Shortly after West Germany joined NATO in 1955, 11 years after the end of World War II, the first German soldiers came to the United States and Fort Bliss to train, building a unique partnership and friendship between Americans and Germans that has endured nearly 60 years.
But this week marks the beginning of the end of the German Air Force’s long history at Fort Bliss.
On Monday, the German Air Force Command USA/Canada at Fort Bliss will be no more. Its operations will be taken over by the German Flying Training Center at Holloman Air Force Base, in Alamogordo, N.M., a few hours north of El Paso.
The Soldatenstube, or German Club, closes in December, and last weekend, the Germans hosted their last Oktoberfest. The German Air Defense Center is expected to move to Germany in 2017. Then the German school and German store on Fort Bliss will close, too.
About 40 airmen and civilians worked for the German Air Force command at Fort Bliss and about 140 work at the German Air Defense Center.
The Germans in El Paso have become known for their charitable work, operating the Helping Hands and Aid for the Needy organizations, their friendship and their epic Oktoberfest celebration.
Some have become Wild West reenactment aficionados. Others, like Col. Heinz-Josef Ferkinghoff, have fallen in love with the region’s border culture, food, weather and friendly people. They have raised their families here.
Ferkinghoff is the 16th and last commander of the German Air Force Command USA/Canada, which oversaw German flight and air defense training in the United States and Canada – roughly 800 German service members stationed across North America.
On Tuesday, Oct. 1, Ferkinghoff becomes commander of the German Flying Training Center at Holloman. It will be his last assignment, Ferkinghoff says. He and his wife would like to settle in El Paso when he retires in a couple of years.
The couple has purchased a home here and their youngest daughter is attending the University of Texas at El Paso, where she is working on her second master’s degree.
Ferkinghoff, 58, grew up in West Germany and joined the Air Force when he was 18. He earned his spurs on the Dornier Alpha Jet and later flew the Tornado fighter jet, commanding fighter-bomber Wing 31 “Boelcke” at Nörvenich Air Base in Germany. Ferkinghoff has more than 2,100 hours of flying experience on various jets.
Before coming to El Paso, he worked on nuclear policy as a deputy director at the NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium.
Ferkinghoff, who likes to play golf and fly model airplanes, speaks with a lively German accent and droll wit. His office, located in historic Fort Bliss Building 516B, doesn’t have a pen out of place.
He spoke to El Paso Inc. about the special relationship between El Paso and Germany, his plans to retire here, the future of the Oktoberfest celebration on Fort Bliss and, of course, lederhosen.
Q: The German Air Force has hosted a true German Oktoberfest in El Paso for 41 years, but this year’s was the last – at least the last organized by Germans. It’s always been a lot of fun and a great way to share in German culture.
I was there when Fort Bliss commander Maj. Gen. Sean MacFarland had the honor to tap the keg. It was a great party, and everybody had a lot of fun. He told me we have to make sure this Oktoberfest continues one way or another.
It certainly won’t be German organized, but if Fort Bliss’s Morale, Welfare and Recreation program takes the lead, the Germans still here would definitely help out. I’ll tell you, it’s a task that is not done in one or two months; usually, they have a project group working 10 or 11 months in preparation for this.
Q: El Pasoans, Americans in general really, have fallen for the drinking festival.
Among nations you have these stereotypes – like Americans eat every meal with ketchup, and Germans eat sauerkraut with every meal and run around in lederhosen. Obviously there are some typical and traditional things; and for whatever reason, whenever there is an Oktoberfest organized in the U.S., it is an attraction that Americans like to attend.
Q: The most pressing question: Where does one buy a good, sturdy pair of lederhosen?
Good question. I’m contemplating getting a pair myself. I don’t come from (the German state of) Bavaria originally, so I have to admit I don’t own any.
When I was a little boy, I did have these little lederhosen pants. I suppose, on one of my frequent duty trips to Germany, I may have to go down to Bavaria and find myself a pair now that I’m heading to Holloman Air Force Base. The previous commander and incoming commander there, I noticed, have their own sets.
Q: On a more serious note, the German Air Force takes a lot more with it than Oktoberfest and lederhosen when it leaves Fort Bliss. What happens now to the German community that has thrived in El Paso for decades?
