The original title of the article is “Soesterberg van pilotendorp tot toeristenoord,” which was published in the December 2008 issue of M magazine (published by the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad), p. 36. Many thanks to Thomas Schlijper for permission to use the photos.
Story: Leendert van der Valk
Photos: Thomas Schlijper [ schlijper.nl ]
Translation: Jacco Zwetsloot
The airbase can be found on Google Maps here.
SOESTERBERG: From Pilot Town to Tourist Destination
Flying from Soesterberg in a helicopter, an Air Force Chinook, June 2001.
Soesterberg Air Base is closing on December 31 (2008). The massive 380-hectare site on the Utrecht Hill Ridge is to become a nature, residential and work complex. The neighboring village will have to adjust. Hence, a report on the past and future of Soesterberg.
The young men on the sports field near the air base had everything that the boys in Yolanda Bonouvrié’s class did not have: well toned bodies, a car, neatly kept hair, a salary, an American passport. And a uniform. Yolanda often went with her girlfriends to watch those boys played football and baseball. In 1978 she fell in love with one of them, Marc. He took her to the highly guarded Soesterberg Air Base in the luggage compartment of his VW Bug to get around the security check.
The boys were older, more macho and looked fantastic, recalls Yolanda in the backyard of her house on the edge of the American district of Soesterberg. There you will find houses with giant carports on dead-end streets. The Dutch children of Soesterberg used to go there to see how the houses were decorated for Halloween, July 4th, Christmas and Thanksgiving. Nowadays it’s almost exclusively Dutch people who live there. When the Cold War was over, the Americans left in 1994, to the great sadness of the Soesterbergers.
A Chinook flies low and interrupts the conversation, but Yolanda keeps talking. As the chirping of crickets is to a village in the South of France, such is the noise of aircraft to Soesterberg. You’ll miss it when it suddenly disappears. And that moment is imminent. In October the helicopters moved to Gilze-Rijen Air Base. Soesterberg Air Base is closing. Yolanda says, “Here is where aviation all began in the Netherlands. From here the country was defended. I’m going to miss the sound of the flights. It will be very quiet here.”
She has come back to Soesterberg from the United States when her husband was deployed again. They’re divorced. This is no exceptional story in the little town on the ridge.
Of the one hundred girls who went to the United States, 98 came back, says Linda Grollitsch (blond hair, gold chains round her neck). They could not put roots down, or it turned out that life was not quite as nice as the soldiers had portrayed it. An Austrian by birth, Linda has already spent 38 years behind the bar of the café-restaurant Spitfire alongside the Amersfoortseweg Road. It lies diagonally opposite the field where the soldiers once played sport. She saw the girls and the military types come and go. What is now the smoking room of the café was then the backroom. That’s where they would sit and make out.
Those who preferred to meet darker boys could go to Pinokkio in the town of Zeist. That’s where they went dancing. From the base all the soldiers came to café Spitfire, where they were allowed to show up in uniform, unlike in nearby Zeist. Linda recalls, “On pay day they sometimes ate steak and fries three times in one day.” And they could drink well. On Mother’s Day she invariably received loads of gifts, and she consoled the youngest soldiers who missed their moms back home. On Valentine’s Day it was just the same.
Back then, Linda had 28 types of whisky behind the bar. The big American limousines belonging to the higher ranks stood in the parking lot. University students came to wax them for a dollar. Not anymore. Now there is still a Wurlitzer jukebox still in the corner and aviation paraphernalia on the wall. Now café Spitfire opens at four o’clock in the afternoon instead of nine a.m., as it used to. Luckily, even after the departure of the Americans, the Dutch military has kept coming, and the airplane spotters too. Often to tell stories about the Americans.
The departure of the Americans 14 years ago did not leave the village unmarked – an empty commissary (a gigantic supermarket), separated families, an abandoned Camp New Amsterdam. But the air base continued to exist and the crates continued flying. To Iraq, to Afghanistan. That’s how Soesterberg kept going. The F16s moved away and Soesterberg came to house choppers. They made less noise, to the dissatisfaction of some residents. But at least they flew.
The town of 6,000 has always been an international, military town, from Napoleon’s time on down. The first drive-in McDonalds opened in the neighboring village of Huis ter Heide and young people all around would listen to the radio station American Forces Abroad. It played lots of country music, but rock & roll, jazz and rhythm & blues also arrived in the Netherlands through the base in the 1950s. On the road leading to the base there has always been a coming and going of trucks with number plates beginning with BN- and GN- (for vehicles not of Dutch origin or ownership). And everywhere you would see brownish-green uniforms. That’s all coming to an end now. On the part of the local population there is a deeply felt need to make an appropriate goodbye, which will certainly contribute to the process of working through the emotions, as it says on the website of the committee “Vaarwel Vliegbasis Soesterberg” (Farewell Soesterberg Air Base), a local initiative for collective bereavement.
