Wednesday marked the end of a 68-year era for , as military planes took their final flights.
Several hundred veterans, local residents and dignitaries filled the air base’s hangar for the disestablishment ceremony in preparation for the base’s complete closure Sept. 15.
Navy Vice Admiral Dirk J. Debbink said the base has played an important role in the lives of military personnel, as well as the community as a whole since its establishment as Naval Air Station Willow Grove in 1943.
“Willow Grove represented the kind of neighborhood base that’s part of the community,” Debbink said during the hour-long ceremony, which featured flag presentations and performances by the military band. “Even to newcomers, Willow Grove felt like home … A lot of people had the best days of their lives at this station.”
Debbink said the air base was a favored place for 1,300 active duty servicemen and women, and 726 civilians, to call home, work and a drill site.
“How cool is that?” Debbink said.
Since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, Debbink said more than 4,000 military personnel have been deployed from the base to Afghanistan and Iraq.
“Lots of tearful sendoffs,” he said. “Lots of joyful reunions.”
Following the patriotic ceremony, Horsham resident Maggie Tiller was overcome by emotion while watching the planes deploy on their final flights.
“I’ve lived here all my life,” said Tiller, whose father is a WWII veteran. “I see (the base) as safety. It’s security for me.”
Its impending closure marks a closed chapter in history.
“The young that are coming up now don’t realize how important it is,” Tiller said, her eyes red from crying.
Prior to being converted to a military airfield in 1943, the massive site—which today totals 1,100 acres—was owned by famed aviator Harold Pitcairn, who designed, built, tested and flew various aircraft there.
Once the land was transferred from Pitcairn to the government in the early 1940s, the property became the deployment site for thousands of military personnel during the peak of WWII, according to the base's history.
In 1994, the base was renamed Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Willow Grove to reflect the operations of the Air Force, Pennsylvania Air National Guard, Navy, Army and Marine Corps.
Following the military's final departure in September, the base will see new life again as the Horsham Land Reuse Authority leads the charge to redevelop nearly 900 acres of the property.
Al Pasquale, of Jeffersonville, served for a short time at the base in the late 1950s en route overseas.
“It’s a special day,” Pasquale said, wearing his red Marine hat proudly. “It’s sad. It’s unfortunate it’s closing. It’s going to affect the economy of the region.”
Retired Army Nurse Corps Col. Julia Paparella and her husband, Benedict, a WWII veteran, traveled from Villanova for Wednesday’s ceremony.
“It’s a tragedy,” Mrs. Paparella said of the base’s closing. “It’s just like going to a funeral—worse than that.”
Following the flights Wednesday, a Navy official said the runway lights would be extinguished for the final time.