A short time ago, I wrote about an old German TV miniseries, Der Illegale. At the beginning, I mentioned that I was posted to West Berlin as an Army counterintel officer in the early ‘70s. About four years ago, I put together a somewhat haphazard--that is, stream-of-consciousness--memoir of the two-and-a-half years I spent as a Military Intelligence officer in Berlin at the height of the Cold War. Here is an account of one incident at the center of which I found myself.
First, a little background.
Berlin in the 1970’s was the hub of every espionage enterprise in the Cold War world. In Berlin, like Lisbon in the World War II movies, everyone was spying on everyone else. There were easily thousands of espionage operatives of one kind or another in the city, on either side of the Wall; the U.S. alone probably had 2000 people posted there in some intel capacity. Assigned to the Military Intelligence station in Berlin as a counterespionage officer, I knew of incidents in which the Bulgarians were caught spying on the Czechs in East Berlin. (The Warsaw Pact wasn’t alone in this activity: we spied on our allies, too, and they on us. All those spies had to do something with their time!) Even the Chinese--the Chinese, for Pete’s sake--had agents in Berlin! It was like living in Casablanca. Not the city--the movie.
Joking aside, there was real danger. Fighting the Cold War could sometimes be as scary as the hot one going on in Vietnam. The ’70s was the height of the U.S.-Soviet antagonism, with Brezhnev and Nixon eying each other suspiciously over the border dividing the two Germanys. Minor incidents, especially along the Berlin Wall or at Checkpoint Charlie, the official military crossing point between the two halves of the city, were frequent, and minor incidents could escalate--an appropriate term liberated from the shootin’ war in Southeast Asia--into major ones with Kafkaesque suddenness. GI’s touring East Berlin--a practice encouraged by the Army as a way of “showing the flag” in the still-occupied city--could be arrested for supposed infractions and whisked off to Potsdam, the Soviet military headquarters, just to provoke a response. Supply trains crossing East Germany to provision the military stores of West Berlin, which many people never realized was an island 110 miles inside the German Democratic Republic, were arbitrarily stopped and held for anywhere from hours to days. Shots were fired at or near Checkpoints Charlie or Bravo (the crossing point between West Berlin and the GDR, on the city’s western border) several times a month.
At the same time, this was a period of fierce anti-Americanism and anti-capitalism all over Western Europe. Anarchists like “Red” Rudi Dutschke and the infamous Baader-Meinhof gang, formally known as the Red Army Faction (or, ironically, the RAF), were planting bombs and kidnapping German businessmen at an alarming rate. A man I had met, a U.S. Army captain stationed in Frankfurt, was killed by one of these bombs, leaving behind a wife and two pre-teen daughters. Paranoia was so high that all cars entering the Berlin Brigade headquarters compound, a former facility of the Luftwaffe on Clayallee, were thoroughly searched, with huge wheeled mirrors shoved under the chassis to examine the undercarriage for explosives. During one surveillance operation to which I was assigned, I pulled the graveyard shift--midnight to 8 a.m. The place we were watching was in Kreutzberg, a remote borough of Berlin, and we had to drive there from Dahlem, the section surrounding the headquarters compound and most of the living quarters. Because American cars were easy to spot on Berlin streets--I owned a candy-apple red, 1970 Ford Torino fastback, my college graduation present from my parents--we had to use “spy cars.” These were “indigenous” vehicles, usually VW’s or German Fords, with interchangeable license plates: green “USA” plates with black numerals that looked like those on the private cars (POV’s) of GI’s stationed in Germany, and long, thin, black-lettered white plates of Germany. (Official Army vehicles--GOV’s--such as staff cars, bore yellow plates; miltary vehicles, like trucks and jeeps, did not have plates as such; they had painted registration numbers instead.) These cars were parked in a lot in the rear of the headquarters compound, but we had to go to our office at the front of the compound to sign them out and pick up the keys, so we never drove back there in our own cars. We parked across the street from the front entrance, in an extra PX lot. After the PX complex closed, around 9 p.m., this lot was vacant, so we left our POV’s there, walked over to the office, signed out the GOV, got the keys and the appropriate plates, walked back to the GOV lot, installed the plates, and drove out the rear exit of the compound. No problem. We did this all the time when we used a GOV. But this time, while I was off at the surveillance location, sometime during the early morning, the MP’s patrolling the headquarters area got suspicious. What was this car doing abandoned in the PX lot so long after the shopping complex had closed? Maybe it’s wired with explosives? Better check it out!
