[Back in 2005, after watching a TV broadcast of The Big Lift (Twentieth Century Fox, 1950), a movie about the Berlin Airlift (July 1948-September 1949), I started a long e-mail narrative for my friend Kirk about my time as a Military Intelligence officer in West Berlin. It began when I described some moments in the movie, shot on location in Berlin, that were very evocative of my life in Germany either in the early 1960s when I was a teenager (see my earlier memoir “An American Teen In Germany,” 9 and 12 March 2013) or my army years in Berlin in the early ’70s. For some reason, Kirk shared my comments with his mother and she came back with some questions. Answering them set me off between 13 and 17 December 2005 on a five-e-mail tear of reminiscences and anecdotes about my 2½ years at the forward outpost of the Cold War. A little editing and reorganizing, and those messages turned into the stream-of-consciousness memoir that starts below.
[I’ve published sections of this narrative before on ROT, but I’ve found that excising those sections, which weren’t all contiguous in this text (I cherry-picked to create those other posts), is too difficult, so I’m going to allow myself to repeat some of what I’ve already posted on the blog. I hope you’ll forgive me for my indulgence. (For those ROTters who haven’t read the older Berlin stories, this complete telling will seem entirely new. Aren’t you fortunate!) Because of the length of this memoir, I’ll be publishing it in sections over some time. I haven’t worked out a schedule for the eight sections, but I’ll be posting them about two or three weeks apart, possibly longer.]
I lived in Germany twice. First, from 1962 to ’67, while my father was with the U.S. Information Agency there. (Known abroad as the U.S. Information Service, USIA was the cultural propaganda agency of the foreign service. There’s a brief history of USIA/USIS in part one of “An American Teen in Germany.”) Then I was stationed in West Berlin from 1971 to ’74 while I was in the army.
After I graduated from high school in Switzerland, I returned to the States for college. I took ROTC in college so I was commissioned a second lieutenant when I graduated, and I started active duty at Ft. Knox, Kentucky, on 5 December 1969. I spent the next 18 months in one Army school or another. My one and only duty station was West Berlin where I was a Military Intelligence officer from 29 July 1971 to 15 February 1974, when I left to get out of the service. I was a counterintel agent at Berlin Station, the MI unit attached to Berlin Brigade; we were a unit of the 66th MI Group of the U.S. Army, Europe, whose HQ was in Munich.
I firmly believe that my particular language studies and skills helped land me in Berlin instead of somewhere else, such as Vietnam. First, language skills is one of the assets MI looked for, so it helped qualify me for my choice of branch assignment when I was commissioned. Second, one of the courses I took in college was linguistics, the analytic study of language. One of the things I learned in linguistics is how to piece together a grammar from fragments of the spoken language. We did this as exercises several times in class, and it was part of the mid-term and final exams. When I got to Ft. Knox, one of the battery of tests we all had to take was the ALAT, the Army Language Aptitude Test. Lo and behold, the test was exactly that—a language whose grammar we had to glean from sentences, phrases, and words provided. I maxed the test which meant I could choose any language training I wanted (except French and German, since I already offered the Army those) and I was assured of getting it.
There was one slot available in a Russian course, and I grabbed it. (If I hadn’t chosen a language, the Army, in its wisdom, was going to choose one for me. They weren’t going to ignore my test score. They would have sent me to Vietnamese classes, and that led to only one assignment.) I spent almost a year at the Defense Language Institute, West Coast (DLIWC), at the Presidio of Monterey, California, studying Russian six hours a day from March 1970 to February ’71. (Now that’s a cushy assignment! A year in one of the most beautiful spots in the country with six hours’ of duty a day doing something that for me was not only easy, but fun! Oh, please, don’t throw me into that briar patch!)
