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The Final Scene: Howard AFB, Republic of Panama.

On November 1, 1999, 1000 hours, HowardAFB, Republic of Panama, was officially transferred to the government of Panama in accordance with the Carter-Torrijos Panama Canal and Neutrality Treaties of 1977. This day officially marked the end of an era and culminated eighty-two years of continuous, American air power presence on the Isthmus of Panama. It was a moment of international importance and a tribute to the region and two nations. What may not be as well known is what occurred less than twenty-four hours earlier. On October 31, 1999, at 1745 hours, a small formation of United States Air Force airmen mustered for one final mission--to ceremoniously inactivate the 24th Wing and to lower the American flag that had flown proudly for fifty-nine years over the skies of this strategically important installation. With just 24 hours remaining until the base would transfer, a 100-member military and civilian caretaker force remained to conduct this ceremony. Only a few spectators, former Panamanian and American em ployees, were on hand. This ceremony provided a brief moment to reflect on our profession and service to the nation, and to honor the courageous men and women who struggled to carve air bases from the jungles and the marshes of Panama and who faithfully served from those bases for nearly a century.

October 31, 1999, 1745 hours. Sunset. A warm, humid, and breezeless evening, eight degrees above the equator, in a lush tropical environment. Howard Air Force Base, near the west bank of the Panama Canal, now little more than an empty shell of its once proud existence. The sun is very low, all but hidden by the mountains that loom majestically over the base, casting prominent shadows upon the headquarters building and the formation area. Darkness would set in by the conclusion of the ceremony Thunder can be heard in the distance, as a massive storm is brewing but surprisingly holding out, as if to allow this historic moment to take place unabated.

The flags of the United States of America and the Republic of Panama are both strikingly illuminated by powerful floodlights. The formation is in place. The flag folding detail is ready. It is hauntingly quiet, except for the clanking of the halyards on the flagpoles and night creatures beginning their evening symphony There is stillness. The formation comes to attention. The wing colors are marched out to join the formation. The commander takes over from the first sergeant. Reflective words are spoken. There is a prayer. The wing colors parade forward and the wing is decorated. The orders of the day are published. A proud and distinguished unit is inactivated, its colors cased until such time as it may be recalled to duty. The sky darkens, the thunder intensifies.

The command is given to sound retreat. The formation presents arms. The "Himno Nacional de Panama" is played and the Panamanian flag is lowered respectfully and folded by the detail, a flag that would fly again atop this installation. There is quiet anticipation. The detail is prepared. This moment is not relished. At the command of present arms, a rush of emotion is felt at the first note of "The Star Spangled Banner." Then comes the dutiful lowering of the flag of the United States of America. Its long journey from its place of honor to the awaiting hands of the flag detail is slow and deliberate. The detail carefully collects and tends to the flag. There is much upon which to reflect.

A crisp snap is heard as the flag is presented for all to see. The powerful music of "America the Beautiful" is played, as the detail slowly and ceremoniously continues to fold the world's most recognizable symbol of freedom; its duty here now complete. The detail slowly marches the flags from the poles to the commander. Honors are exchanged. The order is given to retire the colors. The stirring tones of the Scottish pipes echo as the colors are marched off the field. As the lights are extinguished, a prolonged silence follows. There are few dry eyes. Darkness has set in. It begins to rain.

Chief Master Sergeant Curtis L. Brownhill is the 6th Logistics Group Superintendent at MacDill Air Force Base, Florida. From September 1997 to November 1999, he was the command chief master sergeant of the 24th Wing at Howard Air Force Base Republic of Panama. In that capacity, he was intimately involved with executing the final phases of the historic 1977 Carter-Torrijos Panama Canal Transfer and Neutrality Treaties. His twenty-eight-year career has been primarily in the aircraft maintenance field, beginning in 1973 as a propeller repair man. Over the years he has maintained a diverse list of fixed and rotary wing aircraft.
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Title Annotation:November 1, 1999 US transfer to Panama
Author:Brownhill, Curtis L.
Publication:Air Power History
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2001
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