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Three Wonderful Tours in Izmir, Turkey

Paul Ruehs

© 2010 by Author

Paul, Fair Lawn, NJ 1975

I joined the USAF in Nov 1974 (delayed enlistment) and reported to Lackland AFB, Texas, for basic training in Feb 1975. I was assigned duties as a “291” – communications center specialist, and after completing tech school at Sheppard AFB, TX, I was assigned to İncirlik AB Turkey. I had requested a Mediterranean region tour and got Turkey. I didn’t mind but I did not know very much about the country. After checking out some books from the library, while home on 30 days leave, I learned some interesting things and was looking forward to my adventure.

I arrived at İncirlik Air Base in early July 1975, but to my surprise they were not expecting me. It seems that I was not assigned to İncirlik but should have gone to TUSLOG Det 11, Izmir. I recall the personnel clerk telling me that I was lucky because “Izmir was one of the best assignments in Turkey.” After a week of Adana’s immensely uncomfortable heat and humidity (not to mention that the AC in the dorm had been broken) I was ready to leave. I flew on a Medevac C-130 to Cigli AB and was transported to downtown Alsancak via military “blue” bus.

I was let out at the TUSLOG Det 119 base hospital late in the afternoon. The on-duty medic called the Det 11 Comm Center and TSgt Lonnie Spencer, NCOIC, picked me up. I fondly recall Lonnie hailing a horse drawn carriage, one of several main modes of transportation in downtown, and after I threw my duffle bag on board, asking Lonnie if “these things are safe.” He replied with a grunt, “I don’t know, I’ve never taken one before.” That night I had dinner at the old NCO Club which was located across the street from the city Fire Station on Sair Esref Blv. The Kordon Hotel was fully booked so I stayed in a small Turkish hotel called the Okun which was close to the NCO Club. I stayed there for a couple of days. Luckily, I found quarters with one of the guys from work who was looking for a room-mate. His name was Joe Shirley. We lived in an apartment near the old APO (post office), barber shop, and DODDS School on 1374 Sokak. Directly across the street from the US leased Christian Church). Because there was no base, per se, we lived “on the economy” in high-rise apartments.

One of many Friday night card games at 1375Sk. (L-R) Bruce Ellard (back to camera), do not recall gentleman with sweater, Jack Wall, Tom Verdinelli, Steve Burleigh, Lonnie Spencer, unknown gentleman next to Lonnie. Taken at Paul & Tom's apartment, Izmir, 1975.

(L-R:)Tom Verdinelli, Steve Burleigh, and Paul enjoying a care package sent from home.
(L-R:) Tom Gallegos, Paul Ruehs, Mike Stanley, "C" Flight, TUSLOG Det 11, Izmir, 1975.
(L-R:) Mike Stanley, Paul Ruehs and, Jack Wall, on the way to Cigli Airport to pick up Frank Russo, Fall 1975.

I worked in the base comm. center located in the TUSLOG Headquarters building adjacent to the Buyuk Efes Hotel off of Akdeniz Cad. The building has long since been torn down to make way for a new office high rise. Although I didn’t enjoy my job at the comm. center I made some great friends whom I will always remember. I had a lot of fun and some great experiences – going to Cesme and Ephesus were highlights. Since Lonnie Spencer had a car and didn’t mind driving us to see the many sights he was a terrific tour guide. And who can forget the fabulous holiday meals prepared by the famed TROPR chef, Big John!

Paul and Ipek, Fall 1975.

The best part of my first Izmir tour was meeting and marrying my wife Ipek in Nov 1976, shown at left in Fall 1975. We were married and had our reception in the Kordon Hotel Penthouse – what a blast! Some of the memories from that tour are: dining at Cheap Charley’s (can still taste the grilled sish with cumin), dinners and weekly entertainment at the Kordon Hotel (the old NCO Club, along with the famed Izmir Rod & Gun Club, closed down in 1976 - victims of budget cuts. Subsequently, the enlisted and officer’s clubs were combined and located in the Kordon Hotel), frequenting the swimming pools at Bayrakli Park and Syrnier Garrison (NATO HQ) in Buca, the Turban Cesme Hotel in Cesme, Bonjour and Café Plaza restaurants, all the pastry shops, donner kebab, the many spaghetti dinners – courtesy of Tom Verdinelli, and the weekend card games.

