A Hair Trigger From World War III

by CARL A. BENNER, VMI ‘60

My name is Carl A. Benner and I was at Checkpoint Charlie during the standoff with the Russian T54 tanks in October 1961. (My memories are a little different than you portrayed in the book.) I thoroughly enjoyed revisiting that extremely tense time in my life. What a great read!I graduated from the Virginia Military Institute in June 1960 and was commissioned a 2nd Lt in the Infantry; proceeded thru Ft. Benning: Basic Officer, Ranger and Airborne schools and shipped out to Germany in January 1961. Initially I was assigned to a Mechanized Infantry Battalion in Worms am Rhein.

During this time in Germany, I managed to visit my Great Uncle Otto Benner and his family. Otto was the burgermeister of a small town northwest of Giessen, Reddighausen am Eder. We spent the weekends looking at old family photos and touring the small town. I learned much German during these visits, as I had taken French at VMI.

 

I’ll never forget the framed picture of Otto’s son in the living room in his Wehrmacht uniform with his 2 Iron Crosses. He had fought with Rommel in Africa and was last heard from in Stalingrad. I was also impressed by a photo taken in France during WWI where all 5 Benners with their pith helmets on were said to be “tote im Frankeich.” On my third visit, Otto insisted I wear my uniform and he paraded me through the town taking extra time at the school.After the Berlin Wall went up in August I was one of 5 bachelor officers transferred from West Germany to Berlin. I was excited and honored to join E Company, 2nd Battle Group, 6th Infantry Regiment in late August.At the instance of the standoff, I had been attached to the Tank Company and had a unit consisting of 2 infantry squads (in 2 Armored Personnel Carriers, APC’s); an Engineering squad in an APC with enough Plastic explosives to blow up 2 city blocks; and a Medic squad in a fourth APC. Our mission, using riot control formation and techniques, was to extract any U.S. personnel from a sedan caught up in the series of barriers that had been erected by the East Germans just on the Russian side of the checkpoint. We were stationed at Tempelhoff airport and rehearsed our “suicide” mission several times.

 

As you accurately portrayed in the book, we were the “show of force” that successfully challenged the East Germans who offered no impediment to the entry of our sedans into the Russian sector. It was so exciting to follow our tanks racing down Friedrichstrasse after spinning around Mehring Platz toward the checkpoint and see the East Germans back off.

 

We were headed back to Tempelhoff after our third trip to the checkpoint when I heard over the radio “Russian tanks at the checkpoint, we’re heading back.” I dropped down my hatch in the APC and told my troops the same.

 

I’ll never forget the only man in that APC that showed any concern was my platoon sergeant, who had seen action in Korea. As we raced down Friedrichstrasse once again (we were directly behind a platoon of tanks), I saw the Russian tanks right there on the other side of Checkpoint Charlie and heard the Tank Platoon Leader say, “Number 1 you get the guy on the right, I’ll get the guy on the left” as their muzzles moved accordingly. My heart was pumping in my throat. To this day, I am convinced that one itchy trigger finger and WWIII would have started BIG TIME!

 

So we stared down each other throughout the evening, night and morning. I vividly recall West Berliners from 8 to 80 coming up to us during this time and giving us little bouquets of flowers, chocolate, bottles of cognac, etc…A good friend (Ranger school together) was the Weapons Platoon Leader and had his 81mm mortars set up on Mehring Platz. He personally made up an entire case of Molotov cocktails for me and delivered them personally sometime after evening chow. God, he was so gung-ho ….. He took 3 tours in Vietnam and his name was Frank (Sid) Adams.

 

The next morning around 10:00 a.m. a couple of Russian trucks, equivalent of our 2 ½ tonners, pulled up on their side of the checkpoint and these beautiful babes proceeded to deck the Russian tanks with beds of roses and embrace the Russian soldiers. Their propaganda cameras were going full bore, comparing our little bouquets with this display. So typical of the time. After this little bit of theatrics, the Russian (I never knew there was any doubt about them being Russian) tanks started up, turned around and pulled out. We cranked up our tanks and APC’s and pulled out and back to Tempelhoff. A short while after that the mission was over, and we headed back for a nice hot shower, shot of cognac with a Becks bier chaser.

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