Cold War Memories
Tuesday 5 October 2010
During the height of the Cold war in the early 1980s, I was a company-grade officer (lieutenant and captain) in a combat engineer battalion in Germany (23rd Engineers, 3rd Armored Division). The U.S. military was there to guard the border between the NATO nations and the Warsaw Pact nations, to counter the threat of a Soviet invasion of Western Europe. Our job was to provide mobility and countermobility support to the maneuver forces (infantry and armor). That meant helping them get where they wanted to go on the battlefield, and making it harder for the enemy to move so they could be targeted and destroyed.
I spent a year as a bridge platoon leader building various types of fixed and floating bridges (mobility). Then I was assigned to be a combat engineer platoon leader in Charlie Company supporting 1/36 Infantry. My job was to support the commander’s plans for defense with a barrier plan (countermobility). This would have employed my platoon to put various obstacles in the way of the enemy, such as minefields, road craters, and blown bridges. The maneuver forces would then overwatch these obstacles with artillery and anti-tank weapons, prepared to engage the enemy as they slowed down to breach the obstacles.
This past weekend I decided to visit my old defensive sector. My intent was to drive around and look at things, remember the past, and see how it had changed. I also planned to drive into the former East Germany for the first time. I imagined that this in itself would be kind of an emotional experience, since we were never allowed to go there when I was here before – they were occupied by the “Threat” forces (we never called the Soviets the “enemy” since we weren’t actually at war).
My sector was in a small valley on the Haune river north of Hunfeld, part of an area known as the “Fulda Gap”. This is an area roughly centered around the town of Fulda, consisting of relatively easier terrain in between mountain ranges, and is one of the historical invasion routes across Germany. I drove up on Saturday morning following our old convoy route from Hanau. I climbed the winding road up the hill from the Haune River, and stopped at the top where I could see out over the little valley that we were assigned to defend.
The photo above is looking west from the vantage point where the first Soviet tanks would have emerged into the valley after climbing up from the river. U.S. forces would have been dug into the treeline in the background. The little village in the left center is Wehrda, a small farming community.
I drove down into the valley and stopped in the village for a few minutes. The names of the other villages in the valley were quite familiar to me, as they were all in our defensive sector – Rhina, Schletzenrod, Niederaula. The name of the mapsheet was “Hunfeld”.
I drove across the valley to Schletzenrod, where I could get a view back to the east.
Schletzenrod celebrated its 850th anniversary this year. The last time I was here I was also in a jeep, but it looked a bit different than this one!
Above is the view to the east from just outside Schletzenrod. The hill in the distance is just on the other side of the Haune River, and is called the Stoppelsberg. It has a castle on top called Burg Hauneck, built in the 1300s. When I did my first map reconnaissance of the area after being assigned to this sector in 1982, I thought that would be a good place to go to get an overall view of things. I spent Thanksgiving weekend that year driving all over my new sector, getting familiar with every part of it – every road, lane, and cowpath, every village, field, patch of woods, and fold in the ground. I went to the castle and was rewarded with a magnificent 360 degree view. I could see my own sector to the west, and also the area to the east where the enemy would come from. Technically that was not in my sector, but was rather the covering force area where the Cavalry would operate to find and fix the enemy advance. But it was a great observation post. I spent the night on the tower so I could see everything in both darkness and light, at sundown and at dawn.
This is the gate of the castle, with the partially-reconstructed tower that now serves as an observation platform.
Here is a view looking west into my sector. The village of Wehrda is visible at left center. Schletzenrod is on the far right.
This is the view looking east from the tower of Burg Hauneck. It was very misty, but you can just make out a line of six volcanic hills that we called “The Three Sisters”. It was a very distinctive landmark, right along the border of the former East Germany.
This plaque describes the history of the castle and the various knights and factions that controlled it over time. Given the purpose of my own visit, I felt a very tangible connection with this history. Here on this same spot in 1392, the Knight Simon von Hune earned the gratitude of the residents of Bad Hersfeld for protecting them from an invading force. As historical monuments often do, it kind of put my own life into perspective, and caused me to think about things that endure versus things that pass. I thought of the movie “Gladiator”, and what Maximus said to his men before the battle: “What we do in life echoes in eternity”.
I decided to visit the village of Rasdorf, which was a bit further east, right along the former inter-German border. One salutary effect of the closed border was to create a zone where wildlife could flourish unmolested. As a result there are a number of species of plants and animals found here that are endangered elsewhere. The entire border area is now designated as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.
During the Cold War we were not allowed to get closer than 1 kilometer to the border (the so-called “1k zone”). This was to prevent potential border incidents. Only the cavalry was allowed in there, and they regularly patrolled the border fence, as did the border guards on the other side. A map recon had shown me that there was a place on a hill just outside of Rasdorf exactly 1km from where the border turned a corner. You could see miles of border fence and guard towers, and at the corner you could see all the layers of the border installations in cross-section. In 1983 I had taken my platoon to that place. I wanted them to see for themselves how the border was set up to keep the people living in the east from escaping to the west. My hope was that this would give them an appreciation for why we were there.
On this visit I planned to actually go down to the border and look for traces of it. I knew it would be mostly eradicated, but I hoped to find some remnant of where it had been, just to feel the historical significance of the place. I had no idea what I was in for!
