Saturday marks the 24th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the concrete barrier constructed on Aug. 13, 1961, by the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) to divide a city and separate families and friends while preventing massive defection and emigration.
As a young Army sergeant, I volunteered and was assigned for duty in West Berlin during the Cold War era with the headquarters, Berlin Brigade Command Element, S1 Section, located on the General Lucius D. Clay Compound. My story begins on Oct. 6, 1978, at LaGuardia Airport in New York City with an 18-hour flight to Frankfurt and a connecting flight to the Tempelhof Airport in West Berlin. My plane landed early in the afternoon, and I was escorted by U.S. liaison personnel to what would serve as my home during my tour of duty in West Berlin – Andrews Barracks. Andrews Barracks was once home to Hitler’s elite SS troops, and served as the execution arena for enemies of the Third Reich.
During my in-country orientation our group of about 20 U.S. soldiers traveled by commercial bus in Class A uniform without name tags because of espionage issues through Checkpoint Charlie, which was a control point between East and West Berlin. Our bus was not allowed to enter East Berlin until an inspection had been conducted by an East German border guard, which included a head count. This procedure was repeated upon our return.
Once we entered East Berlin, we were not permitted to photograph buildings, military installations or the local citizenry.
Other memorable moments of my tour of duty included learning that a number of East German nationals had been killed attempting to cross over the wall to freedom while others used various improvised methods to facilitate their successful escape into the free sector of West Berlin. One will find markers and memorials throughout Berlin today that identify those who died in their pursuit of freedom.
The windows of the buildings located near the wall in East Berlin were sealed shut to prevent East German nationals from looking into the free sector of West Berlin. Every day I would see West German people climb wooden scaffoldings in hopes of seeing a loved one or shaking their fist and screaming obscenities at the armed East German border guards, who enjoyed taunting and gesturing at those frantically attempting to voice their dislike for the political quagmire imposed by the Russian and East German governments.
Near the end of my tour of duty, I was allowed to re-enlist at the Brandenburg Gate to continue my military career stateside. During the re-enlistment ceremony, three busloads of French and British tourists stopped to watch events unfold, cheering wildly while the East German border guards in the two guard towers near the Brandenburg Gate looked on helplessly from a distance behind the Berlin Wall. It was a proud moment, standing in front of the Brandenburg Gate with our nation’s colors waving proudly in the October breeze in a display of what some might suggest was an act of defiance to those hiding in the towers who, in my opinion, represented the tyranny of two rogue governments watching and waiting for the opportunity to silence those desperate in their pursuit of freedom.