Well, of course, as a Military Intelligence officer, my POV registration was classified, so no trace of the owner could be found in local records. (First of all, this was in the days before computers. Second, POV’s of MI personnel were registered out of Munich--the headquarters of MI in Germany--and, third, their identifications were buried under layers of classification. A registration check by local MP’s in Berlin leads to a series of dead ends. The same was true of our private phone numbers at home.) Obviously, a car with no ID, left in the parking lot late, with no one around to claim it, must be a bomb. If the commotion that ensued had not been noticed by a colleague in my unit (located right at the front of the compound, with a view of the PX grounds across the street), my car would have been, at best, towed off to an impound lot and stripped down or, worse scenario, blown up on the spot. Of course, no one could tell me all this while I was on surveillance--radio traffic was restricted to operational use--so I never heard about this near-loss until I got back to sign out sometime after 8 the next morning. By then, it was all a joke, but it almost wasn’t. Paranoia--it’s a wondrous thing!
Besides politics, there was also just plain old crime. Berlin, like most big cities, had a crime problem in the ’70s, but it was complicated by a number of aspects. Because it was a relatively easy place to get to from Western Europe, and only slightly less easy to get to from the East, and access back and forth could be arranged with a little know-how, resourcefulness, and cash, smuggling was a big deal in Berlin. Now, I’m not just talking about some dope or a few sparkling baubles or rare artworks--though these crossed back and forth pretty often, too. No, Berlin’s smuggling trade included guns, explosives, hot money, documents--and women. Believe it or not, white slavery was still going on through Berlin in the ‘70s. And the people most in control of all this smuggling were Turks. Berlin’s organized crime, the equivalent then of its Mafia (although more comparable to the Colombian drug gangs of the ‘80s), was predominantly Turkish. And these guys could be vicious. Just before I arrived in Berlin in July 1971 there had been a pitched battle on the streets of downtown West Berlin between the police and one Turkish gang. The gang had been armed with machine guns and military weapons--the same stuff they were transshipping back and forth across the East-West border. Now, nothing like that happened again after I got there, but the possibility kept everyone a little on edge, especially when we had to hang around in a low-rent part of town like Kreutzberg (which, as it happens, was also a largely Turkish district). MI agents were not generally armed, despite what you see in the movies. I had my heart in my throat more than once when out on an operation.
So, that was Berlin in the early ’70s when I was assigned there to Berlin Station of the 66th MI Group. The trade-off was that Berlin was still officially under military occupation, so GI’s, as well as our French and British counterparts, had some perks. Uniformed soldiers (which didn’t include MI personnel--we wore civvies) could ride the buses and subways for free. Part of the occupation agreement with the Germans after the war required them to supply housing for the occupying troops, but since much of the city had been destroyed by bombings, most of this housing was newly built. Whereas bachelor officers in, say, Frankfurt or Munich might get quarters with a bedroom and a sitting room, a shared bathroom, and a small refrigerator (but no kitchen--they ate in the mess or at the O-club), single officers assigned to Berlin lived in one-bedroom garden apartments. Married enlisted men and woman got modern apartments in highrises, and more senior officers with families had houses in little suburb-like developments. All fully furnished, equipped--and free. Berlin had the best PX, the commissary got the best supplies, and our officers’ club was the finest anywhere in NATO. The NCO club was as good as most O-clubs elsewhere, and better than many. The recreation facilities, including the Wannsee resort, drew generals and high-ranking civilians from all over Europe, and it was all free. It didn’t hurt, of course, that we had two generals in Berlin, a one-star who was commander of the Berlin Brigade--the fighting troops--and a two-star who was the U. S. Commander of Berlin (USCOB), the military governor of the American sector. (The Brits and the French had generals, too, of course. Berlin probably had the highest concentration of general officers anywhere outside the Pentagon or maybe Brussels.) One irony of my service there was that I was entitled to wear the same Germany Occupation Medal that my dad, an artillery battery commander when the Allies were fighting their way across Western Europe after D-Day, got for serving in Germany after VE Day twenty-five years earlier. There was something time-warpish in that.