I drove to Rasdorf, and then tried to find my way out of town onto the little dirt road I remembered. But things had changed in 27 years, and I didn’t find the exact place. But while driving around I did find some traces of the border, and I saw a tower in the distance that looked like a guard tower. I also saw a sign that said “Point Alpha” and something about a museum, so I followed the signs. I came to what looked like a U.S. installation, with a huge parking lot full of cars and a lot of people gathering. I parked and went and asked what it was all about, and was told that it was a ceremony marking 20 years of German reunification. Dignitaries were present to lay wreaths at a memorial, and they were giving tours of the museum. It turned out that, unbeknownst to me, a U.S. Cavalry outpost (Point Alpha) had been located right here on the border, just a couple of kilometers from Rasdorf. It had been turned into a museum, and I had accidentally happened along on a most propitious day to visit.
This monument and the wreath-laying ceremony commemorate the reunification of Germany in 1990.
The wording on the back of the monument is a quote from Willi Brandt, and says “Now grows together what belongs together”, and also says “We are one people!”.
This is the view inside checkpoint Alpha. I didn’t spend too much time on the museum exhibits here, as I had lived it myself. The uniforms and vehicles could have come straight from my own unit.
The flagpole here had a plaque in German explaining how the Americans held the flag ceremony every day, raising and lowering the flag with a salute. It also explained the way the flag pole was mounted. Rather than being planted in the ground, it is mounted above ground on brackets. This was to symbolize that we were here as invited guests, not as occupiers of conquered territory.
This shows the overall layout of the border. The tower on the right was one of the types of guard towers used on the East German side of the border. There was a continuous line of these towers, all in view of one another and manned 24x7, down the entire length of Germany. The tower on the left is inside the American observation point.
This is a better view of the border installations. Just out of view to the right is the East German guard tower. Moving from right to left are a concrete two-track patrol road, an area where guard dogs patrolled on steel cables, an anti-vehicle barrier, and then the fence. The fence material was razor-sharp to prevent people from climbing it. In some places the area between the barrier and the fence had anti-personnel mines buried in it. Also, in the later stages, as people continued to escape, the communists put mines on the fence itself, at knee, waist, and shoulder height. These were activated by motion sensors and would explode if someone tried to climb the fence. The actual border was over on the left, west of the fence. This is what communist countries had to go through to try to keep their citizens from fleeing the so-called “workers’ paradise”.
The two-track road is now set up as a “Lehrpfad” or “Teaching Path” with plaques explaining aspects of the Cold War and the history of the border installations.
While I was standing on the spot where I took the above photo, a group of people were gathered around the model of the dog. As they moved off, one lady stayed behind, facing away from me, just looking at the fence. As she turned towards me and began to follow her group, she glanced at me and then quickly looked down. For some reason, as she passed, I felt the need to say something, and so I said (in German) “I never in my life thought I’d be standing on *this* side of the border”. At that point she looked up at me, and I saw her eyes were red, and she was upset. She started to say something, and then started to cry. She said “I didn’t think it would affect me this way.” She was silent for awhile, and then continued: “I came out of the East with my husband and child in 1974 – we just couldn’t stay any longer. There was no future there”. There were tears streaming down her face and she was quite upset, so I reached out and took her hand to comfort her. She went on to tell me that they had been “built in” to her brother-in-law’s car, in a secret compartment. Her baby was only 1 year old at the time, and she was worried he would cry and give them away as they crossed the border.
I found that I was quite moved, and had some difficulty maintaining my own composure. I commented that it had been a very difficult time, and told her a little about myself. I told her I was an American soldier currently serving in Germany, and that I’d been here as a child when the wall went up because my father was in the Air Force, and how I had served here in the Army in the 1980s. I told her I had come to visit my old defensive sector to remember how it was back then, but had not expected to find the museum or all the people. We talked a little more, about various things. At one point she looked over at the fence, and said “Look at that fence! They had enough material to put that up the entire length of the country, but do you think we could go to the store and buy anything to build a fence of our own? Not a chance! But young people now, they know nothing of the DDR (East Germany).“
Then she looked up and noticed that we were alone, and said that she had to go rejoin her group. As we parted, she started to cry again, and she said “Thank you for coming here today, and thank you for all the years that you were here for us.” And then she walked away, down the same road where military vehicles had once patrolled to keep her and her countrymen from escaping to freedom.
You can imagine how I felt after that encounter. Certainly I felt something of a sense of personal pride and gratification, but I felt much more distinctly a sense of the way that you often hear recipients of medals for heroism say they feel: that they didn’t do anything special, but were just doing their job as part of a larger undertaking. I felt that she was not thanking me personally, but that for her I embodied all the American servicemen who had served on the frontier of freedom during the Cold War, and that her “Thank you” was really directed to America itself. It brought home to me, in a very poignant, visceral way, the hope for eventual freedom that we had represented to the people who were trapped in the East under communism for all those years. It was really quite a remarkable experience.
I went on to visit a companion museum on the eastern side of the former border, focusing on the East German border experience. I didn’t take many photos, but there was one example of a Trabant, or “Trabi” in military service that I had to take a picture of:
This was for all intents and purposes the only car an East German citizen could hope to own. It was a real piece of crap, and the waiting list to get one was years long. The body was made of some sort of fiberboard (e.g. cardboard) and the engine was like a lawnmower. They are sort of a symbol of the differences between East and West at that time.
This photo is looking west towards Rasdorf from the former border zone. The sign says: “Here, until 22 December 1989 at 11:00, Germany and Europe were divided.” I saw similar signs on every road that crossed the former border.
This is a walking path along the former border leading away from the East German border museum. My fears/expectations that all signs of the border would be eradicated was misplaced – they have made quite an effort to ensure that future generations have enough reminders to remember what it was like.
By the time I was finished at the border, it was about 4 or 5 PM on Saturday afternoon. I still had the rest of the weekend ahead of me, and I want to write about my trip. But I think this is a logical stopping point for now. To be continued…