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Base Tells a Story

Sun, Apr 27th, 2003
Submitted by: Joe Warmington

Canucks were in Germany 40 years By JOE WARMINGTON

BADEN-SOELLINGEN, Germany -- The blue street sign says Toronto Ave. Toronto Ave..? It kind of stands out in the middle of the Black Forest. For someone who didn't know the history of this area it would seem kind of strange.

Just then a Lufthansa Airbus jet takes a sharp right and lands on a long runway, which kind of seems unusual for being out here in the German countryside. Of course it wasn't too long ago that jets taking off and landing here was a distinctive sound that let everybody in this region know who was here.

The Canadians.
For 40 years during the Cold War, as part of Canada's commitment to NATO, Canadian military personnel and their families were stationed at several bases in Germany including Baden-Soellingen and Lahr, not too far down the road.

And then the Berlin Wall came down. The Cold War was over and by 1993 Canada said goodbye to Germany. Just like that we were gone, but we did leave behind a lot of memories and a few other things as I discovered in a recent trip there during a stopover on my way home from the Middle East.
"It was hard at first," Heinz Wild, the long-time proprietor of the Hirsch Gasthaus in neighbouring Hugelsheim, said of the Canadians leaving. "We really missed them."

Gasthauses like his or the Gruner Baum next door suddenly didn't have Canadian money being spent and an area that had buzzed for four decades with activities and the sound of fighter jets suddenly went silent.

"It's getting a little better now," Heinz says, referring to the new Baden air field, which brings in daily flights of tourists.

They have also started to offer flying lessons, filled the military barracks with businesses, and housed the permanent married quarters with immigrants from the former Eastern Bloc countries.
Knowledge of Canada's past involvement in the area is slowly dwindling away. If you were just passing by you'd never know we were ever there at all. But, if you look closely, you can find remnants of what was a very special time in Canadians' lives. Mine included.

My family went over there in 1969 and we came home in 1973. My dad was a sergeant in the dental corps, and although my mom, dad, sister and I did spend some time in Lahr, the majority of our stay was at Baden-Soellingen.

I was a young boy of almost five, so that's where I learned to skate and where I went to school for the first time. The place left a huge impression on me, and being back is kind of like being home again. We lived both on and off the base so the little towns nearby seem as familiar, as does the Baden-Schwarzwald Arena where I spent so much of my time.

Other than that everything is no longer painted that dark military green, it kind of looks the same. Only smaller. Eventually, they say, the old military buildings, bunkers and hangars will be torn down. But today they are still where they always were. The theatre and base store, although vacant, remind me of the base's vibrancy.

Closer to the runway there are new, modern structures that go with the new airport. But the old air traffic control tower remains -- with a coat of paint. But, again, most of the people I meet riding their bikes through the former base have no idea it once was home to thousands of Canadians.

Time marches on. But just down the road, in the tiny hamlet of Soellingen, I found what was missing for me. Just as you enter, up high and proudly on a pedestal is a Canadian 104 Starfighter right next to a Canadian flag. It's breathtaking. Only steps away is a cemetery where dozens of Canadians are buried -- marked by a special stone with the names of every dependent of a Canadian who died there.

Several hundred metres from there is a branch of the Royal Canadian Legion, which has 140 Canadian members -- mainly the ones who married German women and stayed behind.
On this night they are engrossed in a cribbage tournament. "I miss Red Lobster," jokes Raymond "Marty" Martin of what he misses about Canada. "And the hockey."  They have professional German hockey to follow but the guys from the base remember those good old days of the Baden Raiders team, which won the European Cup one year. Made up of the best players in the military, they once beat a team from France 29-1.

"They were something," says the legion's president Gerard Lemay, who quickly brings out a framed picture of the team, which had stars on it like Jimmy Gebhardt, Jack Roussell, Wayne Mitchell and Gerry Bowes.

Memories. Those guys were soldiers and airmen but they were stars.
Lemay, who grew up in Leclercville, Que., and married a German woman in 1956, says the legion, the CF-104 and the cemetery are reminders of a Canadian job well done on the international stage.
"And we had a good time, put it that way," Gerard says, choking up with emotion. "Being on the base was the best years of our lives." I know what he means. And there is no sign or monument that can illustrate that.

This piece on the Baden Soellingen was printed on April 27, 2003 in the Night Scrawler's column of the Toronto Sun. We thank Joe Warmington Copyright © 2003-2009; the author of this article; for giving us permission to use it on our web page.

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