Paul in Izmir, 1977
Jean Pierre (JP) Blanchet & family (left to right) Jean Marc, JP, Joyce and Nathalie, taken at Vasif Cinar Blvd,1977.

Receiving “care packages” was never appreciated more than those first years being away from home. Some friends and coworkers that I still recall: Frank Russo, Tom Verdinelli (a fellow Jerseyite and friend who saw us through many a rough time), Mike Stanley, Jack Wall, Clem Clemson (who allowed me to share Thanksgiving dinner with him and his family that first holiday in a new land), Lonnie B. Spencer, Bill Houser (who is no longer with us), Steve Burleigh (the old TUSLOG fire chief who made my initial first months a blast and lots of fun with his unorthodox outlook but practical approach to life in Turkey), Charley Duran, Bill Kilmer, Tom Gallegos, Mike Lowrey, Daryl Adame, and Mike Pitchford to name but a few. It’s amazing how I can still picture these folks vividly in my mind – even after 30+ years! One of my best friends, whom I’m still in touch with, is Jean Pierre Blanchet affectionately known as “JP.” JP and his family became great friends and neighbors (we lived across from each other on Vasif Cinar). At that time, JP worked for Borg’s Jewelry in Konac. Although the first year was a bit rough, and I never did get used to the frequent power outages and water shortages, I was fortunate to be allowed to extend for two more years. After three plus years we packed up our meager belongs and headed back to the States where we had assignments at K.I. Sawyer AFB MI and Hanscom AFB MA. Upon returning to CONUS I applied for and was accepted into the Security Police field as a law enforcement specialist. A job I liked much better than being a 291 (comm. center specialist).

In 1983, I volunteered and was accepted for another overseas tour to Izmir; this time as a security policeman assigned to the base cop shop headquartered in a very old building across the street from the BX/Commissary complex. We shared space with the MWR snack bar, Izmir Video Club, and the base motor pool. Although not a lot changed there were improvements in the quality of life thanks to initiatives by both the USAF and city of Izmir. Izmir was going through some big changes. There were fewer power/water outages, the main roads were being improved and new “super” highways being built. Prices too were going up but with the exchange rate Americans still lived well and had the power of purchase on their side.

My wife found her first job with the base maintenance contractor – Holmes and Narver Services Inc – as a cashier at the Kordon Hotel. She later moved to NAF as an accounting tech. Holmes and Narver took over the contract from Boeing in the early 80s but kept everyone on and added some new faces. I bought a used car from another American and with our ever faithful dog Chester in tow did lots of traveling back and forth from Cesme and Kusadasi.

We had a nice apartment on Talatpasa Blv close to some of my favorite places – Pizza Fil and Donner Alley. An added bonus was being very close to the fruit and vegetable market aka the Alsancak Bazaar. My friend JP went into the carpet business and opened a small shop on S. Nevres Boulevard next to a new pizza place called Pizza Hat (that’s right HAT, not HUT). We bought many beautiful carpets during this time that we still enjoy to this day.

We liked going to Bayrakli Park, the beaches, restaurants such as Cactus, Pizza Venedik, and the old stand-bys Bonjour and Café Plaza – sadly, one of our favorites from our previous tour the Pilsen Pub had gone out of business and the building now housed a grocery store. We established a Saturday morning ritual of breakfast with friends (usually Terry and Helen Pierce) at the Kordon Hotel cafeteria, followed by a visit to JP’s carpet shop for tea and a review of his newest carpets, and then on to the BX/Commissary and beyond. A lunch time treat was the delicious sajuk sandwiches from the guy on the corner next to the “cop shop”, Cheap Charley’s was still going strong and we still frequented his meager establishment – he had a habit of giving us free tea when we took time from our mid-night mobile patrol to visit.

