The Cold War on the Rhine. A writer-journalist's day book--sort of. If you've found this place, you know the way.
Saturday, November 21, 2009
In early December 1957, we were flown to Frankfort and then transported to Mannheim where we joined up with the 95th AAA Battalion. We helped pack up the gun batteries and redeployed to the bases where the missiles would be set up. I was in Battery A, which was assigned to set up its missiles on an ordnance base located on the Rhine River at a town called Germersheim.
I was in the lead truck of the convoy that set out for Germersheim along with a number of men in the package. We were dropped off at intersections along the way as road guards who would point the way that trucks in the convoy were to go. We were told that the last truck in the convoy would pick us up. Someone forgot to tell the last truck it was the last truck.
I was dropped at an intersection in a small town . After hours in the chilly damp, I had to use a latrine. I could see my fellow road guards posted at other intersections dancing around, too. When it became apparent that the last truck in the convoy must have gone by, we gathered together and decided what to do. We first looked for a restroom. We went into an office building looking for a public facility. As the American troops entered the building, a very alarmed looking building manager rushed out to intercept us. It occurred to us that no American troops had been in this town since the occupation ended. After I said, "Wo ist der Herren Zimmer, bitte?" the man looked greatly relieved and ushered us to the restroom. Then we asked to use a telephone and got through to personnel who were closing up the battalion headquarters in Mannheim to report that we had been left at our guard posts. They found that an ambulance was on its way to being assigned to Germersheim, and it picked us up and hauled us to the new post.
The U.S. Army maintained an ordnance and supply depot at Germersheim. When we came on post, it was an isolated and relatively quiet place, as activities were at a low ebb. When we arrived, a platoon-sized group of ordnance troops were stationed there. The work on the base was done by German civilians, but not as many as the ordnance personnel told us once had worked there.
The post had been a German fighter base during World War II. It had a large grass landing and take-off strip that angled through the base. Behind a tall chain-link fence topped with razor wire was a heavily forested area that contained the hangers. The hangers were concrete bunkers mounded over with dirt. Trees were planted on top of them so that from the air it was near impossible to distinguish the hangers from the rest of the forest. The area was guarded by a Bulgarian labor service, a para-military unit composed of refugees from communist Bulgaria. The bunkers were used to store ammunition and other highly volatile materials. Although it took special papers for G.I.s to enter the area, we stored some missile fuel in the bunkers. Word was also that the bunkers contained some nuclear warheads. We were never certain.
The launching area was set up on the perimeter of the fence that separated the old hanger area from the rest of the post. It was the farthest point from the main gate. The grass aircraft strip extended from that area about a mile near the main gate. Just inside the main gate is where our radar unit was set up.
On the Rhine at Germersheim was a bombed out bridge that had been destroyed by allied air strikes. Part of the Bulgarians' duties were to guard that bridge so that no one disturbed it. Along with some pill-box bunkers in the area, the remnants of the bridge were maintained as a reminder to the German people of the results of war. The people of Germersheim were for the most part a dour lot, and their resentment of the American military was evident. On the other hand, they were courteous because they liked the money the troops brought to their town. Eight kilometers up the Rhine at the town of Speyer, there was a garrison of French troops. They were really despised. The French garrison had a soccer team which played local German teams, but the American troops were forbidden from attending them because they nearly always erupted into riots between the German and French fans. We were discouraged from having much to do with the French troops. My platoon sergeant, Msgt. Jack Bradley stated the rule: "Don't fuck with the froggies."
The Corps of Engineers had constructed a pontoon bridge on the Rhine at Germersheim which was kept closed most of the time so that the river boat traffic on the Rhine could have unimpeded travel. The bridge was swung into place once a week and on special occasions to permit truck traffic to cross the Rhine. German civilians operated the bridge and it was guarded by the Bulgarians.
