On the East German Border

| March 29, 2009 | 50 Comments

A cross section view of the border

This October will mark the 20th Anniversary of the fall of the “Iron Curtain” that divided Europe for twenty eight years. Some of us spent a good portion of our young lives on the “bayonet point of western democracy” patrolling and observing the communists on the other side of that arbitrary and very visible line. Here’s a true account of the events of one day that I wrote for the History Channel’s veterans’ project about a decade ago. All of these pictures are mine, too;

A US patrol sets out one misty March morning in 1982. That’s the border at the barrier in the road ahead.


It was April 15, 1982, I remember the date because it was my 5th wedding anniversary. Our company had been on Camp Hof for almost four weeks and we were due to leave in a few days. We had some guys that hadn’t had a chance to see the border, so I took a bunch of them on patrol with me -about 15. The normal patrol was more or less 6 soldiers.

Since I’d been up the previous night with a patrol, the Border Officer In Charge, a Cav LT from the 1st Armored Division, decided he was going to go, too, and he took over my patrol – I was relegated to Assistant Patrol Leader. He decided that they would walk a lot of the border instead of just reconnoitering small points, which was a little ambitious and odd for a Cavalry guy. But I was riding. My job was to keep the M113 Armored Personnel Carrier between the Camp and the patrol and maintain radio contact.

The sight of a fifteen-man patrol walking almost the entire border stirred up the East Germans pretty badly. We saw more manned towers, helicopters and vehicles than we had the weeks before.
3 Border Signs
After the patrol walked about seven miles in the morning, we linked up for lunch in a tiny German town’s square and the guys played a little soccer with some of the kids in the the town. Older Germans brought us kuchen and coffee and we gave them tours of our equipment and vehicle. We were always treated better by the germans who lived within sight of the communist East than we were by Germans who lived further away.

After an hour of public relations and eating, the walking patrol pushed off towards the border again and I took my driver and gunner to high ground in the M113 so we could relay.

Within an hour or so, I lost contact with the patrol, which usually isn’t a big deal because of the terrain and our Vietnam era radios. We had scheduled radio checks to keep track of the patrols’ progress and location. I reported the loss of commo to Camp Hof and took off towards the patrol’s last known location.

As I neared the place I thought I’d find them, the radio broke with the LT repeating over and over the code word for an emergency “Thunder run! Thunder run!”. I answered him and asked his location. He was pretty flustered and couldn’t give me his location or the situation. Between, fending off questions the alarmed Operations Center (who had heard me repeat the “Thunder run” command back to the LT to make sure I’d heard him correctly), trying to maintain contact with the patrol, I guided the vehicle to a place I thought they might be, and sure enough, they were making their way up a narrow tractor trail in the woods about 10m from the border trace.

I couldn’t see their faces, but their eyes shone for miles. This motley collection of mechanics and clerks and infantrymen had 360 degree security and moving as fast as they could. In the center, was the gangly, bespeckled young LT half-carrying an East German gefrieder (private). We spun the 13-ton vehicle around in the narrow trail while the ramp dropped and the patrol silently and quickly loaded, still searching for the GAK (Communist Border Recon troops) patrol that might show up to take back the young private this close to their frontier.

While this was going on, the HQs weinies were stroking out wanting to know what was going on. I radioed back that I’d recovered the patrol, gave them a six-digit grid coordinate to where we’d recovered the patrol and a coordinate to where I expected to stop and wait for the border officer to meet us.

After moving back 1 kilometer, we set up a perimeter and the young Ranger LT told me their story. They had heard rifle shots and explosions near the border and went to investigate. This East German was shooting at the Claymore-type mines that were attached to the fence and triggered by vibration on the 3-meter fence so he could climb over.

His buddy cried real tears and tried to convince him to stop, he even pointed his AK at the offender, to no avail.

The private then scaled the razor sharp wire fence not realizing an American patrol was watching a mere 10 meters away. The LT broke the brush as he was preparing to drop to freedom. They both stopped and stared at each other not knowing which was more scared and waiting to see what the other would do. Finally, the East German dropped to the ground and stumbled across a shallow stream that was the border, collapsing on the other side.

