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


I trained as a Nike Ajax surface-to-air missile crewman as part of Overseas Package 5 at Fort Bliss, Texas. In October 1957, the month that the Soviets launched their Sputnik satellite, the Package fired its qualifying training missiles at MacGregor firing range. Our launches were successful. The missiles all hit their targets. We were then deployed to West Germany where we would pick up the personnel from an antiaircraft gun battalion whom we would move with our guided missiles to new sites and train the gun crews to be missile men.

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. 

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