Despite their record for causing trouble and disrupting relations with their West German hosts, American soldiers have become a sought-after curiosity instead of a threat in this northern dairy community.
The 4,100 GIs and 3,500 dependents of the U.S. 2nd Armored Division arrived in town about a year ago, marking the first time that combat units had been permanently stationed in the northern part of West Germany since the early post war period. The plans sent shivers throughout the placid community of 19,000 and rumors foretelling diaster spread "faster than the old town windmill used to spin," one resident said.
West German parents feared for the spoiled innocence of their teenage daughters. There were nightmares of men in green with their cloddy highlaced black boots and huge rolling tanks churning up hallowed dales. The older residents predicted an end to the centuries-old tranquillity of the community. And the young cried concern for the ecological harm a large military base would do.
The fears came because relations between local townspeople and the thousands of American soldiers who tour West Germany each year have turned sour -- for reason of bad history, bad behavior and bad luck. Given the chance to start fresh, the Army and the town studied what went wrong elsewhere and resolved not to make the same mistakes. Thus reality has turned out to be much tamer than the fears.
"We have got something nobody else in Europe has - a great rapport with the people," said Capt. Dan Riney, public affairs officer for the division. The townspeople, apparently, have elected to make the most of the new American presence.
"It has become almost chic to have an American as a friend," said Maj. Darrell Katz, who handles community relations for the base and helps match American and West German families in a computer-assisted get-acquainted program being tried here, plain of having to coax some soldiers into participating.
Establishing the new combat base, the first to be built in West Germany since the occupation, was an important decision in Washington and Bonn, and officials have been carefully trying to make the adjustments easy.
The Army has made it a priority. "There have literally been Germans at the gate saying 'I want an American.'" In fact, the West Germans have been more eager to make contact than have Americans. U.S. officials come to see that nothing goes wrong. Soldiers assigned here are screened for disciplinary problems, and they are watched.
"Our troops here know that they are on display, and if they mess up, they are going to get smoked," said 1st Lt. David Klubeck.
To pave the way for the new base, U.S. officials flew local West German officials to America to visit bases there and speak with town officials about what it is like to have the army as a resident. They also toured U.S. Army bases in southern West Germany.
In turn, officials here invited U.S. Army officers to a number of festive town celebrations in the months before the base was even finished in order to build an early friendship. "We established a positive climate in our town from the beginning," said town manager Kort Dielewicz.
The Army also admits having had a little luck.
"We have been fortuante," said one officer. "No one has gone off to rape, pillage or plunder, or whatever they do."
The base has, however, changed the face of the community. There is more hustle downtown, more traffic along the narrow streets, less parking and the price of real estate has risen.
To avoid the ghetto-style housing that marks other U.S. bases in West Germany, residents of the area insisted that the apartments for American families be integrated into West German neighborhoods. And the base is equipped with modern, conservation technology.
Townspeople have been quick to report small slights -- whether it is a soldier failing to pay a cab fare or an American child cutting across a West German backyard. Army officers spent much of the year trying to ensure that such things did not develop into bigger incidents.
"I probably spent more time on community relations this year than other commanders," Gen. James E. Armstrong said.
Stores have adjusted to the new clientele by stocking the brands Americans want. Many accept payment in dollars, and one butcher identifies his cuts of meat in English as well as German.
The West Germans have also been amused and irritated by the Americans' driving habits - too fast in the towns and too slow on the autobahns where the speed limit is unrestricted. The curvy, often slippery and foggy roads of northern West Germany have proven treacherous for some Yanks.
"Whenever there is a car in a ditch, we say it is an American car," Rainer Bliden, owner of a local construction crew said. "And it usually is."
For the most part, however, the two cultures have found much in common.
"The distance is not too great from one American to a German," Blinden said, noting as West Germans will, that the dollar, once worth four deutsche marks, is valued at about 1.7 now.
The Army is delighted with its community relations success here. It points to the base -- named the Lucius D. Clay Kaserne (barracks) after the U.S. commander during Berlin blockade -- as a model operation.
But just how much application the lessons learned here can have anywhere else is questionable. At this base the Army did not have to overcome the ingrained antagonisms between the 200,000 U.S. troops and towns in southern areas of West Germany, where Armericans are not welcomed in some hotels and bars. An attempt similar to the one here of matching GI and West German families failed when tried in a town in the southeast.
Still, the Army believes what has been accomplished here is important as a kind of standard against which it can measure community relations elsewhere. Clay Kaserne also set another precedent: it was designed, built and financed as a cooperative project between Washington and Bonn. The West German government paid for about two-thirds of the roughly $140 million construction cost.
The main importance of the base remains its strategic location. The northern plain, flat as a table and inviting to any tank commander, has for "some time been considered by NATO planners to be particularly enticing to Russian attack," an official said.
The bottom line of the community relations effort tried here has to be whether it has made the division a more effective fighting force. Those involved say this is difficult to measure. At least morale, officers say is good here, or as good as might be expected given the damp, cold climate here, where the sun rarely shines in winter.
Lt. Col. Michael Lopez, a battalion commander, noted one advantage of good relations, "We know the people here support us and we will be able to advance without watching our back door."
But some officials dobut the honeymoon can last.
"The reason it works is it is new," said Spec. 4 David Heald who dates a West German woman, the daughter in a family he had been invited to celebrate Christmas with one year ago. "It is like a novelty thing. As soon as that wears off and as soon as they see what most Americans are like, it will probably be like it is down south."