Gernersheim was also the site of a small Catholic women's college. The women were very reserved in their relaitonships with G.I.s. They congregated at a guest house right next to the campus where they drank Cokes while G.I.s drank local beer, but mostly to practice their English. They did not date G.I.s very often. We were under instructions to be very polite and respectful in our contacts with the college woman and the people of the town. In the past there had been some incidents in which Army ordnance personnel went on drunken rampages and tore up the town. We received constant instruction at our troop information and education sessions about our role as ambassadors and the ways to cultivate positive and constructive relationships with the German people. The Cold War was being fought intensely by this time, and the area was crawling with intelligence personnel from all sides of the Cold War.
For 15 months, I was stationed at Germersheim. I was a crewman in the launching control center, an instructor, and was one of the enlisted men assigned to conduct the weekly Friday troop information and education (TI&E) sessions, which covered everything from venereal disease to how to react to the Soviet staff cars that cruised the perimeters of our base at times. On the base, we were integrated, but there were flare-ups of racial incidents instigated by a contingent of men who hated the blacks and Latinos. Off base, it was also tense, because a group of young Marxists which later became known as the Baader-Meinhof gang was forming in the area. Our missile unit was short-handed during the time I was there, and in the last few months of my tour of duty, it began to come up to full strength.
Duty was strenuous, because the Overseas Package Members pulled long hours of duty and were assigned much extra work because of the understrength status. There were some fairly new billets on the base. There was a bachelor officers' quarters, and two multi-story barracks that had a mess hall between them. The Bulgarian guards occupied one barracks and the Gi.I. contingents the other. The Bulgarians had their mess inside their billets; the G.I.s used the mess hall, for which they contributed a few dollars a month to pay German civilians who did the KP work.
There were rows of pre-fabricated barracks across the company street from the newer barracks. We had our enlisted men's club in one and operated a special services facility which contained a photo lab, a library, and reading and study room that had musical instruments that could be checked out. I was in charge of the reading room, and my partner in the launching control trailer, Bob Webb, was in charge of the photo lab. We received a small stipend for our work from special services. The pre-fab barracks were maintained and used as transient barracks and for special projects that needed a retreat-type setting. They were heated with wood burning stoves fueled by charcoal briquettes. Task force units that were involved in studying the Cold War used the old barracks to assemble and complete their reports. At times, I was "borrowed' by these task forces, because I had journalistic experience. to proof-read the reports. Other personnel who were college educated and in the education or communications fields were assigned temporary duty to help with the proof-reading. We were given portions of the reports to peruse, but in fragmented parts so that we knew just enough about the work to be tantalized by the intelligence gathering, but never to know enough to know the full implications. One report that I saw involved interviewing service personnel who were in Korea and were acquainted with men who were prisoners of war there and knew something about the turncoats. Other reports dealt with the effects of the Cold War on the people of Europe.
Germersheim, for me, was a time of peace, but also a dark and misty time, like those nights on the Rhine, when much was going on that was secretive and menacing. There was a definite chilliness during the Cold War.
This photo, taken in 1969, ten years after I left Germersheim, shows the G.I. Barracks and mess hall. This was A Battery. The photo is on a website for B Battery, a few miles from Germersheim at Landau.
Sunday, June 07, 2009
It had to have been in 1958 during the month of May. I remember driving through some Alpine meadows sparkling with spring flowers. And I remember the acrid sooty smell of the barracks buildings at Dachau that has lingered on my mind ever since.
It was a short visit, but that was sufficient. The images left a permanent stain on the memory.
I was a surface-to-air guided missile crewman and instructor stationed at a little town on the Rhine. My brief visit to Dachau was not planned. In fact, to us soldiers it was an annoyance imposed on us by the convoy commander. I was not selected to make the trip to Bavaria. The truck I was assigned was chosen. In a guided missile battery, every soldier is assigned to a truck. If it is necessary to move the missile battery, the truck will haul the missile equipment you work on. I worked in the launching control trailer, so I, along with the other launching control specialists, was assigned to maintain and operate a 5-ton truck that would pull the launching control trailer and haul one of the generators that supplied the power to the launching area. In the time I was in Germany, that trip was one of the few times we actually operated the truck. Mostly we washed and maintained the truck during the weekly motor pool duty.
