Berlin

In 1988, I was 19 years old.  I was a US Army Infantryman.  I had just finished my first tour with the Bco 2/237 (No Slack) infantry regiment at the 101st Airborne division.  I was both Airborne and Air Assault qualified and had been predominantly an assistant M-60 gunner.  (this basically means that I carried all the heavy stuff of the M-6o machine gun but not the actual “hawg/pig” itself and I never got a chance to shoot it.  This was the “rookie” job for any private in a weapons squad).  I has just landed in Frankfort as I was being reassigned to the Berlin Brigade.  A military official met me there and told me that  I needed to board “the duty train.”  This was one of the only sanctioned way for US forces to travel some 80 miles behind East German/Soviet lines into Berlin.  Its was like going back in time.  A surreal post World War II world where Russian and US forces stood toe to toe, locked and loaded, guarding the same wall.  It was also the center of all the espionage activities of the time.  This was the Cod War and private Jon was stuck right on the front lines.  My world began to immediately shrank.  I could speak neither German nor Russian, I could read absolutely no signs, or and other information that might assist a foreigner in a strange land.   A Russian soldier walked the the car  with an AK-47 in hand.  This was the enemy.  I was trained to kill him, and I figured, that he was probably trained to kill me.  The Cold Wars seemed to be heating up to me.  The Russians were professional and disciplined soldiers.  So was I.  Thirteen weeks at Fort Benning’s Harmon Church completed that work in me.  I was 17 years old when I met my first drill sergeant and turned 18 while I was there.  Here I was, some 15 months later, facing the enemy and was grateful for the rigorous training.   I was as ready as I would ever be, but still scared.  That’s just part of being in Berlin in those days and I talk more about this in a minute.  I was relieved to arrive in West Berlin.

In my orientation process, I was sent on a tour of East Berlin.  I was required to wear my Class B uniform.  We boarded a bus, drove through Checkpoint Charlie and into a completely different world.  There was absolutely no color.  All was gray.  All the cars were exactly the same and all the clothes that people were wearing were all the same also.  I had read George Orwell’s 1985 in high school and felt like I had walked right into that book.  It was surreal.

The Berlin Brigade trained for inner city fighting.  The thinking was that any fighting that we would do would be in the city of Berlin.  Hence, there was a “mock city” set up for training which was affectionately called “dough boy city” though I am not sure as to why.  Additionally, to this day, I have no idea why the area in which we trained ran right along the side of the Wall.  The logic of this escaped me because the Russians observed/filmed our training exercises.  One day as we were setting up, I heard a low rumble that sounded like thunder.  When I looked up to see what it was, it was a Russian Hind-E helicopter hovering along the wall and filming us.  It was the largest aircraft I had ever seen.  It was bigger than the home that I grew up in back in Ohio.  In my orientation process, they tell you, be professional when you encounter the Russians at the wall.  Don’t point your weapons, make any derogatory gestures or otherwise provoke an international incident.  When I saw the size of that helicopter, this was a “no-brainier” to me.  However, the guys in my platoon, 3rd platoon B co 4/502 starting yelling obscenities, flipping them the bird, and one guy even mooned them.  I thought, “Oh shit, were dead.”  My supped up 22 M-16 rifle would be no match for that war machine.  fortunately, they did not feed into our negativity and they flew off.  Then it occurred to me.  If we ever had a conflict we were going to get “creamed.”  We were 80 miles behind enemy lines, we were outnumbered and hopelessly outgunned.  We were all going to die.  This was daily life on the front of the Cold War.  It was psychological and for some, even traumatic. A life of constant fear.  It bothered me but I also knew there wasn’t a thing that I could do about it.  Just drive on.  I think it was this mindset that led the guys in my platoon to react the way they did to that Hinde-E.  A kind of last act of defiance.

A few months into my time there, I began to notice that the Russian soldiers became increasingly less professional.  They wanted to talk across checkpoints, they didn’t carry their weapons, they wanted to trade Vodka for Marlboro’s, and exchange regimental lapel pins.  Eventually, they would drink and smoke at their post.  This gave me some peace of mind because I thought we might have a chance to kill all these drunk guys if it came down to it.  Shortly thereafter, the Russians left and East German guards replaced them..  They were even less professional than their Russian counterparts.  I was to young and naive to see the writing on the wall but I was glad to see the Red War Machine was beginning to crack.  This gave me some hope.  We saw no more Hind E helicopters, guard towers were left unmanned, and the un-professionalism of the East German soldiers continued.  Then, President H.W. Bush was coming.  This is never good news for an E-3 private first class.  Why?  This would mean that it would be my job to clean and make shiny every damn thing around because Big Brass always accompanied the President.  We would have to do a damn parade.  Don’t get me wrong, the actually parade itself is an awesomely patriotic event, especially in that milieu.  It’s the 75,000 rehearsals that we would have to do to make all things “Dress Right Dresws.”  The President came and went.  Things then returned back to normal or at least, what was normal for me We were going to the field.

We were going back to dough-boy city.  I wasn’t looking forward to it because it was going to be cold.  East European cold is a completely different level of cold and the concrete of dough boy city didn’t make anything all the more cheery.  It was Novenber the 9th 1989.  I was beginning to unload our gear when the First Sergeant said, “Pack it in boys were going in, the wall has come down.”  I thought he was joking.  I kept unloading all the stuff then my squad leader said, “Ricketts load all that up we are leaving.”  I still didn’t believe that the wall came down until we had arrived back at McNair barracks and guys from other companies were telling me the news.  We had to get down town.

US forces were permitted to use the subway for free in Berlin if we had our military ID with us.  So, my roommate and I started the journey to the Kufurstendam, Berlin central street.  I had been there hundreds of times but this time, I  couldn’t believe what I saw.  There were so many people.  Thousands of them walking up and down the middle of the street.  Absolutely no cars just waves and waves of people.  All cheering, dancing, drinking, celebrating, and overall having the biggest party that I’ve ever been too.  It was an incredible night of fellowship between Germans, Americans, English, French, and East Germans.  We made our way down to Checkpoint Charlie and met Peter Jennings down there.  He shook our hands and thanked us for our service.  The people of the East were coming through the checkpoint to cheers and free drinks.  It was like V-day.  It was a type of V-day.  It was the end of the Cold War.  I consider it one of the highest honors of my Army career to have been a part of it.  Shortly thereafter, I rotated back to the 101st and eventually got out and went to college.  However, I look back on those days of my soldierly youth with fondness and pride.  I was glad to have been there and proud to have served there.

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