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Rhein-Main mission ends, but not its legacy

by Louis A. Arana-Barradas
Air Force Print News

9/30/2005 - SAN ANTONIO  -- Bob Keffer is looking for work again. But at age 70, he knows it won’t be easy.

But he has no choice. There is no future for him at Rhein-Main Air Base, Germany -- outside Frankfurt -- where he worked for the past 31 years. The base closes this year.

Still, he’s optimistic. If he can just find a federal job somewhere and work for two more years, he’ll have served 50 years. That’s a personal goal.

“I know there’s still a job out there for me,” said Mr. Keffer, the communications information flight chief. After seeing so many things happen at the base over the years, probably nobody understands the significance of its closure better than he does.

“Rhein-Main has always been an airlift base -- always had a big mission,” he said. “But now the base has done its job -- it’s time to go.”

But unlike Mr. Keffer, Rhein-Main’s airlift job will not go away. It will go elsewhere.

Officially, Rhein-Main’s longtime airlift mission -- which dates back to 1945 and earned it the title “Gateway to Europe” -- will end Oct. 1. And by Dec. 31, when the United States returns it to Germany, what was once the Air Force’s premier airlift hub will cease to exist as an air base.

But the mission really started to end before that. By 1995, the Air Force had already drawn down the base. Its population dropped from a high of more than 10,000 during its heyday, to less than 1,500 the past few years. In 1999 the United States and Germany agreed to close the base by the end of 2005.

Then, in June 2005, the base’s “cargo hub” mission moved to Incirlik AB, Turkey. Transport planes from stateside bases started flying cargo bound for Iraq to Incirlik, not Rhein-Main.

“When that happened, we really lost our mission,” Mr. Keffer said. “That was a sad day. Because when you really lose your mission, then all that’s left is closing up.”

On Sept. 28, a C-17 Globemaster III flew the last airlift mission from the base that dates back to 1909. And on Sept. 30, an Air Mobility Command aircraft flew the last planeload of passengers from there.

The significance of all these events was not lost to the commander of the 469th Air Base Group, Col. Brad Denison. There’s a reason why he held the last retreat ceremony to commemorate the end of the mission on Sept. 30. The date also marks the 56th anniversary of the last mission of the Berlin Airlift.

The airlift, called Operation Vittles, was the first major airlift operation for the fledgling Air Force. For 324 days, hundreds of aircraft flew food and supplies into Berlin, which was under a Soviet blockade. By the time the airlift ended, allied aircraft had flown 278,228 flights into the beleaguered city. And they delivered more than 2.3 million tons of food and supplies.

The effort proved to the Soviet Union -- and the world -- that the Air Force had a massive airlift capability. It also put Rhein-Main on the map.

“The first battle of the Cold War was won from Rhein-Main, saving the city of Berlin from the horrors of Soviet domination,” Colonel Denison said.

Colonel Denison said Rhein-Main was able to accomplish much over the decades. The men and women who served there had key roles in many significant events.

“Remember the airlift legacy that began here as we pass the torch to Ramstein and Spangdahlem (air bases),” he said.

The ceremony was a simple, yet touching event, said base spokesman 1st Lt. Uriah Orland.

“A lot of history ended here today,” he said.

The base’s formal closure ceremony is set for Oct. 10. After that, the Airmen and civilian staff remaining at the base will work to turn over to the German government all the buildings the Air Force still occupies there.

There are several reasons why the base is closing. Chief among them is that its infrastructure needed a top-to-bottom overhaul, so it was costly to maintain. Plus, Frankfurt wanted to expand its international airport, the biggest in the country. Frankfurt International Airport handles more passengers than any other European airport.

In return for closing Rhein-Main, Germany allowed the Air Force to relocate the base’s vital airlift capability to Ramstein and Spangdahlem air bases. Both bases are in the German state of Rhineland-Palatinate. To shift the airlift capability to its two sister bases, U.S. Air Forces in Europe put into effect the Rhein-Main Transition Program.

The move to the two bases will benefit the Air Force, said Brig. Gen. Michael A. Snodgrass, the command’s director of plans and programs. It will be seamless and it won’t diminish the Air Force’s overall mobility capability in the theater.

