The last time a European contingent came to the defense of the United States, there was scarcely a United States to defend.
Prussia's Baron von Steuben drilled troops at Valley Forge, Poland's Casimir Pulaski formed a cavalry legion, and various French noblemen pitched in to help the Americans win their Revolutionary War.
On Friday, in an update of that legacy which would have seemed far-fetched five weeks ago, reconnaissance planes and crews from the NATO alliance take to America's skies to keep watch against possible threats. Transferred from a base in Germany, they are replacing U.S. planes flying in the combat zone around Afghanistan.
''It's a great thing,'' said James Drumwright, 79, of Richardson, Texas, a World War II veteran wounded in Normandy. ''It's the first time in a long time the United States has more people for us than against us. Other people feel this (the terror attacks) could happen to them, too.''
NATO was established in 1949 to provide common security for America's European allies at the advent of the Cold War. This week's deployment of five Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft marks the first time alliance personnel and equipment have been deployed in defense of the United States.
The AWACS planes, flown from Germany to Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma, were built in the United States, and 74 of the contingent's 196 members are American. But 11 other countries are contributing personnel, including 55 from Germany, 22 from Canada, 11 each from Belgium and Italy, five each from Norway and Turkey.
''They all know it's a historic mission,'' said Johan Hijmenberg, a Dutch air force officer among the crews arriving at Tinker.
Joe Hovish, librarian and curator at the American Legion's headquarters in Indianapolis, suggested the deployment ''makes NATO more of what it was supposed to be.''
''We're actually going to be more of a unified coalition, with everybody more on equal terms, rather than (America) being the country that goes out and tries to cure everybody's ills,'' he said. ''We're all in it together.''
America welcomed foreign help during the Revolutionary War, and Europeans joined the fight. Von Steuben instilled discipline among fledgling Continental troops; Poland's Thaddeus Kosciusko aided in victories at Saratoga and in the Carolinas; the Marquis de Lafayette and Admiral de Grasse were among French commanders who helped wage the climactic campaign against the British in Virginia.
Since then, Americans have plunged frequently into conflicts abroad, often with allies and sometimes alone, but have not requested help from overseas to protect U.S. soil.
Canadians signed up to fight with the Union in the Civil War, but they did so as individuals, not as a government-sponsored force, said Kurt Hackemer, a professor of military history at the University of South Dakota.
''We've been in lots of foreign operations -- but we have always defended ourselves,'' Hackemer said.
He suggested the primary purpose of NATO's deployment was to demonstrate solidarity.
Another military history professor, Allison Gilmore of Ohio State University-Lima, said American leaders have been forced to revise the tradition of self-reliance.
''With the advent of air power, the United States is no longer automatically secure in the Western Hemisphere,'' she said. ''And we don't always have the long period of time to mobilize for war that we used to have.''
Richard Kolb, who edits VFW Magazine on behalf of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said allies like Germany and France would be most helpful if they offered to take over U.S. peacekeeping duties in the Balkans. And George Bell, a car dealer near Tinker Air Force Base, was skeptical about the sincerity of some allied nations.
''I think at one point or another most of those guys who are supposed to be our allies were against us,'' he said.
But John Jones, who flew 35 combat missions over Germany and the Balkans during World War II, viewed the NATO deployment as a fitting way for Europe to thank America.
''We helped them rebuild,'' said Jones, 81, of Athens, Ohio. ''They realize that they're not exempt from what happened to us. Our situation is very scary, but we're all united.''
On the net: http://www.nato.int
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