BRUNSWICK — The Navy and the town of Brunswick, two cultures woven into a single community for nearly seven decades, exchanged goodbyes Tuesday in a heartfelt disestablishment ceremony for Brunswick Naval Air Station.
When sailors ceremonially lowered the American flag the final time at the base just after 3 p.m., it marked the end for the air station, first established in 1943 as a training site for British pilots.
After a hiatus following the conclusion of World War II, the base served as one of the U.S. Navy’s key North Atlantic observation posts from 1951 until a federal Base Realignment and Closure commission voted in 2005 to terminate the property’s use as an active military installation. That decision launched a six-year closure process that culminated Tuesday.
For many who cherished the base — which for years introduced sailors from all over the country to Brunswick, repeatedly described Tuesday as a host community unrivaled in terms of warmth and local support — the official disestablishment proved bittersweet.
Retired Rear Adm. Harry Rich, a Harpswell resident who offered the keynote speech Tuesday, helped fight Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) commission efforts to close Brunswick Naval Air Station in 1995 and again in 2005. The first time, Rich and others successfully kept the base off the closure list.
“It’s ironic that I’m speaking here today,” Rich told the crowd of more than 1,000 who gathered for the outdoor ceremony. “I spent four years of my life trying to prevent this day from happening.”
Rich described how neighbors would fix his cars and deliver groceries for his wife and kids when he was deployed overseas, and how those same neighbors refused payment for the help when he got back.
He told tales of local people for whom streets at the air station are named — Adm. Aubrey Fitch, who retired to Maine after a career so decorated the Navy named a Bath Iron Works-built ship after him, and Paul Burbank, a Harpswell native who went on to become a Navy flight instructor in Pensacola, Fla. — and how the base changed the direction of his life.
Rich said his older brothers joined the Army during World War II, and he planned to follow suit until he tagged along with his father on an electric company job 50 miles south of his hometown of Union. He said their Central Maine Power Co. truck rumbled to a stop along the road near where Fat Boy Drive-In is located today, and he watched in awe as Navy Corsair fighter planes swooped down to land at the adjacent base airfield.
“It was love at first sight,” he recalled, and he joined the Navy instead, launching a 35-year career in which he participated in the Berlin Airlift and helped recover the Gemini 9 spacecraft and its astronauts after they returned to Earth and splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean.
Also delivering remarks Tuesday were Gov. Paul LePage; Jackalyne Pfannenstiel, assistant secretary of the Navy, Energy, Installations and Environment; Arthur Mayo, chairman of the Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority board of directors; and Capt. William Fitzgerald, the final commanding officer of Brunswick Naval Air Station.
Eleven of the base’s former commanding officers returned for Tuesday’s ceremony.
Capt. William Fitzgerald is the 36th and final commander of Brunswick Naval Air Station. (Troy R. Bennett / The Times Record)
Command Master Chief Daniel Nicholson salutes the flag as it is lowered at Brunswick Naval Air Station for the final time on Tuesday. Today, the former Navy base is known as Brunswick Landing. (Troy R. Bennett / The Times Record)
Sailors bow their heads in prayer during the invocation at disestablishment ceremonies at the Brunswick Naval Air Station Tuesday. (Troy R. Bennett / The Times Record)
World War II Navy veteran Arnold Wilkie, who was on hand when Brunswick Naval Air Station opened in 1943, receives a standing ovation during disestablishment ceremonies at Brunswick Naval Air Station on Tuesday. (Troy R. Bennett / The Times Record)
A place in history
Fitzgerald recalled a history of the site dating back to before the Navy’s arrival, when the location was the first municipal airfield in Maine and, according to one man who spoke to him at a local event, hosted a visit by famed aviator Amelia Earhart.
During the 1960s, he said, pilots used the Brunswick runways to reach new heights. Literally, as Marine Corps Lt. Col. W.C. McGraw and Navy Lt. Cmdr. D.W. Nordberg each set aircraft climb records, with the latter pushing the mark up to 15,000 meters in an F-4 Phantom.
“NAS Brunswick has also bled over the years and mourned the loss of aircraft and aircrew deaths from combat missions, from operational missions and from training accidents, some of which occurred right here in Maine — over Poland Springs and the Gulf of Maine,” Fitzgerald said, “and all along, the community grieved with us. Our Memorial Gardens in the former NAS Brunswick Chapel offers hallowed grounds for reflection of those P-3 airmen who made the ultimate sacrifice.”
Tuesday’s disestablishment ceremony was the last in a long line of Navy closure milestones that have passed with pomp and circumstance since 2009. The departures of the last three patrol squadrons stationed in Brunswick, the disestablishment of the tenant Patrol and Reconnaissance Wing 5, and the closure of the base airfield were among the events to make up the Navy’s long farewell to Brunswick.
