Twenty Previously Untold Particulars About Berlin During The Cold War

On November 9, 2009 there will be a giant street party at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin attended by hundreds of thousands of revellers. This will be the culmination of a year of speeches, special events, exhibits and celebrations in Germany to mark the fall of the Wall in 1989. For those too young to have experienced the real Wall, there will be a fake one constructed on the site of the original. It will be toppled just before the party.

Some say the Berlin Wall fell because the East German and Russian governments lost their will to crack down on growing numbers of protesters. Some say it was because President John F. Kennedy

The author stands just to the right of the American flag in this June 26,1963 photo showing President Kennedy during his visit to West Berlin. It was taken by an official USAF photographer.

went to DEFCON 2 (Defense Readiness Condition Two, on the brink of nuclear war) over the Cuban Missile Crisis, thereby convincing the Russians that the U.S. would stand up to them if they made a military move against West Berlin. Others say it was because President Ronald Reagan proceeded with the inter-ballistic missile shield project, nicknamed Star Wars, and the Russians couldn’t keep up with it financially. For an encore, President Reagan famously commanded, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this Wall!” And, of course, there is Mikhail Gorbachev himself, with his notion of perestroika, or restructuring of society in the former USSR and its relations with the West.

Actually, at the very end, the Berlin Wall fell because an East German bureaucrat made some fateful misstatements at a press conference that gave the Western media the impression people would be able to pass freely through the Wall. When East Berliners saw this on West Berlin television, thousands went to the Wall and the situation got so out of control that the confused East German border guards let them through. Humpty Dumpty could not be put back together again. (Here is a link to the actual, incredible event .)

Of course, the British, American and French forces who served in Berlin deserve some credit, too. They held the ground in West Berlin from 1945 to 1989, knowing they wouldn’t have a chance if a shooting war started because they were 110 miles inside enemy lines and the other side had them surrounded in vastly overwhelming numbers. At the time, no one could have guessed that it would all end peacefully.

So, with this broad canvas as background, here are 20 untold particulars of Berlin during the Cold War that you won’t find anywhere else:

  • Respectable Germans crossed the street to avoid walking by GI bars. The Germans would have preferred that we didn’t have to be there, but they didn’t want us to leave, either.
  • It was well known that GI bars were patronized by East German female spies.
  • The Russians occasionally dropped metal chaff to create radar blind spots and disrupt air traffic into West Berlin.
  • Russian jet fighters buzzed West Berlin and the US helplessly protested.
  • Powerful spotlights were used by the East to harass aircraft landing at West Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport.
  • The Tempelhof Air Traffic Control Tower, equipped with powerful binoculars to search for arriving aircraft, had an unobstructed view of apartments across the street from the airport.
  • For security reasons, an electronic counter-counter measures simulator in Berlin Air Route Traffic Control Center, manned by the United States Air Force, was referred to only as “the Coke machine.”
  • On completion of routine radio checks, made during shift changes, air traffic controllers could hear “ghost” microphone clicks, possibly coming from all the spooks on all sides who would be listening in and could not do their own verbal radio checks.
  • British soldiers regularly and ceremoniously relieved themselves in a public fountain in their sector of Berlin. It was a tradition.
  • US Army helicopters flying along the border between West Berlin and East Germany, referred to as the sector-zonal border, enjoyed a view of a nudist colony on the western side.
  • A U.S. airman at Tempelhof Airbase was killed in a freak accident when a plywood board he was carrying caught under his chin in a paternoster. A paternoster is an elevator the size of a closet that is open at the front and doesn’t stop, so you have to get off while it is moving.
  • A Polish Air Force major flew under the radar and landed at West Berlin’s Tempelhof Central Airport in 1963 with his wife and two children.
  • Mysterious guys who looked like German civilians with long hair picked up mail in the Tempelhof Airbase mail room. When a USAF T-39 aircraft “strayed” into East German territory and was shot down by a Russian MiG-21 in January 1964, these same men showed up in uniform with fresh GI haircuts and became part of the team that went into East Germany to retrieve the bodies of three crewmen.
  • There were numerous alerts in the middle of the night, but the average GI could not be sure they were only alerts until they were over. The most disturbing item of required equipment was a gas mask.
  • Many GIs visited German orphanages during Christmas. Many of the orphans were fathered by Allied military personnel who had rotated out.
  • A dispute between a taxi driver and a GI became a near riot when the taxi driver radioed for taxi driver reinforcements and GIs poured out of nearby bars to help his passenger.
  • A five hundred pound unexploded World War II British incendiary bomb was found buried near the Ground Controlled Approach radar unit located alongside the Tempelhof runway where the author worked.
  • French military personnel were the best behaved, but U.S. and British soldiers said the French soldiers were not the best soldiers on joint maneuvers.
  • Teenagers who were probably just angry with their parents and managed to escape from the East became celebrated freedom fighters in the Western press.
  • U.S. Army Special Services took uniformed military personnel visiting from bases in West Germany on tours through the Wall into East Berlin in an Army-green Mercedes Benz bus. If there were no actual military tourists, troops stationed in West Berlin were put on the bus because the real purpose of the tours was to exercise U.S. rights to enter East Berlin under post World War Two agreements with the Russians.

