The Cold War on the Rhine. A writer-journalist's day book--sort of. If you've found this place, you know the way.

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

A brief summary

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(Source: Email from David L. Newquist, "A" Btry, 2nd Msl Bn, 56th Arty, 1957-59)
I was part of Overseas Package 5 which came from Fort Bliss to Germany in December 1957. After deplaning at Frankfurt, we went to Mannheim and picked up the 95th AAA Bn. to convert it to a Nike Ajax battalion. We left Mannheim by convoys and the battalion headquarters and Batteries C and D were sent to Pirmasens. Battery B went to Landau, and Battery A went to Germersheim. The sites were constructed and we moved the equipment onto them. 

When we deplaned in Frankfurt, civilians were demonstrating outside the air base gates with “Sputnik, Go Home” signs. However, a public information blitz was mounted and by January 1958 the missile equipment was in place and the batteries were operational. 

We were extremely short of personnel, and the command structure was complicated, involving the ADA command at Kaiserslautern and NATO. Sometime in 1958, we all had to buy the new green dress uniforms and the unit was redesignated the 2nd Missile Battalion, 56th Artillery. I was in Battery A at Germersheim. 

While we were the 95th Bn., we went to sick call at Pirmasens and dental call at Karlsruhe. After the redesignation, we reported to Heidelberg for medical services. 

We pulled 24-hour shifts and got a “rest” day after such a shift. We were so short handed that we often were assigned to drive the troops and the dependents to sick call. When in Karlsruhe, we were warned to be extremely careful of civilians. As it turned out, the Baader Meinhof gang was centered at Karlsruhe, although their activities were pretty low-key in the late 1950s. 

An ordnance company that supervised a civilian force that serviced and reconditioned military vehicles was already in operation at Germersheim. The base was a World War II German fighter base. The hangars were in a forested area and were concrete bunkers covered with dirt and planted over with trees. When the U.S. forces occupied the site, that area was fenced off and guarded by a Bulgarian Labor Force. That Force also guarded a bombed-out bridge on the Rhine, on which Germersheim is situated. The hangar-bunkers were used to store explosives. We were allowed in there only when we assembled missiles and had to pick up missile fuels (red fuming nitric acid, unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine, and nitroglycerin solid booster propellants) and warheads. We weren’t supposed to know it and neither were the Bulgarians, but nuclear warheads were stored there. 

While the Nike system was intended and designated to be an air defense system, the Hercules versions and later the Zeus could be used as short range ballistic missiles. Our radar operators had been trained to set ground targets on the radar-guiding computers. 

I completed my active duty in March 1959. There are many stories to tell, but there was a hostility in Germersheim that did not create fond memories. On occasion, Soviet staff cars were seen cruising near the base, and we also learned that Germersheim had a history during the Holocaust years that the people preferred to keep stifled.


Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Sputnik recalled

It must have been around 3 a.m. Mountain Time, October 5, 1957, at Fort BlissTexas.  Members of Overseas Package 5, the Second Guided Missile Brigade, did not have restricted hours.  They came and went as they pleased, as long as they were present for roll call at 6:30 a.m. dressed in the uniform of the day, which was usually fatigues. On this night, all the men were asleep in the billets.  It was Saturday morning, and they had been having a G.I. party for the weekly Saturday barracks inspection they needed to pass before they went off on their weekend

Later that day, most would venture across the Rio Grande to Juarez, Mexico, in search of their entertainments of choice—the $1.25 filet mignon, stage shows, and the inexhaustible supply of Carte Blanche, rum, tequila, and prostitutes.  This was to be a big weekend.  The unit had spent the week preparing to go to the Red Canyon missile range on Monday where it would assemble and fire missiles as the culminating test after six months of schooling.  After the missile firing test, they would pack up and be shipped to West Germany to deploy Nike Ajax missiles as part of the NATO air defense of Europe.