The LT scooped him up and they nearly had to carry the German because he was so scared.

As we talked to the German, waiting for the West German Border Police to pick him up, he told us why he had escaped. He had been on patrol the night before, and when he got back, his feldweber (Platoon Sergeant) had put him back out on patrol because of our unusually large patrol walking the border. The private just decided to go AWOL.

He sat on the back of our vehicle and seemed facinated by the Mercedes and BMWs zipping up and down the road nearby. We treated his bloody hands, which were badly slashed from scaling the 3-meters of razor-sharp fencing. He gcouldn’t seem to say “thank you” enough.

After a while, a German Border Police car passed slowly by us. We tried to keep the East German out of sight so we could get credit for nabbing him. We were later told that this was the first time a US patrol had ever captured an East German soldier – I don’t know if it was true or not, but when we finally got back to the camp, there was certainly a lot of cheering and back-clapping for us.

Well, the East German spent the night in a Gasthaus getting debriefed and probably got a cushy job and new car. We spent a rainy night watching the GAKs watch us. His buddy, undoubtedly, spent the next 8 years in Siberia for not killing him.

A GAK feldweber with the 3-meter high fence in the background

I know his escape was brave, and he was happy to be in the West, and no one deserves to be held captive in their own country, but I couldn’t help thinking that “isn’t that just like a private; it gets a little tough and they’ll do anything to get out of work.” And wouldn’t you know it – those are the only pictures of the countless times I spent on the border that I can’t find. So these will have to do.

A GAK patrol observing a US patrol

An occupied East German tower. Notice the firing ports.

6 The Wall

Modlareuth, Germany also known as “Little Berlin”

9d E. German AK- 74

9c Belt Buckel & Bayonet

9e Border Guard

Jan. 4, 2011; I decided I’d add this Army Achievement Medal citation for the action to lend a bit of authenticity to the story.
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Category: Historical

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  1. rongkirby says:

    Great story Jonn. Thanks for it and your service.

  2. Sporkmaster says:

    Wow, great story. I wonder what Andre Shepard would say to that.

  3. kate says:

    i love that story! it should be a movie :)

    ‘isn’t that just like a private; it gets a little tough and they’ll do anything to get out of work’ lol!

  4. defendUSA says:

    Nice one, Jonn. We try and tell our kids, but they cannot fathom it.

    You just can’t tell people this shit went on. They have to see what life will be like under Vladimir Obama!!

  5. Sporkmaster says:

    And I bet that the wire was constantina wire? And he raced over that?

  6. olga says:

    Jonn, this private knew that there was more than 90% chance that his partner would shoot him – this was not a way of going AWOL when the going gets tough.

    one simply cannot understand what a desperate man could do unless one had experienced the same kind of desperation…

  7. UpNorth says:

    “We were always treated better by the Germans who lived within sight of the communist East than we were by Germans who lived further away”.
    I was always amazed that the West Germans got so much friendlier the closer we got to the border. Other than the terps in the PMO , who were, at my time in Germany, WWII vets, the rest of the West Germans barely tolerated our presence, until we moved East, then they really appreciated our presence.

  8. olga says:

    yes, I could NEVER understand those WestEuropean idiots who were marching against the American military presence in the Western Europe and blockading American bases and such… every time I would see the “Vremya” reportage from those marches, I would just go ‘idiots, f**king idiots’…

  9. airborne injun says:

    How long before we Americans will be forced to choose between our current “Government” or having to jump the “fence”? We seem to be heading in that direction!

  10. ponsdorf says:

    A really great story, thanks.

    Even though you qualified it , in part, with: but I couldn’t help thinking that “isn’t that just like a private; it gets a little tough and they’ll do anything to get out of work.” I’m in sympathy with him…in context.

    RE: lost pictures. Cracked me up.

  11. LTC Tim says:

    Great memories! By 1989 our border camp had moved from Hof to Coburg by the castle. On German reunification day a East German Warrant Officer walked up to our camp to talk. I should not have been surprised that he had close up photos of all the officers and NCOs and for the most part knew our respective positions in the squadron.

