Baumholder commemorates 70 years of American military presence

The main entrance to Smith Barracks in 1964. U.S. Photo Credit: U.S. Army Archive

Like most relationships that span 70 years, they are guaranteed to have their ups and downs. That rings as true today as it did 70 years ago when the Americans took control of the Baumholder Military Community from the French military.

In normal times, such an occasion would have been marked with merriment; however, the ongoing pandemic turned today’s commemoration into a quiet celebration.

“The host nation relationship in Baumholder Military Community is one of the strongest in Europe and not being able to celebrate such a momentous milestone with our German-American community is unfortunate,” said Jae Kim, BMC Deputy Garrison Manager. “We hope to recognize this historical occasion and reinforce our strong partnership once it is safer to do so.”

At a recent annual lighting of the U.S. Army Garrison Rheinland-Pfalz Christmas tree at BMC, Baumholder District Mayor Bernd Alsfasser expressed gratitude for the German-American partnership and called on everyone to get through the pandemic together.

“To all of you — Soldiers, civilians, family members — we offer our sincere appreciation for your efforts and enhancing the safety and security of prosperity in the Baumholder community. Together we are strong.”

Boom town

On March 18, 1945, at about 3 p.m., American tanks rolled into Baumholder from the direction of Birkenfeld. In a 1945 agreement, the French occupied the post after World War II. The German army built the post and adjacent range as a training base in 1937.

In late 1951, the Americans took over the post and soon began a large construction program turning the city of Baumholder into a boom town.

Bernd Mai, a garrison public affairs specialist at Baumholder, has lived in the area his entire life.

He said that his generation can only assume how it was 70 years ago, but he pulls his historical knowledge from the book “50 years of Americans at Baumholder” and from conversations with the author Herbert Grimm, as well as other contemporary witnesses.

According to Mai, construction companies from all over Germany brought in thousands of workers daily.

From 1953-1954, the first housing areas north and west of the city border, known today as Smith Barracks housing, were built. A 200-bed hospital, 524 apartments, a school, and a gymnasium went up at unimaginable speed, said Mai.

Also in 1954, the so-called “Tank trail” that leads around the city was constructed, said Mai. The trail relieved the city of military vehicle traffic, including tanks.

“Many visitors came from far and near to experience the unique Baumholder atmosphere. Even though it was illegal, they brought with them cigarettes and whiskey, or visited the American clubs on the installation to enjoy the high quality entertainment that was offered,” said Mai.

“Baumholder began to earn a bad reputation during this time, but the visitors didn’t stop coming.”

According to Mai, during its heyday, Baumholder had more than 30 bars and taverns and more than 20 restaurants.

The BMC has played a part in most world events involving the U.S. since its beginning, according to Mai. He points to the post-WWII Cold War when tanks from Baumholder would’ve been some of the first units into the Fulda Gap to stop a Russian advance. Other events like the Berlin Airlift, Desert Storm, 9/11 and Enduring Freedom meant troops and equipment were mobilized and put into harm’s way.

Mai said Baumholder drastically changed after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. He said the city stood by its American friends as spontaneous memorial services took place. However, after being an open post for decades — where local residents were used to walking on post at their leisure, Baumholder immediately closed. According to Mai, suddenly guards controlled access onto the installations and a fence was built.

Baumholder Military Community’s comeback in the making

The BMC was slated for closure in 2009 and the money for infrastructure was cut off. That decision was reversed in 2014, but those five years took its toll.

Now, the U.S. Army plans to move troops to Baumholder from other parts of Germany. Buildings are being renovated and made ready as the time for more Soldiers and families inches closer.

“The strong partnership between the U.S. military and Baumholder area communities directly contributes to the well-being of the service members and their families, military readiness and regional financial health,” said Kim. “As we celebrate the 70 years of this close relationship, the future looks bright as ever for the community.”