We loved going to the many fish restaurants outside of the city that JP took us to. Going to the Karaca Theater (base movie theater) to catch the latest movies was also a delight – at that time, there was no AFRTS TV outside of the Kordon Hotel and most Americans either went to the Karaca or rented VHS tapes from the Izmir Video Club. The more fortunate ones received care packages from home with the latest shows. We still had the NCO/Officer Club at the Kordon Hotel for fine dining and the AAFES Snack Bar around the corner from the BX/Commissary (with the base bowling alley on the second floor) for breakfast and lunch – a gentleman named George Jones ran the snack bar and did an excellent job. Like Big John before him, George prepared wonderful holiday spreads for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Some of my friends from this period: Terry Pierce, John Gil, Ray Boudwain (the Raggin’ Cajun), Larry Spiva, Mike Woolweaver, Tony Strauss, Brian VanAlstein, Felix Sanchez, Bill Dentson, Patrick T. “Coop” Cooper, Grant Andrews, George Ponce, and the incomparable William G. Schierhorst. Alas, all good things must end and in the fall of 1986, after three years, Ipek, Chester, and I left Izmir for our new assignment at Ramstein AB, Germany. It was during this time in Izmir that the U.S. dollar was at its peak strength as was the U.S. military community – over 2,000 military and 3,000 family members.

Our friend JP at his Anatolia Carpets shop in the Hilton Hotel, Izmir. Taken in 2003.
Nat and Paul Cesme, Summer '93
Paul, NATO Ismir, June 1993
Nat, Ipek and Paul '93

As fate would have it, we came back to Izmir in Jan ‘91 for what would be our last stationing there. This time I was assigned to NATO, Allied Land Forces Southeastern Europe (LANDSOUTHEAST) as the Headquarters Command security superintendent; one of my best jobs ever! Even though I was in the Air Force, my American supervisor was a U.S. Army Lt. Col and my Turkish boss was an army major. A unique and interesting situation – somehow it always came together favorably. It was here that I met and worked with an extraordinary fellow named Cemal Doancan. Cemal was with NATO since the mid-60s and knew where all the bodies were buried! He was extremely wise, proficient, and most importantly knew how to make things happen and get the job done in very short order. A rarity given the situations we usually found ourselves involved in. For anyone who has worked in NATO you know what I mean (I often wonder what became of Cemal – no doubt he has long since retired from NATO, as he must be in his late 70s, and is living in his beach house enjoying his long deserved retirement). My crowing achievement with NATO was working the many security issues related to the new joint headquarters building, being built at Sirinyer Garrison. NATO shifted their LSE HQ from downtown to the Garrison in 1994 to share the new building with 6 ATAF. The old LSE Kordon building was turned in to an officer’s club for the Turkish military. In 1996, the name of the garrison hosting NATO was officially changed from “Sirinyer Garrsion” to “General Vecihi Akin Garrison.”

Sean and Ipek Cesme, 1996   Sean and Nat, Izmir
Dec. '96

Our family, that had now grown to three members – daughter Natalie was born while in Germany (sadly our longtime friend and companion Chester passed away while stationed in Germany) – found a stately apartment in one of the few remaining older buildings on Talatpasa Blv. right in the heart of old Alsancak down the street from the train station. Good for me because the NATO bus stopped in front of my apartment.

Izmir, by this time, had gone through many significant changes – many of which affected the U.S. military community. Traffic was heavier, the city more crowded, and many of the old buildings/facilities were gone replaced by newer and fancier construction that seemed to permeate Alsancak. This tour saw the gradual drawdown of U.S. personnel and several major organizational changes. The American footprint was rapidly decreasing. The old book store housed in the same building as the Class VI across the street from the BX/Commissary was gone, the AAFES Snack Bar and bowling alley around the corner from the BX/Commissary were no more. After almost 30 years, the Kordon Hotel was no longer leased to the Americans (we gave up a lot when we let the Kordon Hotel go; on a personal note, we had some fabulous times there). New and departing arrivals were now billeted in the Izmir Palace Hotel – but only on three floors that the USAF leased. It was nice but not the Kordon. The snack bar, post office, library, and other MWR activities were now housed in an old tobacco warehouse that had been recently refurbished. The DODDS School had changed locations also (my daughter Natalie went to the Italian School prior to moving to DODDS).

