I Was At Checkpoint Charlie

by MICHAEL F. RAFFERTY

On November 9th 1989 I was relaxing in my home watching the Armed Forces Network, when it announced that East Germans would now have the ability to travel. This of course caught my eye and I called my friend Staff Sergeant (SSG) Nathaniel Brown, who I was supposed to relieve at 6:00am the following morning. I asked if he had heard anything about travel of East Germans and if he had noticed anything different. He told me it was business as usual, no crowds or anything out of the ordinary, so I went to bed, expecting a quiet next day at Checkpoint Charlie. I must have called an hour too early, because an hour later the Checkpoint was swamped.

 

The next day I woke up and called a Military Police Patrol to pick me up to go to the Checkpoint. I was one of the four NCO’s for Checkpoint Charlie who was specialized in Berlin Access issues; and one of these NCO’s had to always be at the Checkpoint. On my ride to the Checkpoint the patrol explained to me what had transpired during the night, and when I arrived at the Checkpoint it was crammed with thousands of people. I found SSG Brown and asked him what happened. Obviously overwhelmed by the events he just shrugged his shoulders.

 

We were prepared for a busy weekend because of the American Veterans Day Weekend and so we knew that a lot of American Servicemen would be visiting the city. As one of the four specialized NCO’s it was my job to brief and keep track of everyone entering the Soviet Sector. SSG Brown was nice enough to stay over and help; he ended up spending a total of 16 hours processing personnel into East Berlin with me. We would give each car a binder with a number on it in black – the ID number – and emergency information enclosed. If the book was out we knew they were in the Soviet Sector. Whereas on a normal day we had about 100 books checked out, on this day we had over 350 booklets checked out. What a nightmare! Initially my briefings on how to process the checkpoint were professional and complete. But by the time the 200th traveler came around I would just hand them a book and point East.

 

The opposite direction wasn’t much better. Traffic was horrific and the East German’s lined up their Trabbants next to the Checkpoint window. After my 16 hour shift I was relieved at around 7:00pm and only around 50 booklets remained checked out. Everything under control, I called the patrol to have me driven back to my apartment. They simple asked if I was crazy and so I had to rely on the U Bahn to get home to the Zehlendorf district of Berlin. I walked through the maze of people heading to the Koch Strasse U Bahn. I honestly thought I would get on the first train. As it turned out the first, second and third train was totally packed. After that third train I finally, I told myself “this is never going to end” and so when the fourth train stopped I simply started walking towards it. My first step inside the train caused everyone to part. They made plenty of room for me. In retrospect I wish I had done this earlier. On the train I was lucky enough to be sitting next to a Father and Daughter who were visiting from Potsdam. I asked them if this was their first time in West Berlin. They said “yes”. I pulled my “Berlin Brigade” Pin of my sweater and pinned it to the young girls scarf. “Welcome” I said, looking at the father. He was definitely getting a little emotional, and so would I, if I didn’t feel like throwing up. When I finally got home I went to bed immediately.

 

The Checkpoint is a major part of my life. I enjoyed every second. Some of my favorite times were giving the tourists (especially the Americans) a hard time. For example, they would come up to the Checkpoint and ask if we spoke English. We would look at them and say “No, but the British do”. They would walk straight over to them. Alternatively, they would ask why the Checkpoint was named Charlie. We would always answer it was named after Charlie Chaplin. The final example I would share is this. The tourists would ask us “where is Checkpoint Charlie?” We would give them these long winded directions which ended at the other end of the building. Entertainment was a must when you were by yourself at the tip of the sword of freedom.

 

In March 1990, I can’t remember the exact day; a decision was made to stop monitoring people visiting East Berlin. The last official traveler was Minister [Harry J.] Gilmore who came in at 11:59pm on that last day and I was there to receive his packet. After this Checkpoint Charlie was just a building, instead of actually having a mission. All the Checkpoint NCO’s were bored so they decided we would patrol East Berlin. We were now East Berlin patrol. After a couple of months and tons of rumors the decision was made to close the checkpoint. I was lucky enough to have an Associated Press photographer take a photo of me with my allied friends in front of the Checkpoint. It went all the way to my hometown in Moreno Valley, California. My 10 minutes of fame!

 

June 22, 1990 was my last day at the Checkpoint. During the previous day I had my portrait taken in front of the Checkpoint, as I didn’t want to forget. After this we attended the final ceremony, for which we had practiced since 5:00am. The final chapters of the Cold War were being written and I was there to help turn the pages. The whole event was like a dream and if it weren’t for the pain in my feet it would have felt like a dream. After around 45 minutes of listening to speeches the Checkpoint was removed from position by crane. Allied Checkpoint Charlie was gone. The American Honor Guard walked to the far end of the parking lot and handed the crowd of people there our white gloves. I felt like a movie star! Then I walked with SGT Ed Baldwin, who was in the honor platoon with me, to the where the Checkpoint used to be. We picked up the foundation stones and walked into the East German checkpoint, handing the East German border guards the stones. They were smiling. It was all finally over.

 

Michael F. RaffertyNCOIC, Allied Checkpoint Charlie (89-90)

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