The guided missile school ranged from 8 to 12 hours a day, at least five days a week and the men were expected to pass a constant battery of tests, so the cadre did not mess with them much in the evening and nighttime hours.  That Saturday morning was the first time the loud speakers in the barracks blared in the middle of the night to order the troops to be ready to fall out in ten minutes—except for the times some drunk returning  from Juarez commandeered the microphone and thought it would be funny to hold an impromptu formation of the troops. But this time, no sergeant of the guard or officer of the day came on the loud speakers to cancel the order.

As we stumbled into formation, tripping over boot laces and tucking fatigue shirts into pants,  we knew something must have happened.  Soon a jeep with a brigadier general’s one-star banner on it whined up to the formation, and we were called to attention as the brigadier dismounted.  He held us at attention while he made an announcement.

About twelve hours earlier, the Soviets had put a space satellite into orbit.  They had beat the Americans in the race into space, but also, presumably, in the technology of guided missiles which would decide who held dominance in space and on earth.  As Sen. Lyndon Johnson said at the time, whoever controlled space controlled the world.

The general was no orator. He told us we were like a football team behind in the closing moments of a game, and we needed to get possession of the ball and carry it to victory. With rockets. 

After exchanging salutes with the formation, the general climbed back into his jeep and went into the Texas night.  We were left to wonder why missile men whose rockets went only about 50,000 feet high and chased down aircraft were being told we needed to compete with an ICBM that shoved a 184-lb. aluminum ball 500 miles above the earth where it traveled at 18,000 mph to circle the earth once every 96 minutes.  At three in the morning, the general’s little pep talk did not make much sense.  The talk of the troops as they returned to the barracks was not of conquering space, but of invading Juarez.

The Nike Ajax surface-to-air missile (SAM) 

Overseas Package 5 performed flawlessly at Red  Canyon.  In November, the Soviets launched another much larger satellite that contained a dog.  Later that year as Overseas Package 5 got off the transport planes that flew it to Frankfort, Germans were demonstrating outside the airbase with signs that said “Sputnik, go home,”  However, when the German government explained that our units were to protect them from air attacks from the Soviet Union, the people changed their attitude.

Once we deployed our missile batteries and were operational, we began to get procedures for using our surface-to-air missiles as short-range surface-to-surface missiles.  After a year and a half, the Nike Ajax batteries were upgraded to Nike Hercules.  The Hercules versions were capable of carrying nuclear war heads.

The Cold War got hot.  But 1957, as a recent edition of U.S. News reported, was a year in an era of intense creativity, multiple scientific breakthroughs, such as  polio vaccine, and great advances in social progress.  The Civil Rights movement made its initial advances during that time.  The world was tense, but America was determined to remain at peace, although alert and watchful.Our self-esteem was asserted by launching our own satellite in early 1958 and improving the prospects of freedom and life, not searching for pretexts to go to war and expending our troops, our resources, and our moral resolve on vanity exercises.

America has changed.

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Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thanksgiving 1958

Nike Ajax at White Sands
Battery A had been stationed in Germersheim for almost a year and the guided missile battery was performing with extraordinary reliability and precision.  As Thanksgiving approached, a number of us had just returned from a practice and test firing of Nikes at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.  A full crew from the assembly, fire control, and launching sections had been flown over to the range to assemble and fire four missiles.  It was kind of a proficiency test.  It was flawless.

The battery commander, Capt. Earnest Tietke, was elated and wanted to give the battery personnel and their dependents a special Thanksgiving.  He arranged for the mess hall to prepare a lavish turkey dinner for the men with special attention to the families of the career soldiers in our unit.  Most of us were draftees who were not married and had no dependents.  Our battery happened to be on full alert that Thanksgiving Day.  The four batteries in the missile battalion were on full alert on a rotating basis, which meant that men were on the equipment and could fire missiles within five minutes of receiving a prepare to fire command. 

The launching control console where I ate Thanksgiving dinner.
For me, it meant sitting with a headset on monitoring the status of the four launching section on a console and with communications checks.  We pulled 24-hour shifts during full alert status, so there was a lot of unauthorized chatter to drive off the boredom and some unauthorized dozing.  Although, the slightest noise over the headset or blink of light on the console brought one to full attention.  It is a skill acquired by many, many hours of practice.

