The first wave of soldiers arrived by boat wearing wool uniforms, leather gaiters and the old, steel World War I helmets.

“Then we pulled up to the dock, and we just started unloading,” Chuck Leighton recalled in “Home Away From Home,” a book on U.S. forces in Northern Ireland during World War II. “Several of us just got in line and walked off the gangplank, not knowing that we were the first troops that actually were on the dock.”

As history would have it, they were among the first in another long line.

For more than 65 years, the U.S. has had troops based in Europe, millions of them, in fact. That presence won’t end anytime soon.

But the U.S. military in Europe is at a crossroads.

In 2006, for the first time since Leighton and his battle buddies arrived, U.S. troop strength on the continent fell below 100,000. The drop is indicative of a post-Cold War effort to restructure the force, a campaign that stretches back to the early 1990s, when there were more than 300,000 troops in Europe.

By 2015, the number of troops in Europe is scheduled to drop to 60,000 as part of the current restructuring initiative popularly known as “transformation.” The plan also calls for cutting 14,500 civilian slots, shutting down scores of installations and reconfiguring and repositioning dozens of units.

Such adjustments are nothing new. Over the years, troop levels in Europe have fluctuated in response to world events and domestic and theater politics, as was the case in 1966 when a policy shift by French president Charles de Gaulle led to the withdraw of all U.S. forces from France. Sometimes the changes — or the threat of changes — were driven by money, as when the Jackson-Nunn Amendment of 1974 threatened to cut U.S. forces in Europe if allies didn’t share more of the costs. Often adjustments were driven by the “enemy,” particularly by the Soviet Union.

“While many good reasons exist to reduce the number of troops in Europe,” a 1990 General Accounting Office treatise stated a year after the Berlin Wall fell, “it seems likely the United States will need to maintain some kind of credible military presence there.”

The existence of U.S. forces in Europe on a continuous basis actually began six months before Leighton walked down that gangplank in Belfast.

The initial World War II force, code name MAGNET, began arriving in Belfast in January 1942. The first in were soldiers of the 133rd Infantry Regiment, 34th Infantry Division, a Minnesota-based Reserve unit.

By war’s end, the United States had roughly 3 million troops in Europe.

In a TV interview last December, retired Marine Gen. James L. Jones called the U.S. presence overseas a “privilege” and “a gift of the 20th century.” Such access, the former head of the U.S. European Command said, “is extremely important.”

And yet between 1945 and 1950, the United States drastically scaled back its forces. According to the 1990 GAO report, troop strength in Europe by the end of that decade had dipped to 116,000, or less than 4 percent of the wartime force.

But in the summer of 1950, in response to the Korean War — though there were other warning signs, such as the Soviet blockade of West Berlin — President Truman reversed course. Sensing the Soviet Union was behind the North Korean incursion, the president committed troops and money to South Korea.

Truman also thought it best to boost the U.S. presence in Europe to blunt any Soviet attack, supposedly through the so-called Fulda Gap northeast of Frankfurt, Germany.

Since then, at least up until last year, the number of uniformed personnel in Europe has ranged from 440,000 in the 1950s to 100,000. But no matter the year or the troop count, the majority of servicemembers were based in Germany. The rest were scattered all across Western Europe, from Italy and the United Kingdom to Norway and Greece.

Between 1985 and 1995, U.S. troop strength dropped precipitously, prompted in large part by the collapse of the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact in 1991. By 1995, there slightly fewer than 130,000 U.S. servicemembers left in Europe.

That number has been gradually sliding downward ever since.

“When the U.S. Army came into Europe after World War II, they sort of stopped where all the units stopped and took over a lot of Wehrmacht (German army) buildings,” Maj. Gen. Mark Hertling, now commander of the 1st Armored Division, said last fall. “And there wasn’t a whole lot of relinquishing of those [facilities] until the early ’90s. We’re doing a major relinquishing of those now.”

Five years ago, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld sent marching orders to Marine Gen. James L. Jones, telling him that the U.S. European Command needed an overhaul to meet the unique challenges of the 21st century.

Jones’ plan, started in 2002, called for the moving of thousands of troops from Europe back to the United States, moving troops into Eastern Europe and setting up forward operating sites in Africa.

But now, Jones’ successor — Army Gen. Bantz J. Craddock — is questioning whether pulling troops out of Europe during this time of war is a prudent measure.

Stars and Stripes reviews the status of the military’s transformation in Europe in a series of stories that look at the past, present and future.

The stories:DAY 1:EUCOM leaders address transformation issuesTODAY: A look at troopstrength through the yearsDAY 3: How the military closes its basesDAY 4: Stateside bases get ready for influx of troopsDAY 5: Air Force, Navy also getting new lookDAY 6: The impact of politics on transformation

Today's related story:Wars force DOD to rethink basingGraphics:U.S. troops in Europe and worldwide(Click here to enlarge)

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