Future looking good for US bases

MILITARY chiefs have given their strongest indication yet that an American air force presence will be maintained in Suffolk for years to come.As RAF Mildenhall celebrates its historic 70th anniversary bosses said sweeping changes already introduced had "right-sized and right-shaped" the USAF for the future and he doubted there were any major changes on the horizon.

MILITARY chiefs have given their strongest indication yet that an American air force presence will be maintained in Suffolk for years to come.

As RAF Mildenhall celebrates its historic 70th anniversary bosses said sweeping changes already introduced had "right-sized and right-shaped" the USAF for the future and he doubted there were any major changes on the horizon.

Gloom merchants predicted one or both of Suffolk's USAF bases - at Mildenhall and neighbouring Lakenheath - could be shut when US president George W Bush announced 70,000 troops would be withdrawn from Europe and Asia.

They feared any shift away from Suffolk would devastate the local economy, which relies on the bases for millions of dollars of expenditure every year as well as thousands of jobs.


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But Mildenhall wing commander Col Richard Devereaux, speaking on Saturday's 70th anniversary itself, said he was not expecting any major changes in manpower or importance: "There have been a lot of force reductions and restructuring across United States Air Forces in Europe.

"We think the US Government have right-sized and right-shaped our air force not just for today but for the future.

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"The continued US Air Force presence in the European theatre will remain critical and I don't expect any drastic change in current manpower or positions in the immediate future."

The news was welcomed by community leaders following months of speculation surrounding military activity in Suffolk.

County councillor Mary Crane said: "I think this is excellent news for the community as it gives stability to the economy and I believe one particular advantage will be in building more houses and improvements to the highways.

"There has been too much in the air, not knowing whether it was going to close or not, and now that the outlook is a lot more positive is very good news."

The wing commander, who has been at Mildenhall for 15 months, was speaking at the beginning of a week-long programme of activities to celebrate the base's colourful 70-year history.

Col Devereaux said: "It is important for the base to help all our airmen and everyone who works here to understand the history and importance of RAF Mildenhall and we will bring the history to life this week.

"I think the base has lasted so long because of its location as a gateway to Europe and flights coming from the US. We are also in a pretty special place full of rich history and tradition."

As part of the celebrations, Adam Ingram, Minister of State for Armed Forces, will visit the base tomorrow and a time capsule - to be unearthed on the 100th anniversary of the base, will be buried.

Work on constructing RAF Mildenhall, now home to 100th Air Refuelling Wing, was completed on October 16, 1934 - in time for 70,000 people to witness the illustrious MacRobertson Air Race, an 11,000-mile contest from Suffolk to Australia.

A year later, the base played host to the cream of British royalty when it was officially opened by King George V in front of an audience which included the Prince of Wales, who became King Edward VIII, and the Duke of York, later King George VI.

Within years, the RAF base was to face its greatest challenge as the country went to war.

Three Wellingtons, belonging to Mildenhall's 149 Squadron, were among the planes on the RAF's first bombing mission of the Second World War and the base later provided one quarter of the bombing force on the first air raid on Berlin. Mildenhall bombers also played a significant role in D-Day.

In total, RAF Mildenhall's aircraft and crews flew more than 8,000 raids, dropping nearly 23,000 tonnes of bombs and laying more than 2,000 mines in enemy waters. More than 2,000 airmen and 200 aircraft failed to return from Second World War missions.

After the war, the base's current formation started to take shape when members of the United States Air Force arrived on site in 1950.

But their arrival coincided with a more mundane time at Mildenhall earning the base the nickname "Sleepy Hollow" - as speculation over its future first reared its head.

However, it was not long before the base hit the limelight again when in February 1969, the current home of Col Devereaux played host to President Richard Nixon and British Prime Minister Harold Wilson.

Future visits from President Gerald Ford and Prince Charles followed and popular light entertainment came in the shape of Roy Orbison and legendary comic Bob Hope.

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