The Ministry of Defense will remain in Soesterberg’s future too, with a museum built on 60 hectares of the historic site. But from January 1, 2009, the other 380 hectares will fall into the hands of the regional authorities. Everything from the base has moved to Gilze-Rijen. Cost cutting. An undeveloped property this large is an unheard of luxury 20 kilometers from the city of Utrecht in a wooded area.
This offers a chance for Soesterberg to finally grow. For decades, construction had continued literally up to the fence line. The air base that the town is so proud of has also worked as a hindrance to development. Although just about every family had something to do with the base in one way or other, the town itself saw little in the way of economic profit from it.
Soesterberg town center. The middle-class had little benefit from the military presence.
“I have waited 50 years for this,” says retired pharmacist Cor Sukking (67). Not on the base closure itself – he finds that a dreadful shame – but on some kind of boost for the town. The military wasn’t all that good for the place. Over the years the town has deteriorated. On his table there are newspaper clippings, books and notes about the base and the town. From his living room above the drugstore he owns in the main street of Soesterberg he points outside. In places Rademakers Street makes a sad impression. “There is a store nailed shut. You can’t really call it busy. The hospitality industry is limited to a pancake restaurant that opens irregularly and the Oriental Swan. It was once called ’t Zwaantje, a hotel and café where aviators would meet. Now it’s an oriental restaurant with a take-out service.”
“The gas station, he benefited from it,” says Sukking. “Those huge American cars stood in line at the Esso. And I sold car paint - that went well too. The Americans would buy three liters at once. But apart from that they had everything else on post.”
But don’t get the idea that Sukking hates the base. Quite the opposite. Suddenly his windowsill is a runway and his right hand a Hawkhunter. “That’s what it was like. Up into the air like a rocket. Within one minute an altitude of 12 kilometers. What a racket! That thing weighed 15 or 16 tons. I love it. As a young boy I went to the base to watch. You could see the pilots wave. Later you couldn’t come that close anymore.”
Soesterberg is the birthplace of the Air Force in the Netherlands. In 1910 The Hague car dealer Verwey and Lugard carried out one of the first experiments in flight at Soesterberg. Thousands came to see. Three years later in 1913, Queen Wilhelmina signed a decree creating the Air Wing in Soesterberg: the forerunner of the Royal Dutch Air Force.
Some of the hundreds of buildings that stand on the site of the air base have cultural and historic value. The long line of sight over the flatness of the landing strip is exceptional in this forested area. At the same time the base has always been an obstacle to the national ecological network, and a hindrance to the migration of animals over the Utrecht Hill Ridge. On the other hand, it is an extraordinary nature preserve, because the Ministry of Defense has allowed little in the way of growth for a century. The ground was kept bare so that the airplanes could more easily take off and land.
The nutrient-poor soil attracts deer, foxes, pine martens, 28 varieties of butterflies, 55 kinds of breeding birds and 400 types of plants. In the bomb-proof shelters there are even bats. So bulldozing everything and building is not an option.
The Zeist and Soest local councils and the province of Utrecht, which would like to build houses here, are trying to come to an agreement in which the environmental groups can be acknowledged and the Ministry of Defense can stay with a National Defense Museum. A tricky task. An international advisory panel was flown in, the Urban Land Institute (ULI). Its advice was to keep the site mostly green and it launched the term “Peace Park.”
The preliminary plans cost 55 million Euro. The business park that now abuts the base will have to be rebuilt elsewhere in the district. In its place will come offices and houses. Soesterberg is to be fitted out with an entertainment complex, hotels, restaurants, galleries and a visitor center, in order to function as a tourist town. Building is not only possible on the base, but also within the town it will become easier, because the noise restrictions won’t be exceeded any longer.
The Soesterbergers look on in anticipation. It is clear that their town will grow from 6,000 inhabitants to 9,000, and that the plane spotters who used to come to the spotters’ hill will now be replaced by daytrippers who want to amble over the Utrecht Hill Ridge. Maybe they will want to spend money in the town.
But there is also skepticism. Particularly regarding the Soest local council, which is in charge. It’s never paid any attention to the small town before, goes the complaint.
Soesterberg has always looked more to Zeist than to its big brother Soest. That has long been the way, because if you went by bike or on foot you first had to go over a hill to reach Soest. Farmers, beekeepers and shepherds preferred to go to market in Zeist or Amersfoort. But for the last 50 years, since the Americans came, Soesterberg has been completely blocked off, says Carel Bense, architect and chair of the Farewell Soesterberg Air Base committee.
