They came from Alaska and Florida, Texas, North Carolina and hundreds of points in between.
Ed and Doreen Schellhase left Iowa in April with Limestone, Maine, Aug. 19-21, as their destination, the finale of their trip to celebrate his tour of duty at Loring Air Force Base from January 1974 to March 1977.
Like hundreds of other former Air Force men and women, they came to the 2016 Loring Air Force Base Open House to remember, to share their stories and to stand at attention saluting the aircraft that made Loring famous within the Strategic Air Command: the B-52 bomber and the KC-135 refueling tanker.
“It was possibly the last time we will see those planes over Loring,” said Matthew Cole, who arranged a flyover of each plane, explaining the last B-52s were made in the early 1960s.
“It was a historic flight for us and for them,” he said of the B-52 crew who flew the plane to Maine from Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota. When Loring opened in 1948, it hosted the 69th Bomb Squadron. When the Maine base closed in 1994, the 69th Bomb Squadron was transferred to Minot.
The flyover symbolized the new 69th saluting its history, and crewmembers carried a flag, coins and other memorabilia they will send back to Loring as souvenirs of the event.
“It was a tearjerker for a lot of people,” Cole said. And it was not easy to arrange. Two weeks before the open house, Minot notified the Loring Military Heritage Center, sponsors of the event, that the B-52 would not be coming to Maine.
For months, the Heritage Center had been advertising the flyovers as the highlight of the weekend, spreading the word on Facebook as well as through extensive coverage in local media.
“Veterans on limited incomes had made plane reservations, booked hotels, rented cars. They were committed to coming,” Cole said. “We had to take it to Washington, D.C.,” he said, recounting the plea that went out to Maine’s congressional delegation, especially Sen. Susan Collins of Caribou, to reverse the cancellation. “I don’t know what happened internally, but a week ago (last Monday) we learned they were back on board.”
“Matt stayed on it,” said Maureen “Cuppy” Johndro, who assisted in coordinating the open house event along with Cole, praising Cole’s persistence. “Let’s say we hit the proper channels and pushed the right buttons.”
The flyovers were clearly a highlight for veterans who lined up along the runway as the planes approached — first the KC-135 from Bangor, then the B-52 from Minot. Commanded to attention by former B-52 radar navigator/bombardier retired Capt. Ray Hildebrand of New Sweden, who served at Loring from 1976-1984, the veterans saluted as each plane passed overhead.
“It was one of the last opportunities for veterans to see the [B-52] hardware,” Hildebrand said, explaining that the final design for the plane was approved in 1949, it first flew in 1952 and became operational in 1954. The only remaining B-52s are based in North Dakota and Louisiana.
Another highlight of the weekend was the decommissioning of the Loring Fire Department, the last active component of the base. Sentiment was strong, as former Fire Chief Norm MacPherson rolled up the fire department banner and presented it to Bill Ossenfort, president of the Loring Military Heritage Center.
“The thing I remember is the people,” former firefighter Ray Porter said. “The people of Loring were the best in the world.” He said many firefighters became fire chiefs and chief officers after leaving Loring.
Porter recalled firefighters’ responses to several tragic crashes. “We cry for those we cannot save, and we celebrate those we can,” he said.
The Heritage Center has sponsored three such open houses, each one more poignant as Loring veterans age. Attendance this year was twice that of the one two years ago.
“The biggest thing for me was the crowd that turned out,” Cole said. More than 1,200 people signed the guest book at the Heritage Center, and hundreds of local people went directly to the flight line for the flyovers.
The highlight for Johndro was veterans telling their stories. “That was the icing on the cake. It made it for me,” she said. “The veterans see that we still care and honor their service at Loring.”
Ed and Doreen Schellhase of Norwalk, Iowa, said they appreciated what was done to make them feel welcome. Returning to Loring for the first time since leaving in 1977, they wrote in an email, “This visit meant so much to us because this is where we started our lives together as 18-year-old newlyweds.” Citing the center and the museum as a highlight, they wrote, “History is built with blood, sweat and tears over many years and can be lost so quickly. … It really made us feel good to see that much of Loring’s heritage is being preserved.”
Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 626, Caribou, ME 04736.