Near the end of the Russian course, I took the language proficiency tests for German and French as well as Russian so they were all on my record. (I had even gotten released from afternoon classes in my Russian course for the last few weeks so I could join a German class to brush up.) Now, the fact is that Russian language was an asset in Vietnam—particularly for an MI officer—because of the Soviet presence there. And French was an asset because many older Vietnamese still spoke French as a second language rather than English because Indo-China had been French colonies. But German was the key—there’s only one obvious place in the whole world where we had troops where French, German, and Russian were all important skills: not just Germany, but specifically Berlin—a German city occupied by the four World War II allies: the American and the Brits (who speak English), the French, and the Soviets (who speak Russian). Eh, voilà!
My fluency in German was the third reason my language studies helped me. Since I had also lived in Germany for several years and knew the culture as well as the language, the Army wisely sent me to Berlin instead of Saigon. (The common wisdom among GI’s was that 90% of all soldiers were malassigned. Not me—I was just where I should have been!) The one unpredictable element left was what would happen after 18 months, which was the standard tour for an officer in Berlin when I arrived. (Ordinarily, if it hadn’t been for the war in Southeast Asia, Berlin was a three-year tour.) After that, it was home leave and shipment to Vietnam. I was counting on making myself so indispensable in Berlin that they’d keep me there rather than waste me in Southeast Asia. I never had to test that plan, though: the Paris cease-fire was signed in January 1973. But if I hadn’t been in Berlin to begin with, I can bet on where I’d have ended up. I have no doubt that my acuity in French and German plus my study of Russian were the principal reasons I was in Berlin.
I watched an old flick I taped off TV one night in 2005. It wasn’t a terribly remarkable movie as far as cinema goes, but it had some startling, small moments of reflected reality. Not Realism—reality. The movie was The Big Lift with Montgomery Clift, released in 1950 about the 1948-49 Berlin Airlift. It was shot in 1949 on location in Berlin (using both local German actors for the German roles and actual military personnel for all the Army and Air Force characters except Clift and Paul Douglas). Most of the little things that hit me were about life in post-war Germany and occupied Berlin. As odd as it may seem from a chronological perspective, life in Germany was not very different in the early ’60s when I was there as a kid than it was right after the war. Less rubble, more prosperity (the Wirtschaftswunder, or Economic Miracle, was just beginning), but otherwise, it was still “post-war.” (Of course, it was also the Federal Republic by then—no longer Allied occupied territory.) Berlin, even in the ’70s, when I was there ten years further on, was still occupied and, except for new uniforms (and still less rubble), plus the addition of the Wall, things were much the same in many ways as they were right after the war ended. It was a time warp, in both instances.
For instance, one character in the film says he checked someone, a German citizen, out in “the Document Center” and found a record of her from the war years. The Berlin Document Center was, in fact, the records repository of the Third Reich’s official files, and it was in the American Sector of Berlin so we ran it as a resource. It was one of the agencies my MI unit always checked when we did background investigations of a German native who was old enough to have lived in the Third Reich. (Mind you, this was all the official records, so a file might reveal only that someone was an old-age pensioner, had been a dues-paying member of the musicians guild, or had held a job as a schoolteacher in Frankfurt. Only occasionally did a file check of the BDC reveal a criminal record or service in the SS or something nefarious.)
Anyway, it’s just a passing mention of something actual, like the brief description the pilot of Clift’s plane gives of flying into Tempelhof AFB on their first flight in from Frankfurt. The Soviets controlled the airspace over what was then their occupation zone of Germany (later the German Democratic Republic, or East Germany) and restricted Allied flights to a very narrow corridor. Plus, Tempelhof was actually in downtown Berlin—you landed over city buildings, and the movie shows this, both from the air as the pilots approach, and from the city as planes land or take off practically outside apartment windows.
