BRUNSWICK — About 1,000 people turned their heads toward the command headquarters at the Brunswick Naval Air Station just after 3 p.m. Tuesday and watched in silence as the American flag was lowered, marking the operational closure of the base.

In the crowd at the disestablishment ceremony was 87-year-old Arnold Wilkie, one of the original sailors stationed in Brunswick, who watched the flag raised for the first time when the base opened in 1943.

“I just can’t believe it,” a teary-eyed Wilkie said after the ceremony. “It’s too bad.”

It has been six years since the federal Base Closure and Realignment Commission decided to close the Brunswick Naval Air Station. During the past year and a half, most of the thousands of people who worked at the base have left.

As of this week, only about a dozen Navy officers remained. Still, they said, the official closure is significant.

For the first time in decades, no one was checking IDs at the entrance to the base Tuesday.

Today, the sign marking the naval air station will be replaced with one for Brunswick Landing — the business campus that’s envisioned for the 3,200-acre property.

“It’s not even a base anymore. It’s a facility,” said Chief Petty Officer Buc Meggison, who will retire from the Navy this week after 24 years. He hopes to get a job with one of the companies that is moving onto the property.

“It’s the end of an era,” he said. “I just always thought this base would be here.”

The base opened during World War II as a training ground for British and Canadian pilots. It was deactivated for five years before the Navy reopened it in 1951. Since then, maritime patrol aircraft have operated from the base, which employed about 5,000 people at its peak.

The base was home to more than a dozen squadrons, the final five of which were moved to Jacksonville, Fla., in 2009.

Several speakers, including Gov. Paul LePage and Assistant Secretary of the Navy Jackalyne Pfannenstiel, characterized Tuesday’s ceremony as a bittersweet occasion to celebrate the history of the base, mourn its closure and look forward to its successful redevelopment.

Capt. William A. Fitzgerald, the base’s commanding officer, compared it to an Irish wake.

Fitzgerald was chosen in 2008 to oversee the closure. He said his goal was to communicate openly with the public and maintain a positive image of the Navy in the community.

In his remarks Tuesday, Fitzgerald credited the strong relationship between the base and surrounding towns for helping with the transition.

“Thank you for accepting us, embracing us, for making each of us who have served here and lived here better,” he said.

Although many of the people at the ceremony had once worked at the base, the event also drew local residents like Dick Morrell, who grew up in Brunswick and wanted to bear witness to the occasion.

“This is history,” Morrell said.

Staff Writer Leslie Bridgers can be contacted at 791-6364 or at: [email protected]