This is the kind of van in which I had Thanksgiving dinner
On this Thanksgiving Day, crews that were not working the equipment were assigned to come down and relieve the men on alert duty so that they could go to the mess hall and enjoy the dinner for an hour.  I waited and waited that day, and it became apparent that no one was coming to relieve me.  I called the orderly room and asked if someone was coming to relieve, and the duty sergeant discovered that someone forgot to  make the arrangement.   He connected me with the mess hall to see if someone could bring a plate of food down to the control van. The cooks said they had run out of food because so many people showed up, but that they'd see that I got a nice, hot meal.

Two of the cooks for our mess hall were draftees, also.  One of them was a baker and pastry chef from Brooklyn.  The other was a man whose family ran a restaurant.  They both were using their Army experience to hone their professional skills.  The baker had made an arrangement for the mess hall to get flour, yeast, and fresh eggs instead of the bread and powdered eggs that were shipped in.  He made fresh bread every day.  The other  man, who had supervised the roasting of the turkeys and the preparation of the Thanksgiving dinner, was always trying something different for the  troops.  When we had German-American Day once when Germans were invited onto the post, he barbecued an entire beef.  Both of the men were convinced that good, carefully prepared food was essential to the morale of the troops, particularly at an isolated post such as ours. 

Eventually a runner from the orderly room showed up at the launching area gate with some mess trays wrapped in towels.  He said here is your dinner.  The cooks had heated up some left-over roast beef, put it on some of that fresh-baked bread, and covered it with gravy.  It was probably the best hot beef sandwich I ever had.  They included cranberry sauce which they had cooked, a big plate of pickles and other relishes, and a thermos of freshly made coffee.

I may have been forgotten out there in the launching area, but the special  effort of those cooks was something for which I was very thankful.   That meal on that Thanksgiving is one of the warmest memories I have of that outpost  on the Rhine.

A side note:  As I said the cooks had arranged to get fresh eggs instead of powdered ones.  Sometimes they had more than they could use, so they hard boiled them and pickled them, and sent them over to the enlisted men's club for the men to have something to go with their beer.  This was also a special treat to the men, who quickly devoured them.  However, beer and pickled eggs create certain gastric conditions in  the human which can make a squad room where 24 men sleep a hazard area.  What is hazardous is the struggle between those who open the windows and those who shut them because they get cold.  You can imagine the circumstances for yourselves. 

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The night the Gypsies invaded

Over my lifetime,  I have encountered Gypsies, or Roma, if you prefer, numerous times, but I find it hard to get a factual grasp of what comprises Gypsydom.  They inspire a kind of romantic sense of freedom and joy and they helped create flamenco music and dance.   Homecoming at Northern State University in South Dakota, where I taught for 20 years, is Gypsy Days, and the celebration takes up a Gypsy motif.  On the other hand, some people have said they pick pockets, kidnap babies, and do other things that ain't couth in western culture. 

My fondest memory of Gypsies came in regard to Sgt. Jody.  (That is not his real name, but it is close enough.)  Sgt. Jody was a young non-commissioned officer from the South who was  assigned to the launching platoon  of our missile battery in Germany.  We were never sure what function he was to serve, but he annoyed the hell out of the men because he insisted on marching them from the headquarters area to the launching area in formation and in cadence.  This was annoying because when the morning formation in the company street was dismissed, the men had all sorts of administrative tasks to attend in conjunction with maintaining the missiles.  Dismissal of the formation meant they would go to the orderly room, or the missile assembly and maintenance area, or the motor pool and pick up paper work and tools needed for what they had to do with the missiles that day.   They went about their business and just sort of sauntered down to the launching area with their materials.  Sgt. Jody thought this was very unsoldierly, so he marched them down to the launching area, and then they had to walk back to the places they needed to go for their materials, and then saunter back down to the launchers when they had the necessary information and equipment.  Sgt. Jody was convinced that men sauntering around with clip boards, brief cases, and tool boxes in their hands were screwing off.   He was only half right, 

