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At BNAS, a prideful farewell

By ANN S. KIM, Staff Writer

August 28, 2009

BNAS. BRUNSWICK — The pennant for Patrol and Reconnaissance Wing Five won't be lowered for months, but Thursday was the time to bid farewell to the unit of submarine-hunting P-3 Orion squadrons that has been flying out of the Brunswick Naval Air Station for decades.

Only one patrol squadron – VP-26 – remains at the base, which is due to shut down in 2011. The squadron, nicknamed the Tridents, will deploy to the Middle East in December. After that, it will be based in Jacksonville, Fla., along with two other squadrons that had been in Maine.

More than 400 people attended Thursday's farewell ceremony for Wing Five, held in a giant hangar. The event drew admirals, lawmakers, former Wing Five commodores and other sailors who had been based in Brunswick since the unit was established in 1974.

The ceremony marked the end of Wing Five's tactical mission, although work remains in the coming months, said Capt. Jim Hoke, the current commodore.

The airfield will close in January, and the official disestablishment of Wing Five, marked by the final lowering of the unit's pennant at headquarters, will take place March 31.

It was a bittersweet time as Wing Five sailors remembered the history of the unit and said goodbye to each other and the community that's been their home.

Hoke choked up a bit as he told the audience that by the end of this tour – his third at Brunswick – he will have spent more time in Maine than anywhere else in his life.

"There is a reason I keep coming back, and it is due to this great local community," he said. "You accept us, you make us feel at home. When we are deployed, you make sure our families are taken care of."

The civilian speakers were equally enthusiastic about the men and women stationed at the base.

State Sen. Stanley Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, said that redevelopment will help the area replace the jobs and spending power represented by the base, but not everything can be replaced.

"We will miss you far more than you will ever know," he said. "We will never be able to replace the warmth, the service and the dedication you have brought."

During the Cold War, Brunswick was a first line of defense as aircraft from the base chased Soviet submarines. Brunswick-based squadrons have since participated in operations around the Persian Gulf, the former Yugoslavia, Japan and the Atlantic coast.

Retired Adm. Oakley Osborn recalled how hard the squadrons worked to keep track of Soviet subs when he was commodore from 1978 to 1980. Osborn, who now lives in Winthrop, said it's difficult to watch the disappearance of the air station.

"It's really sad to drive around the base and see so little activity," he said.

Airman Stephanie Wells of West Virginia said there has been a mix of emotions in the six months she has been stationed in Brunswick.

"There's been a lot of squadrons that come on this base. It's kind of heartwarming to see them off," said Wells, who works with survival gear for the planes.

Only 655 people are working at the base these days, compared with a high of about 5,200 a decade ago. Just three airplanes are based in Brunswick now, although several others that carried sailors to the event were on the airfield Thursday.

Cmdr. Mark Hamilton arrived on one of those P-3 Orions, along with about a dozen others from Washington state. He chatted after the ceremony with Cmdr. John Stuhlfire, who flew in on a commercial flight from Dallas. Both men were part of VP-8 – the Tigers – when they were stationed in Brunswick.

"It's important to come back, share in the nostalgia," Hamilton said.

While it's logical that a wing could be disestablished and squadrons could be absorbed elsewhere, strong personal connections can make the changes sad, said Stuhlfire, a test pilot who was also part of VP-26.

"From our perspective," he said, "it was such an important time in our lives."

With the Russians getting more active with their subs we are gonna need this base more then ever. Not only that teh fishermen and other boaters relyed on these folks a lot when ever a ship was in trouble. If they were in the area they would assist the Coast Guard in finding them and let the CG know where exactly they were.
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