Griffiss Air Force Base history immortalized By Mike Jaquays - 09/24/2008 Rome Observer
To the average civilian of Rome, Griffiss was off limits," Leonard said of the former military base. "However, my mom had worked at Rome Lab and every now and again I would go with dad to pick her up from work. To a kid, it was always an exciting venture to see the heavily-armed Air Police at the gates. Once you got in it really was a different world in there. It is amazing that you can now travel up and down Floyd Avenue and Chestnut Street to drive right through the former base. What a drastic change from 20 years ago."
His interaction with the Griffiss Air Force Base started even before Leonard was born. His father, also named Peter, was a New Jersey native stationed there from 1959 to 1963. The air policeman met Leonard's mother, the former Johanna DeProspero and a Rome native, at Griffiss, where she worked at Rome Lab as a management assistant. They were married in 1964.
Takeoffs of the bases' aircraft, especially the B-52s and F-106s, were some of the most impressive memories of growing up near the now-deactivated air base, Leonard said.
"It always amazed me how big the B-52 is and the thunderous roar it made taking off. It used to shake the windows on our house and we lived about a mile from the base," Leonard remembered.
Now, the 32-year-old lifelong Rome resident has drawn on that childhood inspiration to celebrate and demystify the rich history of that formerly unseen-by-civilians facility with his new book "Griffiss Air Force Base." Released by Arcadia Publishing as part of their "Images of America" series, the 128 photo-packed pages begin with the early days of the construction of the original Rome Air Depot in mid-1941 - a project brought to a quicker pace as it became a top priority following the attacks at Pearl Harbor.
Leonard's words and choice of pictures - many courtesy of fellow Griffiss historian Kevin Kelley and the Rome Historical Society - show the lives and duty of the first personnel stationed there, including members of the all-African American unit of the 100th Aviation Squadron and also a large group of Women's Army Auxiliary members. After the war, the base was renamed in honor of Lt. Col. Townsend Griffiss of Buffalo, who was killed in action in 1942, the first American aviator lost during World War II.
The book follows the mission of the base from its early
days as a storage and aircraft maintenance site during World War II, later adding communications research and development. Air defense craft soon guarded the east coast from Griffiss, and fighter planes from the 465th and 27th Fighter Interceptor Squadrons patrolled their assigned Eastern Air Defense Sector constantly. The first satellite communications were relayed from the base in 1960, and that year also saw the arrival of the Strategic Air Command and B-52 stratobombers on a mission of global security.
Personnel from the base deployed to Vietnam and to Operation Desert Storm, but regardless of all of the accomplishments at the base, they suddenly found themselves threatened with closure following the war in the Persian Gulf, Leonard recalled. Even after the rally of Roman citizens and politicians, Griffiss Air Force Base was no more by 1995.
The facility didn't stop making history even then, however, as it became the venue for Woodstock 99, a festival that caught the world's attention, not only for the three days of music from the diverse likes of Fritz's Polka Band to Metallica, but for the fires that ended the event during the finale of the Red Hot Chili Peppers' set.
More than 200,000 people were estimated to have attended that 30th anniversary Woodstock celebration, Leonard notes.
There are photos on nearly every page, creating a personal, scrap book-feel to the historical tome. Since pictures are worth a thousand words, the vastly illustrated memorial gives a compelling glimpse of the past with vivid depictions of the people, aircraft, and equipment that will forever make the Griffiss Air Force Base a part of not only Central New York history, but United States military history as well.
The book includes more than just military snapshots, featuring behind-the-scenes recreational odes to the boxers of the 100th and the women's baseball team that was popular with sports fans craving action while male athletes were off to war. There is a collection of military patches displayed, and a thrilling photo of the famed "miracle take-off" as a B-52 banks sharply and nearly crashes as it lifts off the runway, saved only by the sharply honed, split-second reflexes of the pilots.
There's even a pinup-worthy shot of movie star and sex symbol Jayne Mansfield's visit to the base in the 1960s.
But all was not always fun and excitement at Griffiss, as Leonard shows through the inclusion of photos of Vietnam War protesters in the 1960s and 1970s and policemen standing in full riot gear in case their protests got out of control. The sorrow of the decommissioning of the base is also shown, as government representatives arrived for a tour in 1993 to be greeted by a huge crowd of local base supporters, who would inevitably fail in their efforts to keep the base open.
Leonard recalls fondly the personnel stationed at Griffiss Air Force Base, and their impact on the city of Rome.
"The men and woman of Griffiss, including the civilian employees, were a very important part of our community in every aspect imaginable, past and present," he explained. "I don't think anyone in Rome can say they didn't know someone who worked at the base. It is an understatement to say that when Griffiss closed back in 1995 it devastated the local economy. Rome literally went from being your average American city into a ghost town over night. I am very proud of our local residents for having the spirit to rebuild our community after Griffiss closed some 13 years ago."
He said he hopes his book will form the foundation for historical study for years to come.
"I love local history and also military history," Leonard explained. "Given all of the history of this area, overall there is very little written about it, and what has been written is the same recycled stuff over and over again. Hopefully this will be a starting point for historians to research the importance of Griffiss as it relates to the defense of America."
Leonard will autograph copies of the book on Sept. 27 at 1 p.m. at Barnes and Noble in New Hartford; on Sept. 30 at 6 p.m. at the Rome Historical Society; and Oct. 18 at 1 p.m. at the Oneida County Historical Society in Utica.
Griffiss Air Force Base, $19.99, Arcadia Publishing. Available at local retailers, online bookstores, or through Arcadia Publishing by calling (888)313-2665 or at: www.arcadiapublishing.com
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