  12. 1SG Cliff says:

    Jonn. Great story and brings back a lot of memories from my 6 years in 2 ACR. I remember spending about 6 months of every year in Camp Gates doing patroling the border. We spent about 9 months of every year between border camps, Graf and Hohenfels (no need to explain these locations, if you’ve ever been there, you’ll remember them :-) ). Those are some of the best memories of my over 25 years of service. I visited “Little Berlin” a couple of years ago and they have a really great “Border Museum”, complete with authentic vehicles and uniforms. Keep up the good work on one of the best blogs out there!!!!

  13. WOTN says:

    Great Story Jonn. Thanks for the memories.

    Few now remember the Cold War, the anticipation of the Russian Hordes breaching the Fulda Gap, and the reminder that we were a mere trip wire, to slow them down long enough for re-inforcements to revenge our deaths.

    Fewer yet remember the threat of all out Nuclear war we grew up with.

    And even fewer know that FDR preferred Stalin over Churchhill as an ally.

  14. Raoul says:

    You guys won the Cold War. The public has no conception of that.

    There are times you win where you have to fight and there are times you win because the other guy doesn’t dare to fight.

  15. B Woodman says:

    John,
    Great story, and it ain’t no tall tale.
    Been there, done that. 1979-1982. Fond memories of my time at Merrill Barracks (Sudkacern) in Nurnberg with the 2nd Spt Bde, 625 Maint Co, supporting the 2ACR.
    The favorite mottos of the Comm people:
    “Without us, you’re just a 60 ton paperweight.”
    “You can talk about us, but you can’t talk without us.”

    B Woodman
    SSG (Ret), U S Army

  16. James McEnanly says:

    This is an article that truly fits the title of the blog.

  17. Just A Grunt says:

    Spent 6 years in Germany (77-83), almost conseqetive, but that is another story. I wasn’t in the 11th ACR or one of the other units that routinely patroled the border, but I got to spend a little time out there walking a border trace.
    One quick story. One time while pulling a 2 week stint on the border we got up one morning to begin our daily patrol and as we came out of the woods, smoking and joking, we were greeted by hundreds of armored vehicles as far as the eyes could see. I learned a new expression that day. Couldn’t drive a straight pin up my a@# with a jack hammer.
    Realizing that we had a grand total of 23 guys you would have thought we were an evangelical mega church for all the holy and not so holy references to God and Jesus that were uttered.
    When you are looking at that amount of armored vehicles, all with guns pointed your way you realize that if they really came across that border it would be hell on earth.
    Well we gathered our wits, reported it in, and when the guys back at the TOC got through chuckling they let us know that this sort of things happens and we were to just go about our patrol as usual. Oh yeah and they told us to resist the temptation to wave.
    To this day I have a hard time comprehending that the wall came down. Here it is 20 years later, damn where does the time go.

  18. Dave Thul says:

    Where are the pictures of US troops raping the local women? That’s apparently what Bill Maher thinks you guys were doing over there.

    http://hotair.com/archives/2009/03/30/video-maher-salutes-american-troops/

  19. V Corps Vet says:

    Sssh, don’t believe a word. All we did in the FRG was drink beer, go to discos, and ski. At least that what most people think!

  20. Jerry920 says:

    I was stationed in Germany with the 3rd ID. I am retired now and just the other day was showing my photos of the wall, the towers, and the border guards to some 20 somethings. It was hard for them to understand how the desire for freedom will compel any action, no matter how dangerous, to be free.

    God Bless America!

    J.A.Ruth
    SFC, U.S. Army (Ret)

  21. spotgabby says:

    Great story, old cav troopers got to see, and do alot around the border and at graf and wildchicken. I was in 3/7 during the mid 80′s. I gotta say a fenced border, any border, is questionable.

  22. ctbean says:

    I did 3yrs my place was at hoff.It was a trip.

  23. Steve says:

    Thanx Jonn.
    Now I feel old……
    It was fun.

  24. ar15rabits says:

    i was on the last patrol on the southern end, camp may when the wall came down

  25. ssg DIRTYAL says:

    Great story, didn’t get to the BORDER though spent some time @ sombitch w/ the worthogs. God I miss the ” GOOD OLD DAYS” of the Cold war, and miss having a REAL CNC. God Bless you PRESIDENT REAGAN may you be resting in PEACE!