“Around the town there lies a collar of barbed wire,” says Bense. He grabs a map. “Aside from the base in the north, there are military training grounds to the east and southeast up against the town. Therefore, Soesterberg has not been able to expand in any direction for fifty years. And note well: the barbed wire on the fences is angled towards the direction of Soesterberg, not the military area. The only way out is if you go to Zeist. But even then you have to surmount another obstacle: the A28.”
The Committee actually wanted to organize a big farewell, to soften the blow for the town. The Ministry of Defense and the local council seemed to cooperate. In the beginning the base was supposed to close down last year already, but the mission to Uruzgan threw a spanner in the works. The closure was postponed. After that, Bense received little cooperation from the council. Not much has come of the plan for an official farewell for the town.
Despite the loss that he too feels as lover of Soesterberg and aviation, the architect is full of ideas for a new start for the town. He has lived there 15 years already, but fell for the place right away. Lately he has been immersing himself in local history. Bense wants to recapture some of the glory days of Soesterberg, around 1920. The first entrepreneurs and pilots experimented with aviation on the heath for enjoyment, not just their own but also for the daytrippers. That was when the clean air and the big country houses in the area around the town still drew rich folk; a tram ran through the town; the worldly aviators and their chic women came together in ‘t Zwaantje. He has photos from those days hanging on his wall, as inspiration.
They have come in their hundreds, maybe thousands. Not just from Soesterberg, but the wider region. On this drizzly Wednesday afternoon they have brought binoculars and thermos flasks. With stools to stand on and collapsible stepladders. On this November 12 it’s the last fly-by over the airfield. Amongst others there are helicopters, F16s and a Fokker 50, taking off and landing as a farewell to the base, and passing once more over the spotters hill, where enthusiasts have been coming for years to have a look. These are the last aerial maneuvers above the birthplace of the Air Force.
Jacobus Haring is there too, better known in the town as Mr. Co of Saint Carolus Elementary School. He used to come here as a child to see, when a spotters hill wasn’t even necessary; you could just walk over the landing strip. It saddens him that the base is closing. But he too can see the chances for the town, as member of the Future Vision Soesterberg Working Group.
And there are those who have been eagerly looking forward to this day. Like Rob Dashorst from Den Dolder, who, together with others, for years complained to the Ministry of Defense about the noise above their houses. “I now find myself in the happy circumstance that I am able to disband the Soesterberg Noise Pollution Association,” he says over the phone. Not that many inhabitants of Soesterberg were members of his organization.
Of course they do exist – Soesterbergers who hate the air traffic, especially new residents, who came after the Americans. But they keep a low profile in the town. “Whiners,” Henk Kraan calls them. “So don’t come and live here!” He lives right beside the fence. The council has given him triple glazing for his windows, against the noise, but he could have done without it. His wife Ineke too. When something flew overhead, they would look out of their attic window to the base where it would land. “Now they call it noise pollution. Before, they used to say ‘ah, the sound of freedom.’”
Right: Living in the flight path. Attic room with a view on the Soesterberg Air Base, closed to the public.
For 23 years he worked as a meteorologist on the base. “I know every blade of grass there. But there’s still all sorts of stuff under the ground – unexploded bombs, underground passageways that the Germans made during the Second World War. They’re going to have trouble with all that when they try to dismantle the place.” His wife chimes in, “One of these days we will probably get moved out too.”
The residents preferred not to think about it, but for all those years they were living in a deadly dangerous little town. There were accidents on the base, and airplanes have also crashed or been forced to make emergency landings. In the 1980s some activists thought that there were nuclear weapons. They protested at the base and at Camp Zeist.
The American base was naturally also a target during the Cold War, although everyone says that the Russians really wouldn’t lob any bombs on top of Soesterberg. In the town it felt a bit like war when the Americans were at war. And that they were often. Says Henk Kraan, “The Cuban Missile Crisis was quite exciting, for example. At that time the whole town emptied out. It became quiet. That was also the case during Vietnam and the First Gulf War.” Ineke Kraan says, “I found that very scary, macabre even. In the town people chose not to talk about it. I only realized later how dangerous it had actually been.”
In café Spitfire Linda saw it happening too. The boys were virtually yanked from behind their steaks to go to Vietnam. Some of them came back disturbed. One of them got all worked up when a helicopter flew overhead. At that moment he was back in Vietnam again.