The base maintenance contract, although employing many of the same personnel – both Turkish and American - was now run by Vinnel- Brown and Root or VBR. The 425th Air Base Group (changed to the 425th Air Base Squadron in 1994 and now back again to the 425th ABG) designee had replaced the term “TUSLOG” although the old timers still referred to the U.S. military establishment by that name. The 425th had a new headquarters building too. The new headquarters – Akin Building - was next to the Karaca Hotel and old Karaca Theater (I understand that the USAF gave up this building about eight years ago). The theater was no longer an American leased facility; hence, we no longer had our own movie theater but, Izmir being Izmir, there were several movie theaters that showed first run American films in their original language with Turkish subtitles. So we could still keep up with the latest entertainment. Cable, too, was big – we had cable TV and enjoyed many shows in English. It wasn’t AFARTS but in many ways it was better and had a greater variety of broadcasts – many courtesy of the BBC.

As a sign of the times, the once plentiful horse drawn carriages were quickly diminishing. Our favorite carriage man – Charley – was still in business but he was one of the few old timers left. The American community was smaller and many of the activities were combined with each other into smaller facilities. On a plus, even though the USAF hospital-turned-clinic, finally closed its doors for good in the late 1980s, Americans had the option of using Salik Hospital, a modern, private hospital in downtown Izmir, in lieu of going TDY to İncirlik or Landsthul military hospitals. This was a good thing. My son Sean was born in Salik and the care/service was excellent.

McDonalds and Burger King had restaurants in Izmir. Our friend JP moved his Antolya Carpet business to the newly built Hilton Hotel – at the time the tallest building in the city. It was always a pleasure to share a tea or coffee with JP but now we really were in luxurious surroundings. His son Jean Marc opened a jewelry store just down the hall from JP; needless to say, we were good customers! Early in this tour we bought a Turkish “Taris” car (very similar to a Fiat) that allowed us to do more traveling in and around the city and to the beaches. Looking back, this was a grand time to be in Izmir - the city was fast becoming a modern metropolis and one could find anything in stores – there were even a few large European grocery stores.

Before we knew it our tour was winding down – six years flew by entirely too fast and we were getting ready to head back to the States for what was to be our final tour of duty. The beautiful beaches with their crystal blue water and rock formations, the breathtaking sunsets, walking along the Kordon, the sweet scent of jasmine plants on a summer’s evening, the many palm trees swaying peacefully in the warm breezes, the wonderful food - ekmek, gevrek/simit, pide, lamejun, kebabs, fish, etc. - and the eternally friendly people are the most vivid and long lasting memories I have now - and will have forever - of my three Izmir assignments.

NATO Security team
May 1997
  Sean, Ipek and Nat Izmir TU, Spring 1997  

Some of the names and faces I fondly remember from this tour are: Andy Whitney, John Potts, Major Tom Feeney, Steve “Lamejun” Andrews, Jim Restzki, Lt. Col Virgil Huggins, Lt. Col Ed Olson, and Gary Davis. It was difficult to say goodbye to Izmir and our family and friends. But this is part of a life in the military. In July 1997, I reported to Maxwell AFB, Gunter Annex, Montgomery Alabama, to assume duties as PME instructor at the USAF SNCO. What a great way to cap off 25 years in the USAF!

On June 30, 2000, I finally hung up my blue uniform for good and entered my new life as a civilian.

Footnote: When I arrived in Izmir in 1991 there were approximately 3,000 Americans (most were military family members with just over 1,000 Americans in uniform). I hear that there are currently less than 200 military and no dependents as Izmir is, and has been, for about ten years, an unaccompanied assignment. My wife and children visited Izmir several years ago and much has changed. Most of the American military facilities that we knew are gone and it is rare to see Americans walking the streets, frequenting the restaurants, and shopping. In fact, most of the offices have relocated from the downtown high-rise structures to Bayrakli Park. Unlike Alsancak from the days of old, the park is now the heart of the American community. In 2004, the Allied Air Component Command (NATO) was activated at General Vecihi Akin Garrison, Sirinyer, thus replacing LSE and 6 ATAF with an all Air Force component. But for those lucky enough to get an assignment to Izmir it promises to be a wonderful experience – just as it always has been.