  26. Mark says:

    I think i was at Cmap Coberg at the time this happened I remember hearing something about it at the time…. good times… I don’t miss the cold War though… iminent nuclear destruction and Ronnie Raygun as pres… Yikes… read somewhere recently that in 1983 the ivan’s managed to convince themselves we were gonna attack and prepared to preempt us with tactical nukes all the way to the Rhine…. our guys didn’t have a clue until the wall came down….

  27. Scott Adams says:

    I was in Bamberg from 82-84 with 2/2 Cav as a 19E. I loved when we were in Hof and loved Graf!!

  28. 1903A3 says:

    I was in Bamberg fr 76-80 w/2/78FA.Went to the border one time on a REFORGER scout party,a little town by the name of HELL,no shite.Went to Berlin one time,now THAT was a real eye opener.Other then that pull guard duty at MUNA where they stored all the nuke rounds.

  29. Dean Murphy says:

    Great Story, thanks for sharing. I was stationed at Wildflecken from Oct 82 to Jan 84. My first experience with an East German was “Head-Start”. Our Basic German Language and Culture Class was taught buy a lady who had crossed the border with her family when she was a teen. She walked with a limp from being shot, her grandmother didin’t survive the crossing. Our Combat Engineer Unit was tasked to Sector near Bad Hersfeld. As the Platoon Leader’s Driver I had the opportunity to assist on Border Surveys. Basically we given an area of concern and tasked with assessing the problem and trying to find a way to inhibit the East Germans and Soviets if they chose to advance to the West. It took us right to the border a few times, once by accident. It happens sometimes when you let Butter Bars read maps. Good Memories of Interesting times. All my best to all who served.

  30. Anonymous says:

    Bamburg, Coburg border, ’66-’67

  31. Anonymous says:

    Bamburg, Coburg border, 1966-1967

  32. Thanks for the great story. I spent over three years on the border serving in Coburg and Hof 74-77 Troop F, 2/2. Sgt Vonderheide

  33. Curt is loved by Jonn says:

    This is a good story. Fast forward another 20 years. Ask east Germans today who lived under communism and have had a chance to now live under both systems what they think.
    I do not live in East Germany so I can not talk with east Germans personally but when you look at the size of the vote that the Communists still get in East Germany and the size of the vote of neo national sociialists and the size of the people who do not vote because they are thoroughly disillusioned it does not really add up to a resounding victory for US style capitalism. When you add the Socialist party votes to that total it adds up to a complete rejection of US style capitalism.
    Of course just because so many Germans reject US style capitalism does not neccissarily mean that it is bad for Americans. How a person grows up efffects thier personal prefrences.
    I at one time perfered to have a job. Then I figured out that I was paying a boss a lot of money to make decsions for me. I then became self employeed. Some people might perfer not knowing what decisions their boss is making for them and be glad to pay that bosses salary to not have to deal with what the boss deals with.
    I kind of now see economic systems is this light. You will live in a command economy. There is no question about that.
    The question is whose commands will you be following.
    By the way I did not figure that out myself. Some one else expalined it to me. I do not remeber who anymore. I do think that it makes a lot of semse though. I hope that becasue I am copying this idea and not giving credit to the person who originated it that I am not breaking US law.

  34. Hondo says:

    Curt is loved by Jonn: You say you’re self-employed. You do realize that being self-employed is the essence of capitalism, and that you could never have done that under Communism – right?

  35. Marine_7002 says:

    Sierra Hotel, Jonn.

    Wouldn’t it be great if you could track down that East German soldier? Wonder if there is anything in some dusty archives somewhere that you could FOIA as a start.

  36. Stuart Clark says:

    Spent 3+ years with 4th Squadron/ 2ACR, flew over 800 hours along the Border and other various cool stuff in the air over there….

