Army Corps of Engineers celebrates 40 years in Europe
July 8, 2014
WIESBADEN, Germany -- The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reached a milestone in Europe this month, marking its fourth decade on the continent.
The organization's history here extends back to the end of World War II. After the war, a number of military construction agencies emerged to meet the challenges facing U.S. forces rebuilding Western Europe and combating the growing threat from the Soviet Union. The U.S. Army Construction Agency was established in Germany in 1956, followed by U.S. Army Engineer Element in 1964 and U.S. Army Engineer Command Europe in 1966.
Military spending was on the decline after the Vietnam War and U.S. Army Europe faced pressure to reduce the size of its headquarters and budget. This led to the birth of USACE in Europe.
On July 1, 1974, USAREUR transferred engineering responsibilities in theater to the Corps of Engineers, creating U.S. Army Engineer Division Europe in Frankfurt. It was the first time the chief of engineers, rather than the theater commander, controlled contract construction for U.S. forces on the Continent.
Ash Batavia, a retired annuitant managing the district's Directorate of Public Works Job Order Contracting program for 38 years and counting, remembers the organization in its infancy. There was greater cohesiveness, he said.
"In our division days, somehow everyone knew each other," Batavia said. "There was a lot of interface. It had to do with how our building was laid out. The Phillips Building was a three-story building with big rooms and a central staircase. Back at that time, all the smokers would smoke around the stairs. Smoking was allowed in public areas then. Everyone would congregate at the staircase.
"We also had a great German canteen. They had good food for 3 Deutsch Marks. The place fit 50 people, but 150 people would line up to eat lunch there. It was a very social environment."
Batavia also recalls the openness of the Phillips Building from a security perspective. Force-protection measures were practically nonexistent, he said.
"We had no fences, no guards, no ID cards and the building was completely open," Batavia said. "There was no real security."
At that time, security was not the concern it is today, said Phil Cohen, the newly-retired district Planning Section chief, who arrived in Germany nearly 30 years ago.
"My wife and I got here in April 1985," he said. "The climate was much more dangerous. There were terrorist gangs in Germany and Italy. And yet the bases did not have fencing."
Cohen said he joined the division because he was intrigued by the mission.
"There was a lot of work to be done," Cohen said. "The conditions of the U.S. installations were appalling. Our commitment here was one year at a time. So the buildings hadn't been painted in years; it looked like there hadn't been any maintenance done to the facilities.
"The '70s and '80s were boom years. We were here supporting a huge buildup -- showing our resolve."
The Force Modernization Program kept the division busy with 60 projects amounting to $300 million over an eight-year stretch in the 1980s. The program helped expand the Vilseck military community from 3,000 to 10,000 people. The division continued to grow its workforce to keep up with the volume of military construction in West Germany and Turkey.
"Our presence here was huge -- $500 million in military construction each year," Cohen said. "There were 350,000 troops and 1,300 installations. We had V Corps in the North and VII Corps in the South."
For 17 years as a division, USACE designed and built facilities totaling $5 billion in support of Soldiers, airmen, civilians and their families. The organization supported U.S. forces conducting critical missions to protect NATO allies and U.S. national security.
But as soon as the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, a moratorium was placed on new military construction and Europe Division's workload declined dramatically, Cohen said.
"The Wall fell and that changed everything," he said. "It all ended with a series of very painful reductions in force."
The first reduction in force was so drastic it required the approval of top-level Army leadership, Batavia said.
"It was shocking -- of course, we were happy that the conflict stopped -- we went down from a staff of 1,200 to about 250," he said. "Almost 1,000 people lost their jobs. People were not able to comprehend what happened."
In 1991, with the construction mission in Europe transformed, Europe Division was replaced by Europe District, a smaller, installation-support-focused organization.
As consolidation across Germany became a priority, many military communities, including Frankfurt, were on the closure list. In 1993, Col. Jack Gates, then-commander, asked Cohen to find a new home for the district and orchestrate the office move.
Cohen called the task "one of the highlights of my career."
"Col. Gates asked me to be the 'move guru.' He said, 'Lay out a plan, lay out a strategy and get a team together.' We formed a team -- I asked for representatives from every part of the organization and we started to have meetings.
"Ironically, Wiesbaden had been announced for closure in the early 1990s. But around 1992, we were invited by the then-DPW -- he was trying to go against the military grain and justify keeping Wiesbaden open -- to visit the Amelia Earhart Hotel. As it turns out, Wiesbaden stayed open. The DPW was very shrewd, he started to draw tenants and one of the tenants was USACE."
When the team first toured the building, the parking lot was too small and the elevators were too slow, Cohen said. But when the district determined it could gut the entire interior, the old hotel became the best option.
Finally, Cohen and the moving committee settled on the vacant Amelia Earhart Hotel as the new location for the district.
"The renovation ran more or less on schedule and cost $3 million," Cohen said. "Starting in May of 1995, floor by floor, the building was released to us by the contractor. On Friday I would get the keys, Saturday and Sunday our team would come in with the movers and set up furniture, Monday the phones and computers were connected, Tuesday the boxes were delivered and by Wednesday the people arrived. We did that five times in five weeks on each floor."
In June 1995, after more than 20 years in the Phillips Building, the district relocated to the fully renovated Amelia Earhart Center in Wiesbaden, Germany. The move culminated with a bike ride here from Frankfurt, followed by a picnic, Cohen said.
"We had a party out on the front lawn with 150 people," he said. "We had games and competitions. The Resource Management chief came up with the theme -- A Tale of Two Cities. I designed a T-shirt. I took the skyline of Frankfurt and blended it into the skyline of Wiesbaden with the castle in the middle."
Cohen says his career with the organization has brought him great fulfillment, both personally and professionally.
"Understanding the Corps' relationship to history, my relationship to history -- it's an important lesson," he said.
Now, Europe District's footprint spans 103 countries on three continents. It's also the only USACE district to support two combatant commands -- U.S. European and Africa Commands. The workforce is composed of roughly 25 percent local national employees, a few of whom have been here providing continuity since the start of USACE in Europe.
Batavia, one of the few longest-tenured employees remaining at the district, has watched the organization evolve over time, he said.
"The current EUD is very different than what it was 40 years ago," he said. "We have gone through turbulent times. Every time we went through a turbulent time, it made us stronger, better and more efficient. I think the turbulent times were necessary."