In the late afternoon of Nov. 9, 1989, a member of the new East German Government was asked when new unrestricted travel rules would come into force.
His answer: “As far as I can see — straightway, immediately.” Thousands of East German citizens responded by heading to the gates of the Berlin Wall demanding that they be opened. At 10:30 p.m. the gates were opened and the official fall of the Berlin Wall was underway. Monday, Nov. 9, will be the 20th anniversary of that momentous event.
I have a personal interest in this story. You see, in the fall of 1961 I was a member of the U.S. Army stationed in Germany when the Berlin Crisis began. I can clearly remember the reports coming in of U.S. and Soviet tanks standing eyeball to eyeball at Checkpoint Charlie. I remember the rush of adrenalin when we were ordered on full alert. And I still remember the intensity and fatigue we experienced in the month following the event. We watched on Armed Forces Television as East Germans made desperate dashes for freedom through the barbed wire and flying bullets as construction of the wall proceeded.
Things were especially tense in my unit. I was assigned to the Advanced Weapons Command (AWSCOM). We were the maintenance company for the command and that made us a very rich target for any invading Soviet army. I had made the mistake of scoring well on all parts of the Army proficiency test so the commanding officer figured I could do about anything. When he learned that I had taken a course in mechanical drawing, he assigned me to draw up a diagram of our post showing the placement of explosive charges in case we had to blow it up and run.
My security clearance was secret. But when I finished the blueprint, the officer directing me stamped it “top secret” and told me I could not look at it anymore! But that is typical of the military mind.
Our company had a full company of Military Police assigned to guard our work compound day and night. But when the Berlin Crisis started, the commander decided we needed more protection than that, so we were assigned patrol duty in addition to our normal work schedule. When you add in our house keeping chores, and meals, we averaged four hours sleep a day for that first month.
Because of the secret nature of our mission, we were restricted in what parts of Europe we could visit. We were not allowed to go to Berlin, or to go within 20 miles of the so called Steel Curtain that divided East and west Germany. Before I left for a weekend pass, I had to list all the locations that I intended to visit and submit it to the security people for their approval.
I was in Germany in 1961 when that wall was built. I was watching on TV in 1989 when if finally came down. It hardly seems that long ago. My memories of both events are still fresh. And it kind of makes me feel old.
Frank Gillispie is founder of The Madison County Journal. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. His website can be accessed at http://www.frankgillispie.com/gillispieonline.