A Moment in Air Force History: Sembach

Senior Master Sgt. Frederick Smith
435th Air Base Wing History Office

During the Cold War, Sembach was home to a reconnaissance wing, a missile wing and even a numbered Air Force. Its flightline was returned to German control in 1995 and its administrative section became an annex of Ramstein in 1996. But what is particularly interesting is Sembach’s history before its 1953 opening.

The U.S. Air Forces in Europe’s bases in Rheinland-Pfalz such as Sembach, Bitburg, Hahn, Zweibrücken, Landstuhl-Ramstein all share a similar history. At the start of the Cold War, USAFE found itself in a precarious situation because its air bases were positioned at the World War II front lines – near the East German border – making them too susceptible to a Pearl Harbor-like first-strike attack. To increase survivability, leadership worked to reposition their air forces further west.

Many of the desired new locations in Germany were in the French Zone of occupation. After considerable negotiation, agreements were reached to have the new NATO bases constructed under French management to U.S. specifications for future USAFE use. But it was not the first time the French had built Sembach.

The French had gained control of this area of Germany before and in order to provide their occupation forces air cover. They built Sembach Airfield on the eastern half of the (currently closed) 8,500-foot runway. Pilots might wonder about the usefulness of such a short runway, but it is more understandable once the time period is considered. Gained as a provision of the Treaty of Versailles, the first Sembach Airfield was built in 1919. The French flew from Sembach for 11 years, but unfortunately nothing remains of the 10 barracks and 26 wooden hangars of that airfield. They left Sembach in 1930 as part of a general withdrawal of French forces from the west side of the Rhein River, and the airfield was returned to the Germans for agricultural use.

After World War II, this area again fell under French occupation. And in 1951, they were back at Sembach surveying the land for the NATO air base. The local Sembach farmers were not too happy with the prospect of permanently losing this land to hardened structures and a concrete runway. Despite their protests, around-the-clock construction began on the flightline in the summer of 1951. It was completed in April 1952.

Renewed protests began after word got out that still more land would be needed north of the flightline for barracks and administrative buildings. The local farmers banded together to physically prevent this land from being surveyed. This time, however, their voices were heard. The Rheinland-Pfalz Minister President, Dr. Peter Altmeier, came in on the side of the farmers and offered the occupation forces an alternate site for the construction – a nearby sandy hill with little agricultural value.

The occupation authority accepted the offer and in October 1952 around-the-clock construction began anew. The barracks and administrative buildings were completed in the spring, followed by a housing area that was completed the next year on the site known as Heuberg – the present site of the Sembach Administrative Annex.

One day Sembach will be put to rest. When that happens it will leave behind a 100-year legacy that serves as a testament to all who fought for peace.