“All History is Personal:” August 1961

US Tank at Ckpt Charlie

The year 1961 was eventful for several reasons.  It marked the centennial of the Civil War, the first manned space flights, the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, and the inauguration of John F. Kennedy, among other events.

In August, 1961, my father, then a captain in the United States Army, was sent on temporary duty from his post in Karlsruhe, Germany, to Berlin. The purpose of his travel remains unknown to me and likely was secret at the time (he was, among other things, a trusted agent who took classified information between NATO capitals). To comprehend the personal and global significance of being in Berlin in August, 1961, one must understand the events between the end of World War II and the spring and summer of 1961.

The so-called Cold War commenced almost immediately upon the end of World War II in Europe in April, 1945.  The army of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) had captured Berlin, then the capital of Germany.  The Western allies, led by the United States of America, soon completed their sweep through western Germany and met up with Soviet forces at the Elbe river.

The Allied Powers (the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and the USSR) each took control of separate sectors of Germany; the largest sector being the Soviet-controlled sector.  Berlin, the once and future capital of Germany, was deep in the Soviet sector.  Nonetheless, all four Allies controlled Berlin, which was also divided into sectors.  The US, UK and French sectors comprised West Berlin and the Soviet sector was East Berlin.

In the spring of 1948, the Soviets imposed a blockade on land transportation routes into West Berlin.  The Soviets later cut off land-based utilities and communications to West Berlin. The Western powers responded with a ’round-the-clock airlift of supplies to the city via Tempelhof Airport which was located in the US sector.  The successful eleven-month airlift, known as “Operation Vittles,” became one of the most historic events in military aviation.

In 1949, the Western powers created the Federal Republic of Germany (Bundesrepublik Deutschland) from the three western sectors of the country, but not including the sectors of Berlin.  The Soviets likewise proclaimed the Democratic Republic of Germany (Deutschen Demokratischen Republik or DDR) in East Germany.  East Berlin was made the capital of the DDR; a rather small city, Bonn, in the British sector near Cologne (Koln) was made the “provisional” capital of the Bundesrepublik.

Not surprisingly, relations between East and West were tense in Berlin. From 1949 to 1961, millions of people living in the DDR escaped to the West via Berlin.  The Soviets and their puppet governors in East Germany made dire threats to the Western powers about supporting and encouraging such “unlawful” emigration.

My father had arrived in Berlin on Sunday, August 13, 1961. On Monday morning, August 14, 1961, my mother and I woke up to the following on page 1 of the Stars & Stripes, the US military newspaper in Europe from which we got most of our news:

Reds Block East Germans from Entering West Berlin

Allies, West Germans Can Cross

BERLIN (AP)–The Communist regime Sunday barred East Germans from entering West Berlin in a bid to dam the flow of refugees to the West.

Hundreds of armed police and steel-helmeted troops closed the border between East and West Berlin completely for about two hours.

About 4 a.m. (Berlin time) traffic was resumed again, except that no East Berliner or East German was allowed to enter the West sectors.

. . .  . . .  . . .

The measure was directed against the flow of refugees. They have been fleeing Red rule at record speed.

We were able to ascertain that Dad was safe. But he was concerned for us, and rightly so. The whole family, Dad included, was supposed to leave Germany in a couple of weeks for his new assignment at Sandia Base, the semi-secret nuclear weapons base near Albuquerque, New Mexico. This matter in Berlin soon took on all the features of a major political and military crisis that had the potential to keep Dad in Germany, if not in Berlin, for another year.

By Wednesday, August 16, 1961, the Navy had announced that personnel scheduled to leave the service in the remainder of 1961 would be indefinitely “frozen.” President Kennedy had announced that the Air Force would increase its strength by 28,000 airmen.  This would be accomplished in part by calling to active duty some 18 Air National Guard squadrons.

On Sunday, August 20, 1961, the President ordered 1500 Army troops to augment the 11,000 man garrison in Berlin. The troops arrived on Monday, August 21, 1961, met by Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, just a few yards away from the Soviet sector.

What would we do if Dad had to stay in Germany for another year? Many of our belongings were already packed. And school was about to start in Albuquerque. School, of course, was one of the main reasons that Dad had worked hard to get the assignment to Sandia Base.

Where would we go if the Soviet and American tanks facing off with each other in Berlin began shooting? (The U.S. Seventh Army, which was U.S. Army Europe (USAREUR)  had a plan called  “NEO,” to be executed in the event of a shooting crisis. The acronym stood for “noncombatant evacuation operations,” i.e., “Get the women and children out of here!”).

On August 25, 1961, the Stars & Stripes reported:

Patton Tanks Put on Alert

BERLIN (AP)–American Patton tanks drew up and faced Communist forces across the border with East Berlin Wednesday.

U.S. military authorities refused to say how many vehicles were lined up along the line that divides the American sector from the Soviet sector.  At least 25 tanks of Company F, 40th Armor, have been seen here on parade.

. . .     . . .    . . .

Meanwhile, the British sent a company of about 120 infantrymen  with mortars and anti-tank guns to the Barndenburg Gate. The French deployed light units in patrols along their border.

The East Germans trundled up several squadrons of armored cars with light artillery pieces. They were at the Bradenburg Gate and behind some buildings on the east side of Friedrichstrasse.

”]US Tank at Ckpt CharlieI pause to consider how different life would have been for the world and for me individually if we had had to leave Germany in a hurry because of a deepening of the crisis. Playing out the possibilities for the world is just about unbearable to contemplate. But if the crisis had gotten much more serious, then our family most likely would have gone to Kansas City, Missouri, where my mother grew up and where her mother and several siblings still lived.  And my life would have  been completely different. (Of course, every life on Earth would have been different, too, if the crisis went to its ultimate conclusion).

By that last week in August, the U.S. military was giving serious thought to implementing NEO immediately. But one woman had another idea, according to the Stars & Stripes:

Leghorn, Italy (UPI) — An American woman, wife of an Army engineer and mother of five, proposed that U.S. families in Europe “volunteer to be hostages for peace” during the Berlin crisis.

Mrs. Mary C. Wolz, wife of an Army civilian engineer stationed here, said U.S. and NATO families in Europe should stick it out rather  than be sent home or flee home.

“We should stay here to convince Europe that we will risk everything it does,” she said in an open letter to the English language Daily American in Rome.

“If the situation becomes so serious that we must be sent home–and it would be bad timing to order evacuation while pressing for a solution to the crisis–then home is no haven,” she said.

To be continued


One Response to ““All History is Personal:” August 1961”

  • Chuck Hale says:

    I arrived Berlin on August 7th 1961, six days before the border was closed on the 13th. I was attached to the U.S. Army Helicopter unit at Tempelhof Air Field. Lived there for 25 months. Been back many times over the last 50 years.
    Created a “Talking Photo Album” of my memories and sent it to the Check Point Charlie Museum about 5 years ago.
    Oct 6th 1962, asked a young German Girl to dance. lol
    We will celabrate 47 years in Oct.
    Good memories.
    Chuck Hale

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