Yolanda Bonouvrié noticed it in her own family. In 1983 it was unsafe in the American district where she lived. The anti-Americanism was strong and there were many demonstrations in the area. “We had BN- and GN- cars. We weren’t allowed to drive them.” She found it scariest when Bush Senior found it necessary to start that war in Iraq, she says. “Lots of missions were flown from here. The whole district was blocked off. You get very personally involved. My ex was an F15 specialist and could have been deployed. The kids always went to school on the air base; that closed for a few days.”
Whatever indirect inconvenience the Americans may have caused, in Soesterberg you won’t hear a bad word about them. Henk Kraan says, “What I’ve seen from the Yanks is that they are polite people, helpful. Not assholes at all.” Linda says, “In forty years there has never been a fight here. There were no bad kids there. But we did educate them here. Some of them, the ones from poorer areas, had never seen a knife and fork before.”
Relative newcomer Carel Bense can comment some more about that. First of all about pilots in general: “Pilots, not just the American ones, are wild boys, skirt-chasers, but I can’t really say that. They were heroes; they took the risk that they might die. Among men, criticism of pilots is unthinkable. Women know the other side: they know the fear that their men might die, and they were abandoned.”
The air force town will become a tourist town – full of memories, that’s for sure.
In America there is mourning about the base closure too, as can be seen on various Internet fora. Hundreds of reactions on Soesterbergwolfhounds.nl, beside an English-language recipe for boerenkoolstamppot (kale stew). “Loved the place, loved the people - lots of great times - wish I could go back...”
Linda says that many retired soldiers still come back to the Netherlands each vacation season. At café Spitfire they stop for steak and beer. Linda can’t believe that it’s really all going to stop. “As far as I’m concerned they will always fly here.” But the silence in the air betrays the fact that something has changed.
Info: Leendert van der Valk is a correspondent for NRC Handelsblad in Utrecht. Freelance photographer Thomas Schlijper puts a new photo on his site www.schlijper.nl every day.
[This article is protected by copyright. All rights belong to NRC Handelsblad BV or the original author.]
The issues surrounding who benefits and who suffers from the existence and disappearance of military bases, and how they impact the surrounding community, is just as applicable to Korea, as seen specifically with the planned closing of Yongsan Garrison and expansion of Camp Humphries. There are in fact still several smaller US bases in and around Seoul, as ROK Drop has documented, while others closer to the DMZ have been closing. Beyond these, in the past there used to be even more bases.
Awhile ago a reader sent me links to photos of former US bases in Korea. The bases in question belonged to the 508th United States Army Security Agency Group (USASA was the US Army's signal intelligence branch from 1945 - 1976), and are listed at the bottom of this introductory page. One of the bases was located on Ganghwa-do, and Elmer Hackbarth describes how the base on Ganghwa-do was set up in 1956 (including wiring the operations hut with only a hammer, nails, and a pocket knife), as well as this tale:
[I]n October of 1957 we were getting strange telemetering signals. Being bored to death I set up an unused DF set and got a good bearing on these signals. Guess it turned out to be control signals for Sputnik.This later became home to the 226th company (follow that link for photos), home to 100 men, and even supported a ville (on Ganghwa-do!).
The 508th Group's Headquarters and Headquarters Company was located in Yeongdeungpo, at Camp Spade, photos of which can be seen here. Camp Spade was apparently operational from 1957 to 1967. This photo is of the traffic circle outside the gate of the camp:
The traffic circle can be seen below at bottom left in a photo taken in 1963, and the camp should be easy enough to make out:
A clue to where exactly it was located can be seen by clicking on the image and looking at the right hand side of the photo, two thirds of the way up. There are piers under construction for a bridge, which is obviously the Second Han River Bridge - now known as the Yanghwa Bridge, the first part of which was built between June 1962 and January 1965. The traffic circle and base area can be made out in the photo below (From Seoul Through Pictures 4) at top left (click to enlarge).
Here is a photo of the UN Allied Forces Memorial Tower which was erected over the north end of the bridge in 1964. It was Korea's largest memorial tower, according to the book, but was torn down in 1981 to make way for the expansion of the bridge.
Back to the base, the location of the bridge and the traffic circle in the photo below make it easy enough to see where it is today.
The street with the traffic circle is today is where Dangsan Station is, which can be seen below. The area of the former base is marked in yellow. Other than being bisected by a street running east-west in the northern part of the former base, the area where the base once was seems to still be intact, as part of a factory.
There are several other former bases around Seoul, especially in the area where I used to live; Gimpo airport used to be K-14, or Kimpo Airbase at one time, and other bases in the area (see map here) can still be seen today, though not all of them are in use. I'll look more closely into those bases another day.