On this occasion, there was some equipment stored at our post that was needed at a post in the Bavarian Alps. The truck that the launching control crew maintained was assigned to haul it. And as the trip was scheduled for a day that I was not scheduled to be on the missile equipment, I was assigned to drive the trip. There was a certain air of mystery about the trip, but it was a very low-key assignment.
A senior non-commissioned officer came to our post to supervise the loading of the equipment and rode with me to Karlsruhe where we picked up a jeep and another truck and some more personnel who were acting as guards and relief drivers.
The trip to the post in the Alps was about 300 miles, but it was an all-day affair. Driving the 5-ton trucks in the German traffic--Comrades were not known to be the best drivers in the world--required vigilance and we had to traverse some mountain roads. The NCO in charge would sometimes switch places with the relief drivers and ride in the truck cabs instead of the jeep. He was a very competent and conscientious man.
His history was similar to that of a number of the NCOs in my battery. They were World War II veterans who participated in the invasion of Germany and met and married German women during the occupation. This NCO from the headquarters spoke fluent and flawless German and knew where we were going without having to use a map. I, with a couple of years of college German, was struggling to use the language and our conversation while he was riding with me was about learning the language and the GI presence in the country.
We made it to the station where we delivered the equpment, spent the night in transient barracks, and left early the next morning for our return trip. At that time, the NCO said we would be making a short detour to Dachau. I did not understand if this detour was part of the official trip or if the NCO had some personal reason for it. While there seemed to be some official task to be completed, the NCO had also indicated that he was involved in the liberation of Dachau.
The mountains were lush and the flowers were in bloom on the drive to Dachau. When we arrived, we found that the concentration camp was being used to house refugees. However, one of the barracks buildings was being used as a memorial. The NCO told us we would find it interesting to look at the displays, which were largely a collection of photographs taken during the liberation of piles of bodies and emaciated prisoners. But what struck me and the other members of the detail was that pungent acrid, sooty smell. We wondered if we were smelling the residual smoke from the crematorium where the bodies of the dead prisoners were disposed of.
Shortly, the NCO returned from wherever he went and we got into our trucks to return to our respective posts. While the NCO was riding in the cab of my truck I mentioned that disturbing odor. He said our assumption was correct. The oily smoke of burning human flesh had penetrated the wood of the barracks and left that reminder of what took place at the concentration camp. Then he said that the horrors of what the liberating troops confronted caused overreactions in some of the them. They killed German guards after they had surrendered. The NCO commented that the violence and atrocities of the concentration camps were "a contagious cancer on the minds and morale" of all who came into contact with it. We can't let this happen ever again, he said. And said no more.
I found out later from one of my NCOs that the shooting of guards by Americans at Dachau was called the Dachau Massacre and some soldiers were cited for discipline. The number of guards killed was put at more than a hundred. When the men were brought in front of Gen. Patton, he said they were trained to kill, that's what they did, and he dismissed the charges.
Many years later, one of the medical officers who was at Dachau the day of its liberation published a book which put the number of German guards killed at 560. He claimed that more than 400 were lined up against a wall and machine-gunned down. However, an official report by an officer who commanded the liberating force disputed that number and said about 120 guards were shot.
President Obama's appearance at Buchenwald and the commemoration of D-Day recalled these events. At the time I was stationed in Germany, Buchenwald was in East Germany, behind the Iron Curtain, and it was not a place tourists could go to visit at that time. However, about a year after my visit to Dachau, it was established as an official memorial site. I often thought that the NCO who led us on the visit was somehow involved in the establishment of Dachau as a monument to what should never be allowed to happen again.
The horrors committed upon the inmates there pushed good men over the edge into hateful violence. That NCO did not say so outright, but his concerned attitude made it clear that the reactions of the G.I.s was included in what should never happen again.
I for one can still smell that sick sooty odor of death by atrocity.