Yep, life in West Berlin could be good, if you ignored the fact that you were encircled by a wall and prohibited from leaving just whenever you wanted to. A GI in Frankfurt could get leave, hop in his car, and drive off in any direction for a few days’ outing. He could get on a train and visit Munich, Hanover, Hamburg, even Vienna or Rome or Paris. In Berlin, you couldn’t leave the city without advanced planning and special orders (called Flag Orders) for crossing the borders. People with high security clearances like me were restricted from traveling by any means other than the military trains (including the British and French ones, but not the German civilian Bundesbahn), military planes, or Pan Am. The reason for this last restriction was that Pan Am was the only civilian airline to agree never to land in East Germany or any Soviet Bloc country, no matter what. Air France and BOAC, which both flew to Berlin in those days along with Lufthansa, would not--rather sensibly, it seemed to me--make such a pledge, so we were prohibited from flying them into or out of Berlin. We were not even allowed to drive to West Germany for more than a year after I arrived in Berlin when those restrictions were eased a little. (By the time I went to Bad Ems in 1972 for the MAD-Schule, we could drive out, with a few restrictions.)
This struck all of us as something of a bleak joke, of course. Much like the game we played on “alerts,” those little exercises military units go through regularly to practice for emergencies (read: “war”). Like elsewhere, each unit in Berlin had an assigned task “in the event of hostilities.” Ours was to secure certain important people and get them to evacuation points, then round up “undesirables” for internment. Now, think about this. West Berlin, a city of some two-and-a-half million people, with an American military force amounting to an oversized brigade with maybe a score of tanks (an enhanced company), a smaller contingent of British and French soldiers, no German troops (except for the police, who received infantry training), surrounded by a Soviet tank army. Not a brigade or even a corps--an army. And that doesn’t count the East German forces, or any other Warsaw Pact troops stationed in the GDR. What the hell were we going to do if the Soviets decided to launch the balloon? Fight? Whom? All the Russians would have to do, we reminded ourselves, was roll up to Checkpoints Charlie and Bravo, post a few guards--we were already surrounded by a wall--and put up a sign, “Berlin POW Camp,” and then go around the city without firing a shot. You had to laugh, otherwise . . . .
Well, that was the situation I entered when I got to Berlin as a first lieutenant in July 1971--my first actual duty assignment. I had an ROTC commission (a good way to stay in school in those days), a couple of months of training as an armor officer at Ft. Knox; a year of Russian language classes at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California--I spoke German and French from having lived in Europe during high school; and three or four months of MI officers’ school at Ft. Holabird in Baltimore. (A hole if there ever was one; after the army abandoned it right after my class graduated, it was used as a prison for the Watergate crew. They were well and truly punished, believe me.) Anyway, now I arrived in Berlin days before the tenth anniversary of the erection of the Berlin Wall, Friday, 13 August. As an initiation to Berlin in the Cold War, my first job at Berlin Station was to be part of the unit’s surveillance of the protests planned for the anniversary. We called this “demo coverage,” and we just observed to see who came out and who said what. This one was a big deal, of course, given Berlin’s political status at the time. Not only would there be one march, but there were going to be two, one by the rightists protesting the wall (Die Mauer muß weg!) and one by the leftists supporting it and the Workers’ Paradise to the east (Besser rot als tot!). The two marches started in different parts of the city, but they were aiming for the same spot, the saddest place in the city: the Peter Fechter Memorial. Peter Fechter was a 18-year-old kid who was shot trying to flee East Berlin sometime shortly after the wall went up. He wasn’t killed outright, but he lay wounded in the no-man’s land controlled by the machine guns of the Vopos in their towers. (The Wall was really two walls about 100 yards or so apart, creating an empty strip of terrain between them--the so-called death strip.) The boy bled to death within sight of the East German guards and the West Berliners who witnessed the attempted escape but couldn’t reach him because of the guards’ guns. After Fechter’s death, a memorial was built on the Western side of the Wall at the site of his attempt. This had become a focal point for all demonstrations relating to the Wall, and on this day, both marches were on their way to the memorial at the same time. It didn’t take military intelligence to guess what was going to happen when the two groups met there. And we knew one thing for sure: if violence did erupt, do not get caught between the leftists and the rightists, or between either group and the police.