The men harassed Sgt. Jody.  While marching, they would chant  under their breath "Jo-dee,  Jo-dee, Jo-dee" in time with the marching cadence just below the hearing threshold.  Sgt. Jody would yell "halt." stop and listen,  and the chant would stop, then resume the march.  The men, of course, had no idea what he was talking about when he asked, "Who is saying that?"  He also revealed that he had witnessed ghosts, so the men were constantly plotting ways to give him spooky experiences.  I relate this to establish that Sgt. Jody was a bit flighty of mind.

Our missile site was at a remote military base on the Rhine River at a town called Germersheim.  To get to town from the post gate, there were two possibilities.  One could walk along the roads.  Or one could take a shortcut, a path that ran through some pine groves and ran along some vacant land.  That land was a place where Gypsy caravans camped at times.  When they were present, we looked at them with curiosity but kept to our business, which was with students at the women's college and cognac at the gasthouses. 

One night a group of us were returning to post via the short cut when someone checked his watch and said we were pushing the deadline.  Our off-duty passes automatically expired at midnight, when the gates were officially closed, and anyone trying to get on post after that would be taken into custody by the military police and held for disciplinary action.  We quickened our pace from a stroll to a jog to beat the deadline, and were jogging past the Gypsy encampment.  Ahead of us about a block, we saw Sgt. Jody walking.  He glanced back when he heard a bunch of men running and broke into a sprint.  We thought his running meant we must really be late, so we broke into a dead run.

When we got to the gate, an MP was standing outside the guard shack looking bewildered.  When we came up to the gate, he asked what was going on out there.  He said Sgt. Jody ran through the gate yelling that the Gypsies were after him.  When we got to the orderly room to sign in, Sgt. Jody was there trying to explain to the officer of the day that a bunch of Gypsies was chasing him and seemed about to attack the post.  We signed in and with suppressed snickers and chuckles went to our bunk rooms.

The next day those of us who signed in from pass together were called in  to a meeting with the battery commander, the executive officer, and the first sergeant.  They asked what we knew about the events involving Sgt. Jody the previous night.  We explained how he took off running when we  came jogging up behind him.  The executive officer asked why we did not provide that information when we signed in, because Sgt. Jody's account caused a joint investigation  by the Army and the local authorities, and some tense and confusing moments with the Gypsy camp.

We were given a talking to about harassing Sgt. Jody.  The executive officer explained that Jody had been raised with stories about ghosts and Gypsies taking babies and the like, and he had run to the orderly room to alert the guard mount that there seemed to be an attack. Our Platoon Sgt. Bradley summarized point of the meeting in his succinct way:   "Don't f++k with Jody anymore."

Sgt. Jody was a good soldier.  But Sgt. Bradley (who had been raised in an orphanage) explained that he came from very poor circumstances and was working hard to better his lot and make a career in the military.   "Don't f++k with a good man you may have to depend on someday," Sgt. Bradley said.

The harassment of Jody stopped, but we still told the story of Jody's sprint and laughed.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Clouded memories of Kristal Nacht

On the 20th anniversary of Kristal Nacht, an aged priest led a group of Americans on a tour of a town on the Rhine and recounted the attacks against Jews that he witnessed and knew about in that town on that night. Kristal Nacht (the Night of Broken Glass)occurred on 9 November 1938 marked the beginning of the Holocaust in Germany. During that night and the one following, 91 Jews were killed, 267 synagogues were set afire, Jewish businesses were ransacked and vandalized, and 200,000 Jews were arrested and sent to concentration camps.The attacks were led and carried out by the Gestapo, but citizens joined in and formed mobs which did the most destructive work of the night.

I was among those on that tour in Germersheim, where I was stationed.  My problem is that it has been 50 years since that tour, and while the images and events of that tour are clearly impressed on my memory,  it was one of two outings we took to remember and understand Kristal Nacht.  i have forgot some of the details of the stories we were told. 

