Cold War fed remembers: Getting through Checkpoint Charlie

Senior Correspondent Mike Causey is on vacation. In his absence, Federal News Radio asked regular Federal Report readers to write guest columns. This is the final part of a three-part series from a German-born DoD civilian who was in Europe for much of the Cold War.

From the early 1960s until the end of the 1980s, when someone mentioned Berlin, it was usually in connection with the Wall. And if it wasn’t, most often you thought about the Berlin Wall anyway.

On one trip to Berlin in the late 1980s, we had a chance to visit Checkpoint Charlie, and not just pass through. Checkpoint Charlie was the passageway between West and East Berlin — the place where East met West and often the focus point of contention between the two. The French, British and Americans had their own facilities. The French and British were local construction but completely different styles. For example, the U.S. station was a prefab metal box. The eye hooks that were used to deliver it were clearly visible on the upper four corners. The reason for that was that the “situation” was temporary. I had a good chuckle at that.

Across the street diagonally was the Checkpoint Charlie Museum. It was a private museum, and I understand it is still open. In it here was the history of the Wall. But mostly it was about the people that tried to escape to the West.


There was a balloon made from material you would not consider really suitable. Supposedly some used a zip line to slide into the West. A lot of the escapees were uniformed personnel who were supposed to be guarding, but decided to make a quick dash or hop into freedom. There was a tiny car, the smallest I have ever seen, in which some contorted themselves hidden and passed though the checkpoint. There were also tunnels attempts.

There were unsuccessful attempts, and not just by being caught. Depending on who is counting, 136 (official East German Police tally) or well over 200 people were killed attempting to escape. The first person who died while trying to “defect,” jumped form a building into West Berlin. The first person shot was trying to swim across one of the canals. The last died in the spring of 1989.

Across the street from the museum was the Wall. Between the sidewalk and the Wall was a large open space. At one time there probably were houses sitting along the sidewalk, which were later removed by the East Germans. The Wall did not start out with a lot of planning, or any planning in fact. A situation triggered a response and soon barbed wire was strung up hastily and people were cleared out of their houses if they had a window into the Western Zone

Allegedly, one of the masons who was to block up the windows in one of those houses, was left alone for a moment. He cut into the mortar joint and destroyed the integrity. He then smoothed things over so no one would notice. Well, no one on the east side. Sometime later he and a number of people knocked trough the weakened wall and had a relatively small hop to freedom

Others did not have the luxury of a first floor window. I can still remember seeing black and white films on one of the nightly newscasts. A bunch of people were on the second floor. Some West Germans were down below to help. I don’t know whether the West Germans knew the escapes, or if they were just ordinary citizens passing by. Both occurred. Suitcases and other belongings were dropped and caught. Then the people jumped. The West German men were able to catch the children and the smaller women without too much injury to the jumpers. When the father jumped, the men below were more like cushions that slowed the fall rather than act as catchers. But a broken leg is a small price for freedom.

Along the sidewalk across from the museum, at the edge of the cleared lot were a series of posts, maybe 50 feet apart. I went over and looked at the nearest one. It had a little sign about 4 inches wide. It was about Peter Fechter. Peter and friends tried to run into the West. He was shot and fell on the barbed wire not far from the actual line. But the West Germans could not help him, as the official East German orders were to shoot anyone inside that tried to help. Peter died of blood loss. This was not the first time this had happened. But it was the first time it was in front of the media and captured on black and white film. I can also remember seeing that film on the evening newscast; he and his friend running through the barbed wire; him getting shot; and later the uniforms carrying his body back. It is kind of burned into the back of my brain.

I mean, what kind of country shoots/kills its own people when they try to leave? Well, in my lifetime, I can think of three off the top of my head: Cuba, Vietnam and North Korea. There may be others. The U.S. will let anyone leave, as long as they are not indicted for a felony or suspicion thereof. Having all your money leave with you however might be much more difficult. The “defectors” didn’t worry about taking all their things with them. Unlike most refugees who were forced to leave everything behind, the “defectors” chose to leave most of what they had behind. Freedom was worth it.
— “Old Geezer from Energy


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