack out a few items, but by early December the keys to the base should be in German hands.
“Hey, it’s fine with me,” Dr. Earl Moore, president of the Berlin Airlift Veterans Association, said in reference to the changes. “That’s progress.”
With the added space, situated south of the existing facility, Frankfurt Airport officials plan to build a third terminal by 2012. Meanwhile, Ramstein and Spangdahlem air bases to the west have been upgraded in the past several years to pick up the slack from the closure of Rhein-Main.
“It seems like we’ve been closing bits and pieces of it for years,” said Staff Sgt. Brian Ledoux, who plays French horn in the U.S. Air Forces in Europe band. “This is finally it.”
Invited guests to the Rhein-Main closure ceremony heard speaker after speaker use such words as “historic” and “freedom” and “partnership” to describe the venerable base and U.S.-German relations. Air Force Gen. Robert “Doc” Foglesong, commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe, said the return of Rhein-Main represents “an ending and a beginning.”
“From a grateful nation,” Foglesong said, “I’m here to say thank you to all those individuals that made this base famous.”
A few of those individuals were seated in the front row, starting with Moore. Joining him were several members of the Berlin Airlift Veterans Association, men in their late 70s and 80s. One of them was even marking his 85th birthday, though you might not have noticed, the way he was hopping around in his World War II uniform.
“It feels like a funeral,” Gail Halvorsen said after the ceremony. “We’re here to celebrate rather than be real sad about it.”
Halvorsen and thousands of others took part in the greatest airlift operation to date. From June 1948 to September 1949, tons of food, fuel and supplies were flown to West Berlin to thwart a Soviet blockade of the city. Rhein-Main was the primary launching point for the airlift.
Halvorsen — the so-called “Candy Bomber” — gained fame for attaching candy to little, handmade parachutes and dropping them to young Berliners. He calls himself the “Chocolate Pilot,” instead, though some fans like “Uncle Wiggles” because of the way he’d wiggle his wings to tip the kids off that he was coming.
To mark the event, the Air Force gave one of its C-17 Globemaster IIIs a nickname: The “Spirit of Rhein-Main.” It, along with several other aircraft — including a C-5, a C-130 and a C-141, known as the “Hanoi Taxi” — was on static display nearby. In an adjoining hangar were pre-World War II photos, designs for the new terminal, commemorative coins for a sawbuck, and a white-tablecloth feast.
“For the longest time, Rhein-Main has been the hub for Europe,” Staff Sgt. David Rogers said as he directed traffic before the ceremony started.
The airman, who volunteered for the event, came despite having a cold.
“Everything that has gone on in the world (over the past half century), all the troops and everything, came through here. That’s not going to happen anymore.”