“Es lebe Freiheit!.” Those were the thoughts of most West Berliners in 1961. When asked by an American soldier what the best thing about Berlin was, his German friend pointed to the American flag in front of the Berlin Command Headquarters. The soldier asked, “What that? I thought most Berliners think that Americans are oversexed, overpayed, and over here.” The Berliner replied, “The flag is not Russian.”
West Berlin was 110 miles deep in East Germany, surrounded by 17 divisions of Russian troops. Under the 4 powers agreement, the only jets which flew over the city were Russian military aircraft. Only a few thousand American, British and French troops stood in the way of complete Russian domination of West Berlin. When we American soldiers came to our assignments in Berlin, we were told that if the Russians ever decided to attack in Berlin, it would be a maximum of 48 hours before the last of us were wiped out. We were a thin olive green line, and we knew it. And, Kruschev was demanding the Allies get out of Berlin and threatening to attack if we did not. But, we did not dwell on it: To do so would drive one crazy, and I personally knew two men who did and cracked up.
Yet, the atmosphere in West Berlin was amazing. Berliners had lived though a crushing hyperinflation which had wiped out the middle class through the Nazi era and World War II, and now they were threatened by the possibility of Russian domination. Yet, as a whole, they decided to work toward an uncertain future, to live every moment of every day to the fullest extent – not in the sense of trying to cram things in, but in the sense of a brandy connoisseur who snifts the aroma and savors the bouquet. Under those conditions I experienced an immediacy and quality of life that I have never seen since. The sight of a rose, a walk in a Berlin park, spending time with Berliner friends in warm conversation at a sidewalk restaurant had such quality.
West Berlin was full of life and activity, and one could sense the freedom. In contrast, it seemed that almost no one talked on the streets of East Berlin, and the faces seemed to be either glum or expressionless. On East German streets one saw quite a number of Vopos, Grepos, and soldiers, all with submachine guns. The air was heavy and oppressive.
I was stationed in the U.S. Army Hospital on Unter Den Eichen in Berlin. I also knew that if the Russians did attack I was to be one a small group of hospital men who would stay behind and fight a rear guard action while the main unit of hospital men and patients tried to make its way to the West. But, that was all right with me, because I knew that standing up to the Russians in Berlin was the right thing to do.
The intrigue of the Cold War was most evident while I was at the Hospital. Secret plans in the event of an attack were in the hospital headquarters safe. One of our soldiers ventured into the wrong place and was held by the East German military for days. And, on one occasion, in the middle of the night MPs came into the hospital compound, sealed off the entire route to the outpatient entrance and the ward hallways. They then brought in an unknown person and placed him in a room as a patient, locked the room behind him and gave the key to the attending physician. No one but the doctor was allowed to see the patient. As the person who typed the hospital morning reports, I was only allowed to enter “1 patient admitted: CLASSIFIED.” After several days, the patient left under the same conditions as those of his arrival. I have often wondered who he was: A defector? One of our agents in the East who had gotten ill?
In the spring and early summer of 1961, conditions in Russian controlled East Germany had gotten so bad that it seemed that most of the entire intelligentsia of East Germany was fleeing to freedom in West Berlin. The East German puppet state was on the verge of collapse and tensions between the Russians and Americans were rising to high levels. In all honesty, we solders saw and understood, but chose simply to do our jobs and not think about it.
Then suddenly overnight, the East Germans built the wall to stem the flow of refugees. We all held our breath. I was reassigned to the U.S. very shortly after.
In late 1962, after I finished my enlistment with the Army and after finishing my bachelor’s degree, I returned to Berlin on my own. I was there when Kennedy landed at Tegel airport and gave his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech at the Shoeneberg RatHaus, and was proud to be there. I also saw how the situation in East Berlin had gone from bad to horrible. I actually thought that the wall would not come down in my lifetime. I am most happy to say that I was wrong.
Being in Berlin changed my life in so many ways, almost all much to the better. I am proud to have been there at that time, and hold so many treasured memories of the city, and its people, and of the times.