  37. Ssg Bass says:

    I just got to the 1bn, 4INF, 3ID in feb 82, while you were on the border i was in graf; what a great introduction to Germany. I was in the scout plt. In june 82 we did a rotation to the check border at camp reed then from 15 oct 83 to 30 nov 83 the scout plt along with B co. rotated to coburb; looks like we both put our butts on the line ===

    Scouts Out
    Ssg Bass

  38. marty says:

    Awesome story. I spent 3 years in HHT Regt in Fulda from 87-90. I was a in commo but I earned my “spurs” going out on some patrols. Spent lots of time in Graf and Hohenfels. I enjoyed every minute in the Cav. Blackhorse!

  39. Sp/4 May says:

    Sgt.Vonderheide
    I served with you and was with F Troop 3-1974 – 12-1975
    ! You was the only Corpral in our troop. I was with SFC Smiths crew. I got injured in an accident 10-7-1975 and was sent home 12-1975 Blast from the past, Sgt. Schmidt, Sp/4 Borgeson, Jeep Driver, Capt Hall-Williams, yea I was there and did party with you ! Wow almost 40 years ! Look me up on face Book Sam May. I was kinda a wild one back then.
    Sp/4 May US Army Ret.

    • Sp/4 Bill Patrick says:

      Fellows, I was there also F-Troop 74/75. I was a turret mech, HQ Plt. worked for MotorHog. I was assigned to Sgt Anderson’s Platoon. I remember working with Chris Shultz, the Indian that drove the 88.
      Still Ready

  40. Bob says:

    I was with 1/68 Armor, we replaced an ACR troop that went to ARTEP – cant say our stay of a month or so wastnt that dramatic – but by pulling duty on the border, you fully understand why we were in FRG.

    If you were in a CAV unit – check us here http://www.facebook.com/#!/groups/339045079516653/

  41. David C. says:

    Served in How Battery, Special Weapons,3/11th ACR,Bad Hersfeld Germany 82-83. Many days at OP India, foot patrol, jeep patrol, reactionary force, GDP, alerts, Graf, Wildfleken and wouldn’t give them up for the world. Lots of stuff went down nobody ever knew about. I remember, as with all people, that when you treated the Germans thoughtfully and with kindness they did the same. Maybe that was in Bad Hersfeld and east but it worked for me and I loved it there. When the Army put a moritorium on extending in Germany, I went stateside, finished my commitment and went home-nothing would ever compare to the Border.
    Unfortunately the world and the federal govt. have forgotten us and if you served from 1976-1990 they hardly consider you a veteran and you don’t get prefernce for federal jobs. No matter though-those who do not know history are condemed to repeat it-and they just might.
    Workehorse!

  42. SnafuDude says:

    I had the chance to go see the Wall with a small handful of us from the company,back in Feb 1988.I had Dept of the Army orders ,as a young PFC.The wall was still very well active then.We even spent a day in East Berlin.What a dark and grungy city that was.I have never heard this story before.Thank You Jonn.First for your Service,and Secondly,For sharing this important “footnote” of history.Job Well Done.Atta Boy from us West Virginians.

  43. Jones says:

    I was stationed at Coburg from 86-89. Great story. I did many border patrols myself. Looking for anyone stationed at Harris barracks. I remember Mccarol, woods, hillman, sing, crespo, perine…great times!

  44. Ex-PH2 says:

    Cold War warriors. Now those WERE the days, my friend.

  45. Smaj says:

    Cool story. I served in 1/2 Cavalry in ’82-’83; patrolled mostly out of Camp Gates and a couple times out of Camp Pitman. Service in the Border Cav, on and off duty, was a lot of fun.

  46. Stan Hazard says:

    A great read. I did 3 tours in Germany, 81-83 Schweinfurt, 86-89 Kirch-goens, and 96-98 Hohenfels and Vilseck. My third tour was like another world, I rented a car and drove to Prague, Czech Republic, to sight-see. I had to keep pinching myself, I thought I was dreaming.

  47. eric kafader says:

    I was with 2/2 acr HQs Bamberg Germany in 1971-1973. Is there anyone from there,I can not seem to find no one from that time. It is like we didn’t excite.I am not so good on the computer.Please send a reply to my e-mail.

  48. Sparks says:

    Jonn…Hell of a story and thank you. I am sure there is one German somewhere in Germany right now who remembers you, that patrol, that day and will the rest of his life. Bravo Zulu Jonn. Damned well done soldier!

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