Closure of Rhein-Main Air Base
by Ambassador William R. Timken jr.,
It is a great privilege to participate in this ceremony.
It marks an ending, the closing of a U.S. Air Force base with a legacy that will not be forgotten for a long, long time.
This ceremony, however, also marks a beginning. One of Europe’s busiest commercial airports has been expanded. And the United States Air Force is upgrading the command's airlift support capability -- cost effectively, with a reduced footprint, but without a loss in either force structure or mission capacity. The transition has been carried out smoothly and effectively, thanks to the cooperation of multiple agencies and organizations on two continents. I would like to congratulate all those who have worked so hard on a job well done.
This transition is part of a larger strategy to strengthen and prepare NATO to meet the challenges of the 21st century. Through NATO, the U.S., Germany and our Allies can expand on the goals that have underlined the transatlantic partnership for the past six decades. Those goals are to defend freedom, strengthen democracy, and provide a stable climate in which prosperity can grow.
Much has been accomplished here at Rhein-Main over the decades. The legacy of this Air Base represents some of the proudest milestones in our shared history.
The Rhein-Main Air Base has supported the cause of freedom in countless operations. The Iran hostages landed here. The TWA hijacking hostages landed here, and were greeted by Consul General Bodde’s father when he was Consul General in Frankfurt. World leaders, including President Bush and Afghanistan’s President Karzai, have met here for crucial meetings in the furtherance of peace and democracy.
The Rhein-Main Air Base was the "Gateway to Europe” for hundreds of thousands of young service members and their families. Over the last six decades, some 15 million Americans have lived in Germany, more than in any other country overseas. The great majority of these Americans were affiliated with the military. They have been fine ambassadors for the United States; and Germans have been outstanding hosts. As a result, thousands and thousands of personal friendships between Germans and Americans were born. And these friendships live on, part of the landscape of multiple points of positive connection between our two peoples.
But the Gateway to Europe, the Rhein-Main Air Base, will go down in history because of the role it played during the Berlin Airlift, Operation Vittles. In close to 300,000 flights, most of which started from this runway, Allied pilots flew some 92 million miles over a period of 15 months to deliver food, fuel and medicine to the citizens of a blockaded West Berlin. Major General William H. Tunner commanded the Berlin Airlift. His answer to General Lucius Clay about the feasibility of an airlift was, and I quote: "We can carry anything, anywhere, anytime." (pause)
But General Clay and General Tunner and one of the Airlift’s most well known pilots, Colonel Gail Halvorsen, also known as the Candy Bomber, all knew that the most important commodity was neither food, nor fuel, nor medicine. It was hope.
Today, Colonel Halvorsen is with us to celebrate this occasion -- and to celebrate his 85th birthday. Congratulations, Colonel Halvorsen, and thank you. Your packages of candy attached to miniature parachutes sparked the spirits of Berliners on the ground -- and the imaginations of Americans back home. Donations poured in from the United States, from companies and from individuals. Why? Because as one candy industry spokesman said, “kids were the hope of the future and whatever had gone on before was now in the past.”
During the Airlift, the pilots met many of the children who were on the receiving end of those packages of candy. They also received thousands of letters; thank you letters addressed to Uncle Wiggly Wings or the Chocolate Pilot; sometimes also letters with exact directions to their houses. When Colonel Halvorsen could not find the white chickens that a little girl named Mercedes described as a landmark, he made a special mail delivery.
But the legacy of the operation is best illustrated by the recollections of one of those Berlin children, some fifty years later. He recalled the day when a small parachute landed at his feet with an American Hershey bar. All kids love chocolate but that Hershey bar meant more. It meant that someone outside the blockaded city of Berlin knew that he was there. It was a connection to the outside world, a hope that someday things would be all right.
Fifty-six years after the Berlin Airlift and 15 years after reunification, Colonel Halvorsen, things are all right in Germany. Walls have come down. Difficulties and challenges may persist but they are part of the ongoing struggle of free nations to build and maintain vibrant economies and resilient democracies.
But around the world, the challenges we face today are no less daunting than those we faced during the Cold War. And no less today, than six decades ago, our destinies are joined. The responsibility of the transatlantic partners in this new century is to put that relationship to work for common objectives based on our common values.
Colonel Halvorsen, in your book, you describe your last hour on the flight ramp at Tempelhof in Berlin. It was the middle of the winter. Two little girls, accompanied by their grandmother, walked across the windswept runway to present a bouquet of fresh flowers to the pilots, an offering of friendship and appreciation. Fresh flowers in the dead of winter in a city that had been under military siege for seven months! Without the necessities of life the flowers were a symbol of something beyond their physical needs, a token of hope, of peace, of beauty, of things to come.
Here, today, on Rhein-Main Air Base, as one era ends and a new one begins, let us dedicate ourselves to a 21st century partnership between America and Germany that can lift the lives of all the people of the world. We must shape the peace, freedom and prosperity that people like you, Colonel Halverson, made possible in Germany in the 20th century into a future where all people have a chance to pursue their dreams.
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Diplomatic Mission to Germany
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Updated: December 2005