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A base, and a legacy, built on ‘the shoulders of giants’

by Monica Mendoza

21st Space Wing Public Affairs staff writer

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Bob Ferguson was in grade school when his family moved to Chambley Air Base, France, in 1956.

He didn’t really know the significance of the 21st Fighter Bomber Wing, but as his family, and others, built the base in an open field in eastern France, the Airmen of the 21st Fighter Bomber Wing were building a legacy.

It was 1951, and the Cold War threat with the former Soviet Union was real. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization had taken over the Chambley-Bussieres airfield in France and the U.S. Air Force began construction to establish its base there.

At the time, the 21st Fighter Bomber Wing was the only nuclear-capable fighter wing, said retired Colonel Ferguson, whose father was an air traffic controller at Chambley from 1956 to 1958. If pilots got orders to pick up nuclear weapons, they knew they were headed east.

“All of the pilots will tell you, they knew if they got that order, they were not coming back,” Colonel Ferguson said. “So for them, this was an important, very serious, mission they were doing.”

In September, 60 of the surviving members – who now are in their late 80s and early 90s – of the 21st Fighter Bomber Wing, met in Colorado Springs, home of today’s 21st Space Wing for a reunion. The 21st Space Wing traces its lineage to its oldest direct ancestor, the 21st Fighter Bomber Wing, which activated in 1953.

Col. Jim Jennings, 21st Space Wing vice commander, hosted the group for dinner at The Club while they were in town.

“The persistency to strive for excellence does not just happen,” Colonel Jennings told the group. “It takes years to build and it is built on the shoulders of giants, and those giants are you.”

For several days during the reunion, the Airmen and their families shared stories about missions, building a base, bar fights and Christmas dinners.

“Chambley is really synonymous with the 21st Fighter Bomber Wing,” Colonel Ferguson said. “What is really neat about these guys . . . they had this bond, you hear it constantly in the things they talk about.”

When the Air Force sent its Airmen to France, they sent the whole wing and their families. The 21st Fighter Bomber Wing’s 1,500 Airmen and equipment moved out of George Air Force Base, Calif., in four stages between November 1954 and January 1955.

“It was a mud hole at that point in time,” said retired Maj. Harold Lee, 86. He was a first lieutenant and a fighter pilot then and he said living in the primitive conditions drew people together. His nickname was “Cowboy,” mainly because before his Air Force flying days, he was a professional cowboy; he even competed with the likes of World All Around Rodeo Champion Casey Tibbs. Major Lee graduated from flying school in 1944 and there wasn’t a plane he wouldn’t fly. He was one of the few pilots at Chambley with as many as 60 to 75 flying hours a month.

“I had a reputation for being, shall we say, a little wild once in while,” he said during the Colorado Springs reunion. Recalling one occasion, on a bet for a case of beer, he “boomed” the base – a supersonic fly by that rattled the base buildings. He was grounded by the wing commander for two weeks.

“That night, I went to the NCO club and we drank not only that case of beer, but five more,” he said.

When he received his orders to Chambley, retired Chief Master Sgt. Leonard Black, 83, couldn’t find Chambley on a map. When he got there, he could see why. It was a big muddy airfield. Airmen were setting up buildings, barracks and the 42-foot trailers where families resided.

There was a great deal of work to be done on the base and retired Col. George Stokes, who was the base supply officer, is credited as the guy who built Chambley. Colonel Stokes, 89, was among the first American contingent to arrive on Chambley. In talking about his work, Colonel Stokes smiles modestly, “sure, we played a part in the set up,” he said.

The mud was so thick, vehicles would get stuck and the runways had to be reconstructed several times. All of the Airmen assigned to Chambley had a number of extra duties. In addition to the working and living quarters, Airmen built a five-classroom school and a theater for the children. The pilots taught school to the elementary children until the Department of Defense teachers arrived.

“It shows the ingenuity and it shows how everyone pulled together as a team,” said Colonel Ferguson, who was a student in that school. “They were building the base from the ground up.”

Joyce Watkins, 80, was 24 years old in 1954, a new bride and one of the first DoD teachers at Chambley. Her husband, Tech. Sgt. William Watkins, was part of the wing that moved from George AFB.

“It was a wonderful experience,” she said. “But, it was hard. We went through a lot of hardships.”

Col. Robert Rowland, 21st Fighter Bomber Wing commander from 1953 to 1956 who retired as a major general, acknowledged in his Christmas letter that living in eastern France wasn’t easy:

“For most of us, Christmas 1954 was bleak and a dreary day far from home and loved ones,” he wrote. “Many of you were fighting the mud and rain of Chambley; others of us were stranded at various bases along the North Atlantic ferry route. Christmas 1955 presents a pleasant contrast and brighter outlook due to the progress made during the past year.”

Retired Lt. Col. Gene Waxman, 90, remembers hearing about a Communist element of the French people in a mining town north of Chambley. It was something the Airmen were always aware of, especially if they traveled to Luxembourg, he said. Something that always puzzled Colonel Waxman was a complete failure of the heating system on base in the dead of winter in 1955.

“And, just coincidentally, all of the electrical system went out at the same time. So there were no emergency generators, no nothing,” he said. “I’m sure that it was sabotage. It was just too well planned not to be.”

On March 7, 1966, French President Charles De Gaulle announced that France would withdraw from NATO’s integrated military structure and he ordered all nuclear weapons out of France. The United States was told it had to leave. On April 1, 1967, the last U.S. Air Force personnel left Chambley and the base returned to French control. Over the years, the wing’s name and mission have changed, but its lineage goes back to the 21st Fighter Bomber Wing established in 1952.

Colonel Ferguson, who organized the September reunion, and other members of the 21st Fighter Bomber Wing, have posted stories and photos of those first Airmen to arrive on an air base in eastern France all those years ago, at http://chambleyab.com/.

“I didn’t know what their mission was,” Colonel Ferguson said. “But, I used to watch the planes taking off and landing. I would just dream and watch when they fired the guns.”

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