Commentary - Our Chapel, once again
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Our Chapel, once again

Posted 10/27/2008   Updated 10/27/2008 Email story   Print story


Commentary by Donald W. Fenton
354th Fighter Wing History Office

10/27/2008 - EIELSON AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska -- On February 11, 2007, the congregations at the Eielson Air Force Base Chapel held a farewell dinner to commemorate more than 50 years of worship in the facility. They also celebrated their impending move to the Aurora Conference Center and to what would eventually be a brand new facility.

The 354th Fighter Wing Chaplain, Lt. Col. David Terrinoni led the event. During the planning stages, Chaplain Terrinoni asked me to present a brief history of the Eielson Chapel to the congregation shortly after the dinner. The following article is a synopsis of my presentation, along with an introduction to our new Chapel or as Chaplain Terrinoni refers to it, "The Promised Land."

When Chaplain Terrinoni first contacted me about the presentation, I thought it would be fairly straight forward. However, after conducting some preliminary research it quickly became apparent there would be more to it than just saying "This Chapel was completed on February 15, 1955 at a cost of $234,817. An addition was completed on May 3, 1962 at a cost of $232,328. And, that is the history of the Chapel, four walls, a roof, and a floor at a cost of $500,000."

For most buildings on a military installation not much else is known other than the basics mentioned above. People use them for work, living quarters or recreation. On the other hand, a Chapel doesn't fall into the category of most buildings. More often than not, they are referred to as the base Chapel or more intimately as our Chapel.

Thus the real history of Eielson's Chapel can be found in the memories created by events such as weddings, baptisms, confessions, communions and memorial services. The memories of these events remain etched for a lifetime in the hearts and minds of the participants involved in each and every one of the occasions.

Thankfully, many of these memories were captured in previous editions of the Eielson AFB newspapers.

Many people have asked me if the Chapel, which was located on the corner of Kodiak and Central Avenues, was the only one ever built on Eielson. What spurred this question on, often times, was the Chapel One designation on the top of the sign located outside the facility. The answer to that question is no.

The first Chapel on Eielson was built during the original construction of Mile 26 Airstrip. For those that don't know, Mile 26 Airstrip was renamed Eielson AFB in January 1948. In relation to Eielson today, Mile 26 was located in the area of the 'hogpens,' base operations and the control tower. No buildings remain today from the Mile 26 period. Other than one picture of the first Chapel (circa 1949), not much else is known about it.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Eielson transformed into a Cold War super base in order to support forward deployed strategic reconnaissance and bomber aircraft. Toward the end of this massive construction phase on February 15, 1955, a new 300-seat Chapel was completed.

Five days later the opening ceremonies and services were held. A standing room only crowd watched as the base Chaplain, Major Martin Stein, accepted the keys from Colonel Cordes Tiemann, Eielson AFB Commander. This marked the beginning of many memories to come.

About one month before the Chapel opened, the Fimple triplets (Donald, David and Dale), possibly the first triplets born in Alaska, were born to parents stationed at Eielson. At the conclusion of the opening service, the Fimple boys became the first babies to be baptized in our Chapel. Imagine how many people were baptized or dedicated over the years in our Chapel since.

The first wedding took place on March 24, 1955. Once again, imagine how many people were married in our Chapel. The first communion occurred in May 1955. And, imagine how many people came to know God in our Chapel.

On November 29, 1955 an F-84 took off at approximately noon on a routine training mission. According to eyewitness accounts, shortly after the aircraft lifted off the runway, it banked hard to the right just as it passed the Big Hangar, now known as the Thunderdome. It flew right by the front of the Chapel. The pilot made every attempt to keep it in the air but the aircraft crashed into military family housing. In all, fourteen lives were lost that day; seven adults and seven children. Three of the children were the Fimple triplets.

Sadly, the memorial service for those that perished that cold November day would be the first of many memorial services in our Chapel.

In February 1963, a KC-135 crashed near the main gate killing all of the aircrew, the Security Policeman, and a bystander who was also at the gate. A memorial service was held in our Chapel for the nine people who lost their lives that evening.

Our Chapel has also conducted memorial services to honor the passing of Presidents, such as President John F. Kennedy in 1963 and others throughout the years.

On June 5, 1969, an Eielson based RC-135, call sign Rivet Amber, took off from Shemya AFS on its way back to Eielson. Not long after takeoff the aircraft crashed in the Bering Sea. No bodies or wreckage were ever found. Nineteen personnel lost their lives. There were several services conducted in our Chapel to honor their memory.

Fast forward to 2005, Bill and Sharlene Kearney returned to Eielson to renew their vows on their 50th anniversary in the Chapel they were married in as young adults. In many aspects, the history of Eielson's Chapel is just like a 50-year marriage, many wonderful memories and some not so wonderful ones, but through it all our Chapel weathered more than five decades of trials and tribulations.

By 2007, the building was definitely showing its age. Although it was mainly constructed out of wood, it withstood more than 50 years of some of the harshest weather conditions found anywhere on this planet. In June 2007, the wrecking ball came and went to make room for Eielson's new Base Exchange.

On June 14, 2007, the ceremonial groundbreaking for our new Chapel took place. There now was a light at the end of the tunnel or as Chaplain Terrinoni would say, "The Promised Land was in sight for the congregation."

Sixteen months passed since the farewell dinner and Eielson AFB has a new Chapel.
Did you know it's an award winning design as well? In late 2007, it earned the Pacific Air Forces Top Concept Design Category Award.

The first service was held in our new Chapel on October 19. In upcoming weeks the Chapel staff will relocate their office equipment along with many other items to their new offices thanks to the tireless efforts of countless volunteers. And on October 29 at 10 a.m., the dedication ceremony will be held marking the start of a new chapter in the history of our Chapel.

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