Although German Air Force Command USA/Canada is disbanded this week, it doesn’t mean the German Air Force is leaving Fort Bliss completely yet. We still have the German Air Defense Center that will be around for a few more years – probably until 2017. But after that date, it is true the German Air Force would have disappeared and left Fort Bliss.
But coming here I learned there is quite a large community in El Paso that has grown over the various decades of Germans being stationed here. There is an excellent relationship between the German Air Force and the community of El Paso.
That is definitely a sad thing: that something grown over so many years will come to an end – at least in terms of new relationships are concerned.
I am sure many of the people who are established here will remain here and, hopefully, there will still be some German influence in the city.
Q: Your daughter has a master’s degree in architecture and is now studying at the University of Texas at El Paso?
Yes, she is working on her second master’s. She is studying construction management. We decided to buy a home here. I know that this assignment at Holloman will be my last before I retire.
We discussed this as a family, and our plan is to retire in El Paso.
When we came here to El Paso we liked the climate, we liked the friendliness of the people. We said: “Hey, we could stay here. Why go anywhere else?”
Q: What will happen to the German school, store and club on Fort Bliss?
The German store will continue as long as the German Air Defense Center is here and running. The school will continue about the same time. Its closing will be synchronized and coordinated so the children can go back to Germany on a controlled basis and continue their education.
The German Club will close on the 13th of December. Because of the reduction of personnel, we can’t afford to continue to operate the German Club or do more Oktoberfests because they are personnel intensive.
Q: Why is the German command leaving Fort Bliss?
The German armed forces are undergoing a fundamental restructuring process. They have looked not only within Germany but also to other countries, and the U.S. is one of the largest partners we have.
So they decided to streamline and restructure the command in the U.S., and that led to the final decision to disband the command at Fort Bliss, and its responsibilities will go to the flying training center at Holloman.
Q: And, like here in the U.S., the defense budget is shrinking in Germany.
That’s right. It’s all over the world. Even big procurement programs have been chopped in half or have disappeared entirely.
Q: When the German command was set up here in 1966, how old were you?
I was 11 years old, so I would have been in middle school. I was born in the northwestern part of Germany in Warendorf.
Even though my father was not in the military, we moved around a lot because of his job.
Q: What did he do?
He was trained as a writing instructor and then, later on, became a chauffeur. At the age of 18, I joined the German Air Force. So, believe it or not, I have been in the service 40 years.
Q: That would have been 12 years after the Berlin Wall went up. You grew up in West Germany?
Q: Why did you join the Air Force?
I always wanted to join the armed services.
It was very clear to me when I graduated from high school there was only one service I wanted to join – the Air Force.
I studied electrical engineering and was aiming to become a technical officer to do maintenance. Crawling around a plane – that’s one thing – but climbing in the plane and flying it yourself I found is actually the better thing. So after I got my master’s degree in electrical engineering, I went through pilot training.
Q: German soldiers began training at Fort Bliss in 1956 – the year after West Germany joined NATO. What has made the partnership so successful?
We got tremendous help from our partner, the United States, and I think that’s part of why this partnership has a long history that grew over time.
On the funny side, you could say the Germans enjoyed having a strong partner and the Americans enjoyed having the German Oktoberfest. No, seriously, Germans and Americans think in similar terms and have a natural tendency to work together.
Just think of all the U.S. forces that were stationed in Germany for many, many decades. I think we had up to 250,000 U.S. servicemen stationed in Germany; we’re talking now probably 30 years ago at the height of the Cold War. Most of them came back to the United States having had a great time and enjoyed their tour. It really is a relationship that has grown over time.
Q: What makes this region so good for Air Force training?
The main reasons are the weather and the almost unlimited airspace you have available in the United States. If you count all the air space just in this region, you could say it adds up to almost a fifth of all of Germany.
Q: You’ll only be an hour or two away when you move up to Holloman Air Force Base, but what are some of the things you will miss the most about living in El Paso?
Despite the hype that the food in El Paso is not so good, I like the food in El Paso. Of course, there are better and worse restaurants but, overall, I like Mexican food.
We like the international flair El Paso has, being a border town and the culture that it offers. With the idea in mind to retire here, I’d like to stay in touch while I’m at Holloman with friends and colleagues that we met here, and we’ll be spending some weekends here in El Paso. But I’m looking forward to my next assignment at Holloman.
Email El Paso Inc. reporter Robert Gray at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (915) 534-4422 ext. 105.