(Tempelhof Airport, part of which was civilian and part a U.S. Air Force Base, was closed in 2008. In my day, however, only specially certified pilots were allowed to fly in and out of Berlin. One of these was the newly-appointed CO of Tempelhof, Col. Gail Halvorsen. In 1948-49, Halvorsen had become a hero to the children of Berlin—by the ’70s, the adults running the city. He became known as the Candy Bomber because he dropped Hershey bars from his plane whenever he flew over the city on his landing approach. I knew Colonel Halvorsen—his daughter was a member of our theater group, which met at Tempelhof—and once when I took an Air Force hop into Berlin from Ramstein AFB, he piloted the plane. My little brush with actual history.)
What most often caught me in The Big Lift were the little bits of German culture and custom that are incorporated in the movie. In one scene, set in the apartment of one of the German characters, a group of people are sitting and standing around late in the evening, drinking and noshing—a kind of impromptu celebration. A neighbor comes in, a woman who lives in another apartment in the building. She’s just arriving from work, and stops in to say hello. When she arrives, she makes the rounds of all the guests, stopping at each person and shaking his or her hand and saying “Guten Abend.” When she reaches the last person, she says she’s tired and off home to bed and immediately reverses her route, shaking all the same hands in reverse order, saying “Gute Nacht” as she works her way back out the door. That’s so German—the formal, hand-shaking greeting of each and every person present, even though you don’t plan to stay, and then doing the exact same thing to say good night. In Germany, at least back when I was living there—they may have caught the American casualness disease since my day—you couldn’t just stick your head in the door, wave, and say to everyone at once, “Hi. And good night,” and then leave. It couldn’t have been realer if it had been a documentary! And there were other, briefer bits, too—like the vendor in the U-Bahn (subway) who sells loose cigarettes. You could still buy individual cigarettes in much of Europe when I was in school there—a pack was relatively pricey even in the ’60s.
There was one other real note the movie struck—more in line with my old job in Berlin, like the reference to the BDC. While he’s visiting a woman he had met, Clift meets a neighbor who stops in at the woman’s apartment. They introduce themselves to one another and chit-chat briefly, then the man takes a seat by the window and takes out a pad and makes notes as planes land at the airport. (I told you, the planes flew right by the windows!) Clift asks the man what he’s doing. “I’m a Russian spy,” he answers matter-of-factly. Clift is taken aback slightly, as you might expect. He asks if the man’s not afraid that Clift might report him. “The Americans know I do this,” he states. “And the Russians know that the Americans know.”
He also explains that because the Russians don’t believe the newspaper announcements of the airlift’s progress—since the Soviets lie, they assume everyone else does, too—they insist on getting their own statistics. Since the official reports are accurate—the U.S. wants everyone to know what they’re doing; it’s good propaganda—he tells Clift that he leaves out one or two flights, just so the Russians feel they’re getting “real” figures. Later in the movie, he has stepped out of the living room briefly just as a plane comes in to land. He sticks his head around the corner, then smiles at Clift and says, “That one was just American propaganda!”
Anyway, the man tells Clift that the Russians are spying on the Americans with 20,000 agents in Berlin, and the Americans are spying on the Russians, only with just 10,000 agents. Both sides know that the other side is spying, and that each side also knows that the other side knows. It’s all very absurd—but not inaccurate. When I was in Berlin in the ’70s, not only were the Soviets (and the East Germans, of course) spying on us and we on them, but, of course, the French and British were also spying on the Soviets and vice versa. But the Allies were spying on each other as well. And there were spies in Berlin from Bulgaria, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and other Soviet Bloc countries (often as surrogates for the KGB or the GRU, the military intelligence organization), all spying on everyone else—including each other. There were even Chinese spies operating in Berlin—a country with no obvious need to be in Berlin—as well as Israelis and others. The Cold War was mighty crowded in Berlin! The divided city was espionage-central in that era—the counterpart of, say, Lisbon in WWII. It was like living in Casablanca.