Here I was, then, what we called “a civilian TDY to the Army.” (TDY was the military abbreviation for temporary duty, but it was often used in conversation to mean “on temporary assignment.”) Furthermore, my only contact with cops had been traffic officers and the highway patrol. But, let me tell you, these Berlin police were impressive. Remember, I had just come from the States where police departments and national guard units had fired on demonstrators. Kent State hadn’t been too long before my arrival in Berlin. And here I was in the land that invented militarism. But these guys were superb--controlled and professional. (Because the occupation agreement prohibited German military in Berlin, the police received basic military training.) At the first sign of violence--one guy from one of the marches took a swing at someone in the other group with the wooden post from his protest sign, and some bottles and rocks started to fly--the cops closed ranks with their huge plexiglass shields in front of them, like a moving wall, and simply cleared the street. (They also had the biggest dogs I ever saw.) They just swept everyone into the subway entrances. The protesters had two choices: stay underground in the subway station, or get on a train and go somewhere else. No overreaction, no clubs, no guns, no cursing. Just swoosh, and the streets were clear. They only moved when violence became imminent, after the opposing groups met near the memorial, and they treated both sides the same.
Of course, we dashed behind the police lines as soon as this all started. We had a special password we shouted as we ran toward the cops, and they let us through to safety before things got too hot. That was my introduction to West Berlin. (And if I didn’t like that, there was always ’Nam waiting, usually the next stop for officers assigned to Europe at that time. Most of my predecessors had stayed for 18 months or two years, got home leave for a couple of months, then shipped out to Vietnam. In those days, the life expectancy of an MI lieutenant in Vietnam was estimated at 5 minutes after he hit the tarmac in Saigon.)
So that’s where my head was at when I started out on the events that resulted in the Army closing down the city of West Berlin. But it wasn’t my fault. Really. As they used to say in the old television show, the following story is true. None of the names have been changed, however, innocent or not. The initiating incident was “exfiltration,” a problem unique to West Berlin. This was the process of helping Easterners escape into West Berlin or West Germany and it was a sensitive situation involving both military and diplomatic actions, not to mention involvement of our French and British counterparts and several German agencies. In the years immediately following the war and the partition of Germany, exfiltration was an official, if clandestine, project of the U.S. government to bring out scientists, engineers, and other useful and high-profile people. By my day, most of those kinds of people who wanted to leave had been brought out, so the U.S. disbanded the operation. In the vacuum, private entrepreneurs assumed the task--for a fee, of course. The folks connected with this process were the same bad guys who controlled the smuggling.
By happenstance, I had become the Station expert in exfiltration and was called in whenever a case seemed to touch on it, hence my involvement in the story you’re about to read. Because of reports that I wrote on exfiltration, including ultimately a large book with illustrations, charts, and diagrams which was in demand by agencies both American and foreign (we had to make up a sanitized version for them) all over Berlin and the Federal Republic, my CO, Lt. Col. Pat Collins, took to calling me “Collins’ Commando” whenever he saw me around the Station. (Yes, I was embarrassed, but he was a light colonel and I was only a first looie--and the new boy in town as well--so what was I going to do, tell him to stop?) Most cases were small matters, investigated quickly and disposed of without much effort. One time, however, I hooked a big one.
[I’ll leave off here for the time being and pick up with the incident itself in Part 2. Tune back in for all the excitement and derring-do. (Fade-out as “Secret Agent Man” plays over the credits.)]