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.
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.
Modlareuth, Germany also known as “Little Berlin”