Ramstein and Spangdahlem will jointly pick up the airlift mission Oct. 1. Ramstein will get the bulk of the mission. Spangdahlem will get the overflow, the general said.

In fact, instead of downsizing, the command’s airlift capability will “be at least as good as it was at Rhein-Main -- or better,” the general said.

One of the primary benefits of the transition is that it allows recapitalizing the command’s mobility infrastructure at Ramstein. And it will allow construction of a new mobility infrastructure at Spangdahlem, General Snodgrass said.

The transition also means the two bases will receive more than $465 million in infrastructure upgrades, said Col. Tom Schnee, chief of the transition program. And it will also be more advantageous to provide NATO support.

Rhein-Main’s, Ramstein’s and Spangdahlem’s futures are sealed. And the colonel said the customers who depend on timely airlift will not see a change in the delivery system that keeps them supplied.

With a camera in hand, Mr. Keffer was on the nearly empty Rhein-Main flightline to see the last planes take off. Seeing them depart tugged at his heart. He knew it was the end of an historic era.

“When the aircraft go from the flightline, that’s when you know it’s all over,” he said.

There won’t be anything left of Rhein-Main in a few years. The Frankfurt Airport Authority plans on leveling the entire base to build a third passenger terminal. Soon afterward, the many deeds Airmen accomplished at the base over the past 60 years will soon start to fade. And before long, the only reminder of their achievements will be a Berlin Airlift monument next to the busy autobahn that flanks the base.

But Mr. Keffer said he’ll never forget Rhein-Main and the important mission it had.

He first landed at the base aboard a C-118 Liftmaster in 1955. He was a young Soldier bound for a base in France. The base only had one main building then. And the area around the base still showed the devastating effects of Allied bombing during the war.

“There were still many bombed-out buildings in Frankfurt,” he said.

In 1974, Mr. Keffer returned to Rhein-Main. He worked in the base photo lab until 1991 when he switched to his present job. He was witness to many events during his tenure.

The base has gone through a series of lulls and periods of extreme activity during its service with the Air Force. From the Berlin Airlift of through the support of Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, Rhein-Main has been busy.

“At least 12 different humanitarian operations have centered at Rhein-Main, and our personnel have supported the cause of freedom during countless other operations,” Colonel Denison said.

Mr. Keffer said Rhein-Main has always had a big mission. And the base did all “the big jobs with few people and limited resources.”

Mr. Keffer was there to take part in a majority of those events. Apart from the Berlin Airlift, there are two incidents that -- to him -- really define the importance of Rhein-Main to the United States.

The first was the Oct. 23, 1983, bombing of the U.S. Marine Corps barracks in Beirut, Lebanon. The 2,000-pound truck bomb killed 242 Marines. Their remains returned home through Rhein-Main. Mr. Keffer, who ran the photo lab then, had to review and edit the more than 10,000 color slide images taken of the dead Marines. That was the worst time he’s spent at Rhein-Main.

“There was a big tent set up and they processed all the bodies through there. They were all in aluminum coffins,” he said. “That was the worst time -- I still don’t like to think about it.”

But there were better times, Mr. Keffer said. One of the happiest moments at Rhein-Main was after the release of the American hostages held by Iranian militants for 444 days. The militants released the 52 Americans on Jan. 20, 1981, and flew them to Algiers. A few days later, Air Force C-9 Nightingales picked up the freed hostages and flew them to Rhein-Main.

Former President Jimmy Carter met them at Rhein-Main and the returnees feasted on lobster tail and champagne. Mr. Keffer remembers the mood at the base was jubilant. Mr. Keffer got to spend a week with the former hostages. He and his photo troops slept in their office because they had so much film to process.

“I remember when they first arrived, they were happy -- but didn’t look very good,” he said. “But when they left Rhein-Main, they had changed. They were very happy to go back to their families.

“And everyone here was happy, too,” he said.

Mr. Keffer said the base has no mission now. Its only job is to close now. And he expects those who remain there to stay busy until the end. They will work until the Air Force turns over the keys to the Germans.

Mr. Keffer believes Rhein-Main -- and the countless lasting memories it will provide millions of Americans -- will not fade away.

“I don’t think anybody in the Air Force will ever forget Rhein-Main,” he said. “Too many important things have happened here to let them forget.”

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