It may not have officially closed yet, but the US Rhine-Main airbase in Frankfurt is already devoid of activity, signalling the end of an era that stretched over 60 years and encompassed many historic moments.
Time to say "Auf Wiedersehen"
The Rhein-Main airbase, which borders Frankfurt's airport, was once the US military's European hub, but these days it's a shadow of its former self. Last Monday, the last giant transport plane took off from the base for Charleston, South Carolina, and this past Friday, the last passenger plane moved remaining staff to the Spangdahlem base in the Eifel region, near Cologne.
The base officially closes on Dec. 31 of this year, but closing ceremonies will be held on Oct. 10. The farewell has been coming in stages, though, with US units being relocated to other bases since 1995. US aircraft have not had a permanent home at Rhein-Main for years. The huge, noisy C-130 Hercules transport planes were moved to the German base at Ramstein and the F-16 fighter jets to Aviano, Italy.
A USAF C-117 transport plane prepares to take off from the Rhine-Main air base.
"The planes that you've seen in recent years at the Frankfurt airbase were essentially just passing through," said Wolfgang Hofmann, spokesman for the US personnel.
The Rhein-Main base was last a point of tactical importance during the US-led attack on Iraq, when planes would take off on a daily basis to transport soldiers and equipment to the Persian Gulf.
US and German authorities signed an agreement in 1999 to close Rhein-Main by the end of 2005. The US Air Force said it was shutting down the base because its infrastructure was in need of a complete overhaul, making it expensive to maintain. In addition, Frankfurt wanted to expand its airport, and needed the adjoining space occupied by the base.
The closure also comes amid a general shift in the stationing of American troops abroad, as the US decreases its presence in traditional strongholds such as Germany, in order to create smaller, more flexible forces around the globe.
Past conflicts in which the base played a key role include the Vietnam War, the first Gulf war, the Afghanistan conflict and the conflict in the former Yugoslavia. But it was shortly after World War Two that the base became part of aviation history when it was the coordination point for the Berlin airlift.
Western Allied and German officials welcome the first arilift plane, an American C-54, to land on the runway of the new Tegel airport in the French sector of the city of Berlin, Germany, on Nov. 9, 1948. The plane, arriving from Frankfurt, is bringing twenty thousand pounds of cheese for the blockaded Berlin population. .
That operation began in June 1948, after Soviet authorities halted all traffic by land and water to Berlin. Hundreds of USAF C-47's, nicknamed Rosinenbomber or "raisin bombers" by the local population, flew food and supplies into West Berlin, sustaining residents for an 11-month period, and saving the city from a Soviet takeover.
Generations of GIs stationed in Europe made their first contact with the continent at the Frankfurt base, where huge letters spelling out "Gateway to Europe" decorate the side of a building. One of the most famous GIs to make the journey was rock legend Elvis Presley.
Jazz and hamburgers
Elvis Presley brought rock star glamor to Germany during his time as a GI
While the "Amis" may not have always been loved by the local population, they certainly left their mark on the region. Some Germans credit the GIs with making the federal state of Hesse cool. After all, they brought jazz, chewing gum and hamburgers to a depressed postwar Germany.
It's not without a little wistfulness, then, that Frankfurt bids goodbye to the base, says Frankfurt mayor Petra Roth.
"The base was part of Frankfurt life for 60 years, and that's reflected in the close ties between the city and the US," she said. On the other hand, Roth said, relinquishing the base offers "immense opportunities" for the development of Frankfurt airport, which plans to build a third terminal on the site, to be completed by 2015.