Senior Correspondent Mike Causey is on vacation. In his absence, Federal News Radio asked regular Federal Report readers to write guest columns. This is Part 2 of a three-part series from a German-born DoD civilian who was in Europe for much of the Cold War.
As Department of Defense civilians in Europe in the 1980s, we had the privilege to help keep the lines of communication to West Berlin open.
It was not a matter of just going to Berlin. You (and each member of your family) had to have official “Movement Orders.” The orders were in English, French and Russian and in blue ink. German was not included because they were not a part of the Yalta and Potsdam Agreements, which helped determine the future of Europe after the Cold War. The orders included the date of travel to West Berlin and the return. They included the vehicle license number if you traveled by car, and the train number if you used the Duty Train. They were signed on behalf of the Supreme Commander of U.S. Forces in Europe. A trip to Berlin required planning. (If you had British friends traveling with you, they had to get British orders)
Using the Duty Train, you arrived at the Frankfurt Bahnhof (train station) in the late evening. The duty train was a sleeper car; you got a chance to sleep or at least rest. Before you turned in, you bought some marble cake from the refreshment cart. Well those “in the know” did. After multiple slowdowns and stops, which included switching the locomotive to one operated by East Germany, you arrived in West Berlin the following morning.
At that point you could just head out into West Berlin. Or you could take the military bus to Templehof Airport. Templehof was one of the airports used during the Berlin Airlift. Not many planes used it anymore. Most of the planes during the Berlin airlift were DC-3 or DC-4 size. Planes bigger or faster than that would not be able to land there under normal circumstances. So it didn’t see much air traffic in the 1980s. From Templehof, you could get a tour bus that went into East Berlin.
The route for the bus was severely restricted. We did see Alexander Platz, which you can see in one of the Bourne Identity movies. Not much else is all that memorable compared to West Berlin and West Germany. By word of mouth, you were told to look at the prefab apartment buildings. They were made of concrete boxes stacked on each other.
There were gaps between the sides of the boxes, so you could see from one side to the other. Given the nature of precast concrete — as well as expansion and contraction and other construction considerations — it would be hard not to have those spaces. In the U.S. and elsewhere there probably would be some sort of “trim” covering the spaces, just like you have in your house. I’m not sure which is worse: No one thought of doing that or they were too afraid to suggest it, or the powers that were didn’t think it worthwhile or justified.
On one trip in winter, we stopped at a Chistkindle Markt or Weihnachts Markt, but being in an atheistic regime, it might not have been called either of those. Much has been written about the resilience of the human spirit. I saw the entrepreneurial spirit in many of the vendors there, which you could imagine would have been crushed given their circumstances. Besides having the East Berlin equivalent of funnel cake, that was the best part of the tour (in my opinion). To get back to Frankfurt by train, you did the reverse. It was possible to make the whole thing a “day trip” (one day in Berlin, two nights on the train.) to eat funnel cake at an East Berlin Weihnachts Markt.
You could also go by your personal car or truck.
You would drive to Helmstedt. As members of the U.S. Forces, you would go through Checkpoint Alpha. You would usually sail though both American and Soviet stations. If you were German or anything else, you had to go through the East German Check Point at Helmstedt, and there was always a huge backup — hours long sometimes. The Soviet soldiers would either ask for gum, and/or try to sell Soviet Army insignia. We were told not to engage with them for either. I did feel sorry for the Russian guys/kids who might very well have been drafted, and if I had had any gum with me, I would have considered accidentally dropping the pack, but I didn’t have any.
The orders were stamped at both U.S. and Soviet stations. The Soviets also marked the time.
U.S. Forces members were not allowed to get off the Autobahn. You would drive 127.5 km to the first Autobahn split, and the sign would tell you to turn right. It would be 136.8 km to the next Autobahn split, and the sign would tell you to go straight. Another 148 km and the sign would tell you to right and a few hundred meters, you were at Checkpoint Bravo. Again you went through both Soviet and American Stations.
The Soviets would stamp and add the time, and make sure you did not take too little time since Checkpoint Alpha, because then you would have been speeding, and also that you didn’t take too long, which would raise the question of what took you so long. The Soviet presumption would have been it was something “nefarious,” such as getting off the Autobahn and/or spying, until proven otherwise! You tried to make sure your car was in good condition and it would not have a breakdown.
Whether you traveled to Berlin by train or by car, you were an agent actually engaged in U.S. policy during the Cold War — actually “fighting” the Cold War.
While the Defense Department offered an award to all civilians who worked for DoD during the Cold War, I have something better: the movement orders for my then 2-year-old daughter, which is suitable for framing and being proudly displayed hanging on a wall. — “Old Geezer from Energy”
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