With the possible exception of Saigon, Cold War Berlin may have had more spies per capita than any other place on Earth (though the movie’s figures were greatly inflated, of course). It certainly had spies from more countries and agencies than anywhere else. (I’m sure there’s a comedy of errors in this somewhere!) The first day I reported to our offices, which were in the HQ compound on Clayallee in the Dahlem section of the borough of Zehlendorf, which also housed both the Berlin Brigade command (one-star general), the military governor’s office (two-star general), and the Minister’s office—the highest-ranking diplomatic officer in Berlin, just below an ambassador—I noticed two black Russian sedans, Volgas or Moskviches, parked, one by each exit from the compound. Aside from being black, the Soviet vehicles were very recognizable, looking as they did like something left over from the early ’50s. I asked about them, and Lt. Chuck Lurey, my sponsor, the officer who was assigned to help me get acclimated, told me that they were almost always there, just watching, taking notes and probably photos—and that within an hour of my arrival, they knew my name, rank, and assignment. By the same token, I later got info copies of the transcripts of the wiretaps from Potsdam, the Soviet military HQ in East Germany.
MI personnel wore civilian clothes on duty and were all addressed as “Mr.” or “Miss” outside the office. When we had to wear fatigues—for the firing range, say, or during an alert—we wore no branch or rank insignia, only the U.S. device. We weren’t clandestine, but low-profile. Our home addresses and phone numbers were unlisted in both the Berlin city and the Berlin Brigade directories, and our cars were all registered in Munich, not Berlin. (In accordance with the Occupation Agreement among the four wartime allies, each power had free access to all sectors of Berlin. Both official and unofficial personnel were permitted to travel throughout the city; the Western allies even encouraged this—with certain exceptions, as you’ll hear.)
My musings on The Big Lift set me off remembering. As you might imagine, my quarter-decade (sounds more impressive than two-and-a-half years) in Berlin included several unique events. Being in MI only exacerbated that fact. (It didn’t escape our attention that MI could also stand for Mission: Impossible. Our official title OTJ was Special Agent—so we used to hum Johnny Rivers’s 1965 hit “Secret Agent Man” at each other when we crossed paths out in the world. I often felt like Agent 86—would you believe . . . ?)
Speaking of Get Smart: Would you believe we had a real-life Cone of Silence? Of course, it wasn’t really a cone, and it didn’t descend from the ceiling over our Chief’s desk—but otherwise, it was the very same idea. It was, to put it simply, a room suspended inside another room. (I don’t know the technology—such as what did the suspending. Probably classified.) Over my years in Berlin, I had a couple of occasions when I had to brief the Berlin Brigade CO, the brigadier general who commanded the enhanced brigade stationed in the city. (As I mentioned, there was also a major general who was the military governor, the U.S. Commander, Berlin, or USCOB. I had to brief him, too, on occasion.)
The Occupation Agreement limited the U.S. to one brigade of troops in Berlin, so we just created a brigade two or three times the size of an ordinary unit (1,500-3,200 soldiers)—a couple of extra infantry companies in each battalion and a couple of extra tank companies in the armor battalion (up to 6,000 troops)—which is why the CO was a brigadier general instead of just a colonel. Aside from BB, there were other troops, like our unit, which were stationed in Berlin, plus the Air Force. There may have been as many as 10,000 U.S. soldiers, airmen, and DAC’s (Department of the Army Civilians) in Berlin in my day, plus State Department personnel, agencies like the FBI and CIA, and employees of the EES (the European Exchange System, the operator of PX’s in USAREUR and BX’s in USAFE), and dependent schools, and so on. Of those, maybe 2,000 were engaged in some kind of intelligence work.
(I said earlier that there was a U.S. Mission in Berlin, our diplomatic office in the politically sensitive city. I had little contact with the minister, but in early summer 1972, about a year after I arrived, President Nixon appointed a new ambassador to the Federal Republic. He was Martin J. Hillenbrand who, from 1963 to ’67 had been Deputy Chief of Mission at the embassy in Bonn—my father’s boss. The ambassador maintained an office at the Berlin mission and one afternoon when he was in the city, I paid Hillenbrand a visit there to say hello and reintroduce myself to him after a decade.)