Our post was isolated and small.  For those who wished to attend religious services, there was scant opportunity.  We were served by a chaplain who came periodically, but he was a protestant, a Missouri Synod Lutheran.  The Catholic and Jewish soldiers had to attend services off post if they wished to worship.  We had a number of devout Catholic men for whom attending mass was essential.  The area where we were stationed was heavily Catholic, but the church members exuded a coolness and disapproval when G.I.s filed into the church pews.  A number of us who were Protestant--or merely curious--accompanied the Catholic men to church to provide them moral support and to make friendly overtures to the townspeople.

There was a small Catholic women's college in Germersheim, and we sometimes arranged to have some students accompany us to mass, in exchange for accompanying them on post to see American movies we showed in the Special Services club.  Admittedly,  our overtures to the young women were not totally ecumenical.  A priest from the church who spoke 
English and served as a chaplain at the college was friendly to the G.I.s and he encouraged the Catholic soldiers to attend the church and he invited the rest of us to various events.  

He suggested that we might find it edifying to join a  20th anniversary of Kristal Nacht tour led by an older priest who witnessed mob actions against the Jews in the community.  The invitation came after a discussion some of we Protestant soldiers had with some college students and the priest.  I am a Lutheran.  I was in town on Reformation Sunday that year and commented that there were no services to observe that important day in the Protestant liturgical calendar.  The priest pointed out something I had not been aware of.  
The organizers of Kristal Nacht had used a tract written by Martin Luther to motivate the public into accepting and helping with the attacks on the Jewish communities.  They cited and quoted Luther's On the Jews and Their Lies (Von den Juden und ihren L├╝gen).  Among the things Luther said in that 65,000-word tract were:

  • the Jews are "full of the devil's feces ... which they wallow in like swine."
  • the synagogue is an "incorrigible whore and an evil slut."
  • synagogues and schools [should] be set on fire, their prayer books destroyed, rabbis forbidden to preach, homes razed, and property and money confiscated. 
  • the Jews  should be shown no mercy or kindness and  afforded no legal protection.
  • these "poisonous envenomed worms" should be drafted into forced labor or expelled for all time.
  • "[w]e are at fault in not slaying them."
 Earlier in his career, Luther had defended and commiserated with the Jews for the ill treatment they have received in the Middle Ages. What led to his vicious anti-Semitism is much commented on by historians and theologians, but Hitler cited him as superb reformer, and   On the Jews and Their Lies was used at Nazi rallies to enflame the German populace against the Jews. The book was used as a justification for Kristal Nacht, which is cited as the initial action of the Holocaust. Kristal Nacht was Martin Luther's birthday.

 There were actually two tours involved.  On a Sunday afternoon before the Kristal Nacht anniversary,  we traveled to towns neighboring Germersheim where synagogues had been burned:  Speyer, Landau, and Karlsruhe.  The Germersheim synagogue was spared.  We visited that on a dark and dank evening of the anniversary day.  The elderly priest said that there were fewer than ten Jews in Germersheim at the time.  Their synagogue was appropriated by some Storm Troopers and the people were shipped out of Germersheim shortly after.  The story of that Jewish community was that some people from the neighboring towns where synagogues were set ablaze and Jewish men were being arrested came to the town looking for refuge and safety from the raging Storm Troopers. They were told that the synagogue was not a safe haven, and what happened to them was not explained.  The elderly priest told some stories about the night, and we got the impression that he was involved in hiding the refugees.  It was a spooky night, and the stories of families torn apart and men sent off to concentration camps never to be seen again had a fitting setting.  The priest explained that some of the people arrested in Speyer and Karlsruhe were released under the promise that they were making arrangements to leave Germany.  However, many did not make the deadline and were sent to the death camps.  

Some years ago, a man I served with at Germersheim sent me a photo of a plaque that had been erected on the building where the synagogue was.  It doesn't tell the story of why that synagogue is longer there.  

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 goes 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.    


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. 

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Dachau on a beautiful spring day

Dachau on a beautiful spring day

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.