Archive for the ‘Fire Station’ Category

Nichitsu is a legend amongst Japanese urban explorers, a world-class ghost town that attracts visitors from all over the country and even overseas. In day trip range from Tokyo (but not from Osaka!), this mostly abandoned mining village in the mountains of Saitama prefecture is famous for its huge variety of abandoned structures crammed into a single valley – countless mining buildings (some still in use, even on the weekends!), several schools, a hospital, a gymnasium, a vast residential area and who knows what else.

After exploring a cute little regular ghost town on a sunny Sunday morning, my buddy *Hamish* and I arrived in Nichitsu to grey weather and low hanging clouds; at one o’clock, totally underestimating the vast amount of buildings to explore – though even a full day would barely be enough to see everything there, let alone document it properly. To make the best of the situation, we avoided the rather busy lower part of the valley (with company cars parked as well as a group of explorers arriving) and headed for a small parking area used by hikers. From there we wanted to find out what all the fuzz was all about… and it didn’t take us long!
Given the rather active area we passed through just minutes prior (feeding the rumors about security) as well as the fading light even rather early in the day, I decided to take a first video of what I thought was everything there was to see in that area – then we started to explore buildings on a sample basis as it was pretty clear that less than 4 hours of daylight remaining wouldn’t allow us to see everything anyway. From the very beginning it was close to impossible to take indoor photos without a tripod as exposure times quickly reached up to 30 seconds in darker areas of buildings.
A school, an office building, several private houses (ranging from completely empty to fully stocked and suitcases packed), a small fire station and some other structures later we reached the area at the end of the first video – only to realize that the really interesting buildings were still ahead of us and just seconds away; including a gymnasium and the now mostly collapsed hospital! Crazy…
With less than an hour of daylight left, we kept shooting and shooting and shooting, but even test shots to frame pictures properly took painfully long (as you might or might not know, I don’t even crop my photos). The last building we found was the hospital, of course, and despite the conditions we both managed to take a couple of decent shots – overall it was a bit disappointing though as it didn’t even come close to its reputation or similar places, like the *Tokushima Countryside Clinic*.
Overall the Nichitsu Ghost Town totally lived up to its reputation… and given that I didn’t even enter a mining related building means that another visit is in order – probably sometime in 2015 as I am pretty sure that Nichitsu will see some snow soon, rendering parts of the village inaccessible (then I will tell you more about Nichitsu’s complicated history, too…). The white stuff in some of the videos and pictures definitely wasn’t snow! Maybe some kind of gypsum? Solid when dry, it became viscous when in contact with water – I am sure during a typhoon you can watch it flowing down slopes and roads, slowly suffocating the lower parts of Nichitsu…

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The now abandoned Sembach Air Base has quite a long history. The location was first used as an airfield after World War I by the French occupation troops in 1919 with 10 sheet-iron barracks and 26 wooden hangars. When France retreated from Germany in 1930 the air base was abandoned on June 15th and the land was returned to farmers who used it as a hay field. (The area around Sembach is very rural and agriculture is an important economic factor till this very day.)
In preparation of World War II the Nazi-German Luftwaffe deemed the area proper to build a fighter base and claimed the land in early 1940, but gave it back to the owners in June of 1940 after France was conquered in a blitzkrieg now known as the “Battle of France”.
After the defeat of Nazi-Germany in May of 1945 Sembach was part of the French occupational zone. In April of 1951 German surveyors along with French officers were looking for suitable locations for air bases. The Cold War had begun a few years prior and both the NATO and the Warsaw Pact armed themselves at a remarkable speed. The NATO’s lack of air fields suitable for modern jets made it necessary to build new military airports – so the French authorities began with the construction of a hard surface airfield in June of 1951, much to the protest of local farmers, who demonstrated in Mainz, the capital of Rhineland-Palatinate, without much success. On September 1st the United States took over the construction site, naming it Sembach Air Auxiliary Field, and pushed hard to finish the base – completing the 8500 foot concrete runway by the end of the month working round the clock using nighttime illumination. The rest of the airfield (tower, hangars, repair shops, storages and other buildings) were built during the winter. Local protests rose again when plans for the construction of barracks and office buildings surfaced in April of 1952 – this time with a little bit more success: Instead of using valuable farm land the new buildings were constructed on a sandy area with little agricultural value about 1.5 kilometers away from the airfield (Heuberg). Everybody was happy and after another year of construction the American flag was finally raised at the base now known as Sembach Air Base on July 8th 1953, when a RB-26 Invader arrived from Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina. It was part of the 66th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing, the first of many units to be stationed in Sembach.
40 years after Sembach Air Base was opened protests rose again – this time because the Americans announced plans that the base will only be used as a substation of Ramstein Air Base; a huge economical setback for the town and nearby cities, directly (German civilian employees at the base) and indirectly (soldiers spending money in the area). The airfield was returned to German control two years later on March 30th 1995, the installations in Heuberg were renamed Sembach Annex. In summer of 1998 the demolition of the base began, the runway being the first “victim” of this process. Since then most of the buildings on the former air base have been demolished – but not all of them, at least not by the time Gil and I arrived at the location.
After the *Deportation Prison Birkhausen* and the *USAREUR Communication Facility Lohnsfeld* turned out to be quick stops we decided to tackle another big one and drove to Sembach to have a look at what was left of the air base. First we went to the western part and found some half-underground bunkers, inaccessible of course. Next was a small office building (?) that looked like it was made of corrugated cardboard. Quite interesting was the former Fire Station, part of the Fire and Emergency Service. I was rather surprised by the coloring of the toilets – white and pink. Seriously? The restrooms of the fire department on a US Air Force base were pink?
In the afternoon, when we left the fire station, the weather started to turn drastically. The sunshine was gone and dark grey clouds approached quickly. While we were making our way to the abandoned tower the wind sped up massively – to my favor as I should find out minutes later. I just finished shooting the tower building when a wall of rain came closer quickly and before I had the chance to take shelter it poured liked I was standing in the shower; a first class cloudburst. At that time I was close to the eastern wall of the tower, so I pressed myself against the high wall while the wind was blowing so hard that it actually blew the rain over my head. About 15 minutes I was standing there, hoping for the wind to continue and the rain to stop. When the heavy rain turned into light drizzling I started to look for Gil, who found shelter in a nearby building I assumed was inaccessible. That building was boarded up (almost) completely and its massive walls made me wonder right away what it was used for. Sadly it was pretty much empty, nevertheless we found some interesting items – a sleeping bag and other signs of a homeless person being there for a while, a perforated cardboard character and some documents with rather sensitive information; like special travel orders, granting individuals the permission to hand-carry a M16 rifle. I have no clue how those documents escaped the shredder, but I guess I better refrain from posting photos since each sheet of paper contained several names including ranks and addresses…
Going on an exploration trip with Gil was absolutely fantastic (thanks, man!). While the first two locations were quite disappointing from an urbex point of view Sembach Air Base made up for it big time. It was the first US military base I was able to explore (yes, I went to a second one, so stayed tuned!) and I had a blast – no pun intended. The locations in Germany differ quite a bit from the places I usually get to see in Japan, so I really enjoyed this refreshing experience!

Addendum 2013-08-27: If you liked this article, check out the one about the nearby *Hochspeyer Munitions Storage*!
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