Anyway, the first time I had to go to a briefing for the BB commander—I don’t remember which incident this was, but I can guess—it was in the secure room. (It had a name, of course, but I can’t remember it.) Someone described the room to me beforehand, so I sort of knew what it was, but as soon as I got there—you actually go through two doors, one for each “room”—all I could think of was the Cone of Silence. It was all I could do to keep from cracking up during the briefing while I was waiting my turn. You must picture this: I was the only lieutenant in the room, and if not the only junior officer, one of just one or two at most. The rest were majors and up, including at least one bird colonel (more of him later), and, of course, the general. I was also the only one who saw any humor in this proceeding. Making reference to the Cone of Silence would not have been appreciated.
By the way, at the start of The Big Lift, there’s a voice-over that explains how the Soviets started the blockade. The VO describes how the crossing points (the famous Checkpoint Charlie, for instance) were all closed, the trains halted at the border of the Soviet Zone, and the Autobahns connecting Berlin to the Allied zones were closed to Allied traffic. The airlift defeated this action and the Soviets never tried it again—but they did keep up the same tactics on a sporadic and short-term basis. Every few months, they’d stop the supply trains from West Germany (formally, the Federal Republic of Germany, or FROG to the military; GI’s in Berlin called it The Zone, left over from the days of the Occupation) and keep them on a siding for hours, maybe a day. On another occasion, they’d stop all the traffic on the Autobahn—official Allied traffic was restricted to one designated route through East Germany between Berlin and Helmstedt on the border—and back cars and trucks up at one or another of the checkpoints.
Another thing the Soviets loved to do on the Autobahn was to make us deal with the East German guards instead of the Soviet ones. They knew we weren’t supposed to do that before the U.S. recognized the German Democratic Republic (GDR or DDR) in September 1974—we were supposed to demand to see a Soviet official. They knew there wasn’t anything we could really do out on the highway, though. When they did that, we’d have to report the incident when we got to our destination, either in Berlin or Helmstedt. (In the military, the GDR was officially called the Soviet Zone of Occupied Germany, or SZOG, before recognition.) There were also occasional “incidents” at Checkpoints Alpha, Bravo, or Charlie, engineered as an excuse to close them for several hours. (These were not the same as real incidents that also occurred at the checkpoints or elsewhere along the Wall every few weeks. People were still trying to escape from the East even as late as the ’70s. Every month or so, there were shots fired at one of the checkpoints; then everyone would scramble.)
Helmstedt, by the way, was a peculiar place in those days. It was just a small university town—a large village, really, of about 28,000 inhabitants in the ’70s (fewer now)—but it happened to be situated right at the spot on the Autobahn designated as the official crossing point, Checkpoint Alpha, from West Germany into East Germany. (Ordinary civilians could cross over at any number of border crossings, but official Allied personnel, both civilian and military, had to use this route. Checkpoint Bravo was the other end of the highway where it crossed from East Germany into West Berlin, 110 miles from Helmstedt. Charlie, of course, was the crossing point at Friedrichstrasse between the Berlins.) As a result of its location, Helmstedt was the site not only of a large MP unit, a satellite of the Berlin Provost Marshall’s Office, but of a huge “listening post” run by the ASA—the Army Security Agency, the division of the army responsible for signals intelligence, or SIGINT, and electronic intelligence, or ELINT—otherwise known as electronic eavesdropping. I was engaged in what was known as HUMINT, or human intelligence.
Several of the enlisted GI’s from my Russian class in Monterey were stationed in Helmstedt. They spent 24/7 eavesdropping in eight-hour shifts through immense antennas and other electronic listening gear on Russian and East German transmissions and telephone communications. There were enough microwave transmitters and receivers on top of the compound to cook a large herd of cattle into roast beef! But except for the ASA and the MP’s, the town was just this sleepy little village. (I visited one of my former Russkie classmates, who had become a friend even though he was an EM.) That’s probably all it is now. It’s not even a border town anymore!
