'Green Demons' of now-closed Myrtle Beach Air Force base hold reunion

09/26/2012 11:17 PM

09/26/2012 11:22 PM

Forget the beach, golf or shopping -- nostalgia is what lured this group to Myrtle Beach this week.

Sure, they'll check out all the usual Grand Strand offerings, but these

"Green Demons'' who were stationed at the Myrtle Beach Air Force Base in the 1970s are here to relive the good old days, check out how the base area has changed -- it closed in 1993 -- and swap tales that get a little more interesting through the years as the storyteller embellishes the details that time has forgotten.

"Most of it is `do you remember when ,''' said Rusty Heft, a captain on the base from 1973-75 who now lives in Destin, Fla.

Nearly 100 members of the 356th tactical fighter squadron known as the Green Demons and their Green Darlings wives have returned to their old stomping ground this week, staying on the same spot where they used to work, but oh, how it's different. They are staying, shopping and eating at The Market Common, which opened in 2008 on the former Air Force Base. They've come from all over the United States and as far away as Australia, and for most of them, this is their first time back in 20, 30 -- even 40 years.

"When I came out and saw what they did to our old base, it kind of got to me,'' said Gary Wingo, who organized the reunion and brought it to Myrtle Beach. "I said, `Wow, this is great.'

"It's kind of amazing, actually [how Myrtle Beach has changed]. All the new roads, new hotels and the number of golf courses is astounding.''

Military units from other bases routinely have reunions in the Myrtle Beach area -- it's a small sliver of the offseason tourism business -- but it's not as common for guys who were stationed in Myrtle Beach to have their reunions here.

That could be slowly changing. As those who served in Myrtle Beach get older, they are more likely to want to get together, especially in the place where they served, said Danna Lilly, sales director at the Myrtle Beach Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"We are just starting to see that happen,'' she said. ``It's not something we have seen a lot of in the past, but we'll be seeing more moving forward.''

A big reunion for former Myrtle Beach military already is in the works for next year to mark the 20th anniversary of the base closing. Any military or civilian who ever worked at the Myrtle Beach Air Force Base can attend the April 6 reunion, which will include food, bands and other entertainment likely in the former NCO club.

About 200 folks have signed up, said Donny Urban, one of the locals who used to serve on the base who is organizing the reunion.

"It's kind of like a nostalgic thing, get old friends to meet up again,'' he said.

Catching up has been one of the highlights for the Green Demons this week, who on Tuesday evening checked out old photos and swapped stories -- most of them eventually interrupted with a playful ``You know you can't believe a word he says'' from a comrade to a visitor in the hospitality suite overlooking The Market Common.

"Every one of these guys -- we flew together,'' Heft said. ``There's a level of trust, confidence, comradery. It's like you're brothers but in a different sense.''

Many of them -- instead of heading straight to the SkyWheel or some other go-to attraction in Myrtle Beach -- were ready to find and check out their former base houses in what's now known as Seagate Village.

After a bit of trouble navigating the old neighborhood, Lucie Lee Lanoux, who lives in Montgomery, Ala., saw her family's old house -- and the small tree she planted in the front yard still there, thriving -- though much taller now.

"You've heard of going down memory lane, well this was like `can't remember lane,' '' she said of finding her house in the old neighborhood.

"But that magnolia tree is still there. I'm loving it.''

Several of the Green Demons said they were impressed that the former base -- unlike others that are never redeveloped -- has morphed into a shopping, dining, recreation and residential hub, and that signs and memorabilia sprinkled throughout the former base remind folks of its military history.

"To me, I think people who aren't in the military, they get a feel for what the military was like,'' Heft said.

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