On the day of the actual reunification of Germany into a single nation, October 3, 1990, in a telephone call between German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and President George H. W. Bush, Chancellor Kohl said:

Things are going very, very well. I am in Berlin. There were one million people here last night at the very spot where the Wall used to stand–and where President [Ronald] Reagan called on Mr. [Mikhail] Gorbachev to open this gate. Words can’t describe the feeling. The weather is very nice and warm, fortunately. There were large crowds of young people. Eighty percent were under thirty. It was fantastic. A short time ago there was enormous applause when our President said that our gratitude was owed especially to our Allied friends and above all our American friends.”

Amid the din and roar of events at that time, the words of the President of a reunified Germany mentioned by Chancellor Kohl were little noted by the public at large – except for those who had actual experience of the thousands of untold particulars about Berlin during the Cold War.

Note to Readers: The author served as a United States Air Force air traffic controller in a unit that was in support of Strategic Air Command during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 and was stationed at Tempelhof Air Base in West Berlin from March 1963 to June 1965.


7 responses to “Twenty Previously Untold Particulars About Berlin During The Cold War

  1. Claus R. Mehnert

    Just one word “GREAT” job.
    For you to know Sir, I am a retired Berlin Policeman ( West of course).
    I was there when the wall was put up and I was there when it came down.
    I lived through entire time in Berlin and was serving (attached) with the 287th MP Co for 12 1/2 years. So I really know and can affirm what you wrote.
    Thank you again.
    Claus R.Mehnert

  2. So glad you gave me the link to this. I learned a great deal from the documentary I watched but even more fantastic stuff here 🙂

  3. Marianna Roberts

    I was there. They were certainly interesting times….and they brought me to the US (which I had never considered) and for which I will forever be thankful as I have come to love this country. It’s the best in the world. Growing up under communism has taught me a thing or two. We’re not perfect, but people, this is as good as it gets. You can tell the strength of a country by how many people are trying to get in – and our lines have not diminished. I have loved living here and am super concerned about our future with the current government. Someone said: Most countries are not toppled by revolutions but by the slow disintegration of their rights. God help us!

  4. Hi:
    Great blog!
    I’m a newspaper writer working on a novel set in Cold War Berlin and my character is, you guessed it, a reporter.
    Would you be willing to share some insights with me for my book?
    Please and thanks.

    Gerry Timbers

  5. Gordon, this is incredibly rich detail, and conjures up some memories on the part of this ex-GI, such as the Christmas visits to German families, the Berlin orientation tours, the alerts, and so much more. Thanks so much!

  6. Our interview is now posted:

    Thanks so much for taking the time to share your recollections. And thanks for your service from a fellow vet.

  7. Cheers for writing this it was helpful for a paper I am at this time writing for my finals. Thanks

    Discount Gucci

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