That route between the Zone and West Berlin was actually a series of three Autobahns, and it was very possible to go astray at the two interchanges and wander off into East Germany. That, of course, was a major no-no. Every week or so there’d be some problem with a GI getting lost on the road or having some other trouble with the East Germans or the Soviets on that highway and one of us would have to interview the guy, find out if there was any real security breach, and scare the hell out of him so he didn’t do it again. The same was true for GI’s who went over to East Berlin and got into one kind of difficulty or another. The Soviets loved to approach GI’s in the S-Bahn stations (the Berlin subway which was controlled by the East Germans; we had the U-Bahn system, and both traveled under the Wall) and try to get ID cards or some other low-level document. (The S-Bahn, for Strassenbahn, was a sort of commuter rail system; the U-Bahn, for Untergrundbahn, was the ordinary subway system. Both systems predated the war and, therefore, the Wall, and traversed the entire city. The Occupation Agreement gave the Soviets control over the S-Bahn and the western allies control of the U-Bahn, hence the Cold War dichotomy.)
Since any contact by a GI with an East German or Soviet agent had to be reported, we were constantly interviewing soldiers who’d been approached. Most soldiers stationed in Berlin knew better and walked away, then reported the incident when they got back to the West—but every now and then, when some unit in the Zone would send a busload of GI’s to Berlin for a “Berlin Orientation Tour,” there’d be some screw-up because they were never properly briefed before they were let loose in the city. No one told them, for instance, that the S-Bahn was East German and that the big station, Friedrichstrasse, was under East Berlin and loaded with East German and Soviet agents just waiting to compromise them. Their purpose wasn’t really to gain anything valuable—just to cause trouble. The poor GI’s were usually scared shitless, often even before we talked to them. (It was our job, aside from determining that there wasn’t any serious security problem, to scare them some more. These talks were called SAEDA briefings—Subversion and Espionage Directed Against the Army; they were pretty much pro forma.)
I remember one interview very specifically because it involved a teenager, a high school boy whose dad was a GI in Berlin. He’d driven into the Zone with a teacher—I forget why now, some perfectly innocent field trip—but on the way back into Berlin on the Autobahn, when they stopped at one of the checkpoints along the route, the kid decided to practice the Russian he’d been learning. While the teacher was getting the papers attended to, the boy started a conversation with a Soviet guard and gave him a pack of American cigarettes. (Russian cigarettes—papyrosi, to be precise—are disgusting things; American ones were a prized acquisition.) Well, someone in another car at the checkpoint saw this exchange and reported it at the MP station at Checkpoint Bravo. The MP’s immediately reported this to us, and we got the crossing lists—the document kept at each checkpoint on which the cars of all GI’s and civilian or military staff were registered as they passed through. We ID’d the car in the report, found out who owned it, tracked down the teacher and ID’d the student, and called him in for a SAEDA talk. I was the agent assigned to talk to the kid. Man, he’d have liked to piss his pants, he was so scared. No matter how much I assured him that nothing was going to happen, he was sure his father was going to get shipped home at the very least. It was quickly obvious, of course, that nothing serious had happened—though contact with a Soviet guard was against regs for obvious reasons. (It’s one of the excuses the Soviets would use to shut down the road and cause a diplomatic incident if they were in that mood at the time. This isn’t paranoia—it’s realism.) I did the Dutch Uncle routine—me being not much older than the kid was, you understand—and sent him home. I sure wouldn’t have wanted that kid’s dreams that night! (Me, I felt like a big shot!)
[This is the first installment of what will be a series of eight posts on my tour of duty as a Military Intelligence Special Agent in West Berlin. The series will be posted irregularly every two or three weeks, so I can’t say now when Part 2 will appear, but I can tell you that it picks up with a little bit about what it was like to live in Cold War Berlin from the point of view of a GI. I hope you’ll come back to ROT to read the rest of the series.]