BRUNSWICK — The Navy bid farewell last week to decades in the sky above Maine.
Navy brass, including nearly a dozen admirals, participated in a 90-minute ceremony meant to give closure to the work of thousands of men and women: mechanics, clerks, radio operators, engineers and pilots. It also meant goodbye.
“You accept us and make us feel at home,” said Capt. James Hoke, the last commander of Patrol and Reconnaissance Wing Five. The final planes are scheduled to fly away immediately after Thanksgiving. Next March, Hoke’s air wing will be dismantled as part of the base’s closure.
The ceremony couldn’t wait until then.
“The runways would be closed,” Hoke said. “No one would be left to do the ceremony. And no one would attend.”
The base, which includes the Navy’s last active duty airfield in the Northeast, is already a shadow of its former self. Three years ago, the wing’s personnel topped 4,000 people and 40 or more planes filled the hangars here.
On Aug. 27, there were fewer than 700 people and three planes.
“This is our last hurrah,” said John James, public affairs director for Patrol Wing Five. “There’s nothing else.”
The 11 a.m. ceremony included much of the Navy’s pomp and circumstance, with a brass band, a red carpet and a boatswain’s pipe announcing the arrival of VIPs including U.S. Reps. Michael Michaud and Chellie Pingree.
“You will be missed here in Maine,” Pingree said.
Officers told stories of the Cold War years, when Brunswick planes chased and tracked Soviet submarines by dropping sonar buoys onto the ocean’s surface and listening from a few hundred feet above. Meanwhile, they trained for deployment to Iceland, Sicily, Spain, Puerto Rico and the Azores.
Rather than hunting subs, today’s P-3 squadrons are doing reconnaissance work over dry land. Air crews from Brunswick are now serving in the Middle East. The local base’s last squadron, VP-26, is scheduled to go there in November.
Ret. Adm. John Roberts, who commanded Wing Five from 1993 until 1995, said he will miss the slow, propeller-driven planes flying overhead.
“Today is bittersweet,” he said. Nine of Patrol Wing Five’s 19 prior commanders, known as commodores, were present at the ceremony. “I’m seeing many friends I have not seen in a long time. But this doesn’t feel right.”
Hoke, who is on his third tour of duty in Brunswick, said he, too, will find it unsettling to see an empty sky. Until the past year, there was continuously five planes overhead during daylight hours.
“The base is really winding down,” he said.
To host the ceremony, Hoke’s office reopened a mothballed section of a $34 million hangar. The hangar had been under construction in 2005, when the Base Realignment and Closure Commission ordered the base to be closed.
Ret. Adm. Harry Rich, who fought the commission in 1995 and 2005 in an effort to preserve the Brunswick base, said he was saddened that the event was ever needed.
“The base has been a vital link in the defense of the U.S.,” said Rich, who served in the 1980s as the commander of all P-3 Orions on the East Coast.
“I feel betrayed,” Rich said. “The BRAC commission let us down.”
The base is due to close entirely by May 2011.
Dan Hartill is a staff writer at the Sun Journal in Lewiston. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.