Once a base of more than 4,000 military personnel, only 10 active duty sailors were still stationed at Brunswick Naval Air Station on Tuesday, and the only Navy plane on hand was a signature P-3 Orion flown in specially for the ceremony by Patrol Squadron 26.
The Mt. Ararat and Brunswick high school bands filled the musical void left by the drawdown of instrument-playing sailors, while young Sea Cadets from the Bath-based Jason Dunham Division stepped in to handle color guard duties.
“We could either mourn the loss of this great naval air station, lament the BRAC ’05 decision to shut Brunswick down and question the rationale of those who made the decision,” Fitzgerald told those in attendance, “or, in keeping with my Irish heritage, we could make this like an Irish wake and celebrate the life of NAS Brunswick over the years.”
The future of the property
Speakers on Tuesday described visions of the 3,200-acre base property as it opens to civilian reuse — as a home for private technology and manufacturing firms, post secondary educational opportunities and protected natural spaces — to put a positive spin on the occasion.
The Navy transferred 715 acres associated with the base airfield to the Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority (MRRA) two months before the official disestablishment, and worked out lease agreements to allow private businesses to begin renovating and moving into vacated Navy buildings early.
Fitzgerald said that more than 30 percent of the base has already been made available to redevelopers, giving MRRA a head start at replacing the 5,000 jobs estimated to be lost as a result of the Navy’s departure.
Speakers on Tuesday described that military-civilian collaboration as groundbreaking in the world of U.S. military base closures, where historically civilian groups have been made to wait at the gates until shuttered bases are completely disestablished.
The accelerated transition process employed in Brunswick, Mayo said Tuesday, has been viewed as a blueprint for how to close military bases nationwide. As of today, the 3,200-acre property will be called Brunswick Landing, while a 74-acre satellite property in Topsham will be known as Topsham Commerce Park.
The early transfers and leases have resulted in the attraction of six companies already hiring employees to work in former base properties. Airplane manufacturer Kestrel Aircraft Co., information technology firm Resilient Communications Corp., Fixed Base Operator FlightLevel Aviation, New England Tent and Awning, and precision machining firm Maine Tool & Machine call Brunswick Landing home, and several others are in negotiations to join them.
Mayo noted that MRRA, the group charged with overseeing the civilian redevelopment of the base, has commitments from companies promising a combined $150 million in private investment and 650 new jobs during the next few years.
In his remarks, Gov. LePage expressed hope that the original motto used by the Navy for the base when it was opened in 1943 will prove prophetic.
“We will renew our Navy’s motto, ‘Built for Business,’” LePage told attendees Tuesday. “A battle cry that was established here nearly 70 years ago will be transformed from a military motto to civilian slogan.”
Commanding officers throughout the history of Brunswick Naval Air Station
- Cmdr. J.C. Alderman 1943-44
- Cmdr. E.M. Ellis 1944-45
- Capt. Joe Taylor 1945-46
- Cmdr. W.L. Dawson 1946
- Lt. Cmdr. H.G. Pollard 1946-47
- Cmdr. F.L. Palmer 1951-52*
- Capt. E.G. Price 1952-55
- Cmdr. G.H. Duffy 1955
- Capt. J.T. Yavorsky 1955-58
- Cmdr. D.W. Bowman 1958
- Capt. F.R. More 1958-59
- Capt. M.T. Thatcher 1959-61
- Capt. H.L. Tallman 1961
- Capt. W.L. Pack 1961-63
- Capt. E.J. Knoche 1963-65
- Capt. D.R. Rains 1965-67
- Capt. C.L. Wyman 1967-69
- Capt. J.D. Collins 1969-71
- Capt. R.D. Snyder 1971-74
- Capt. R.L. Latta 1974-76
- Capt. G.D. Barker 1976-78
- Capt. B.T. Hacker 1978-80
- Capt. N.E. Koehler III 1980-81
- Capt. W.L. Rice 1981-83
- Capt. H.L. Midvedt 1983-85
- Capt. F.W. Gullett 1985-87
- Capt. F.B. Darsey 1987-89
- Capt. R.J. Figueras 1989-90
- Capt. H.M. Wilson 1990-92
- Capt. H.L. Rachor 1992-94
- Capt. D.J. Nelson 1994-96
- Capt. E.F. Carter 1996-99
- Capt. K.F. Koon 1999-2002
- Capt. R.S. Winneg 2002-05
- Capt. G.G. Womack 2005-08
- Capt. W.A. Fitzgerald 2008-11
* Base was reactivated after a five-year closure between the end of World War II and the early years of the Cold War.