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


When we first came to Germersheim, we were beset by organizational communications problems.  They began the day we left Mannheim, where we picked up the anti-aircraft gun battery and moved them and our equipment to Germersheim.  The trip was made by a convoy of trucks.  Some of us were placed as road guards along the way to direct the convoy on the right route to Germersheim.  We were told that the last truck would pick us up and carry us to our new station. No one told the last truck that it was supposed to pick us up.  In fact, the personnel on the last truck did not know it was the last truck.  

I was posted at an intersection in a small town where the convoy made  a turn.  After trucks stopped going by and the morning coffee needed release, I looked up and down the streets and saw fellow road guards pacing nervously, wondering when we were to be picked up and what was going on.  Finally, we joined up, with our first priority to find a restroom.

We spotted an office building that looked like it might have pubic restrooms, and we trooped in.  A very nervous and alarmed building manager rushed out to the lobby.  I asked, “Wo ist der Herren Zimmer,” and his face showed immediate relief.  No American troops had been in that town since the occupation, and he thought we were some kind of an invasion.

He also let us use his office telephone.  After much confusion and uncertainty, we finally got through to the unit headquarters in Mannheim. We were told we should have been picked up hours ago.  An Army ambulance was being delivered from Mannheim to our post, and it was arranged for it to pick us up.  We arrived at the Germersheim base after dark, tired, hungry, confused, and thoroughly apprised of the “Army way.”  A cook was mustered to get us something to eat, and we were fed by a very surly mess cook who did not make the day go any better.

We were coming to Germersheim to set up a Nike Ajax ground-to-air missile battery.  The men we picked up in Mannheim were anti-aircraft gunners who we were to train and convert into missile men.  Among the things we hauled from Mannheim to Germersheim were their guns.  While we were setting up the missiles, the guns were kept operational.  They were parked in a temporary area near the motor pool on the base and were enclosed by concertina barbed-wire.  They were to be guarded by G.I.s 24 hours a day.

The post at Germersheim was an ordnance post that reconditioned Army vehicles.  It had only a platoon-sized contingent of ordnance personnel.  All the work was done by German civilians.  Down the company street from us was a contingent of the Bulgarian Labor Service, composed of refugees from Bulgaria when the Soviet Union took their country over.  They guarded a bombed-out bridge on the Rhine, a pontoon bridge that replaced it, and an area on the post that contained hangars for former German air force fighters.  The hangars were concrete revetments, covered with dirt and planted over with pine trees so they could not be identified from the air.   Munitions were stored there.   Aside from U.S. military police who manned the main gate of the post, the guard duty for the post proper was contracted to German civilians who patrolled with dogs.

On the first night that the guns were parked, men were assigned to guard them.  We carried carbines.  When on guard duty, we were provided a clip with three rounds in it.  We inserted the clip but did not chamber the rounds.   When the guard changed, the clip was removed and the rounds were counted when the carbine was turned over to the next guard.

On that first night, a guard was walking his rounds when a German civilian guard approached.  The guard said, “Halt.  Who does there?  Identify yourself.”  The German guard yelled something back, and the guard repeated his commands, and the German, not understanding, unleashed his dog,  The guard scrambled up on a gun out of reach of the dog and fired a warning shot in the air, which alerted the MPs at the gate, who came running and got matters settled before anyone got hurt. 

The guard said that Germans and dogs apparently did not understand how to respond to a challenge for identification.

My own experience guarding those guns involved no confrontations, but I learned how fast I could move.  I was walking the inside perimeter of the concertina wire one dark night, when I was startled by a loud fluttering noise in front of me.  I found myself aiming the carbine with a round chambered before I realized what it was.  A grouse had found shelter in the grass under the wire and it gave startled flight at my approach. 

When the missiles were operational, the guns were dismantled and melted down.  Our guard duty shifted to the Integrated Fire Control (radar) area and the launching area.  As a launching control specialist, my duties were confined to the launching area.  A service road, lined with chain-link and concertina fences separated the launching area from the old hangar area that the Bulgarians guarded.  We often hear gun fire coming from the Bulgarian side.  They shot rabbits to make one of their favorite dishes.

Those shots in the night were all part of the complexity of the Cold War.    

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