The USA has a long history of citizen soldiers; the threads of Athens and Sparta run through our national fabric. Countless stories of sacrifice and valor dot the national landscape and flavor the national character. Many of us actually endured the agony of combat, with sometimes inter-generational scars. Some of us served but were fortunate to have seen no direct combat, such as those of us who occupied various perilous outposts during a long, bitter, expensive 'Cold' War.
During the Cold War, millions of troops from several dozen nations were deployed along a border that divided Europe, the Europe of countless wars, a Europe now devastated by two generation-killing 'world' wars that ended its primacy. The border dividing the two heavily armed camps was known as the "Iron Curtain", from Churchill's prescient phrasing.
Within East Germany, the Soviet client state that had been created as a mirror entity of its prosperous West German counterpart, an odd enclave existed: the city of Berlin. Berlin was capital of the Thousand Year Reich of Hitler; the wartime Allies jointly occupied it following end of hostilities.
Berlin itself was also divided by the Iron Curtain, only this time the border stretched within its city boundaries, through neighborhoods, slicing public transport systems, locking once national treasures such as museums and universities away from one half or the other of the troubled city's occupants. West and East Berlin echoed and served as microcosm of the shared occupation of the past; whereas the official occupation of the country proper had ended, and West Germany was a fully sovereign state and key member of NATO, Berlin was still divided into four zones, for the British, French, US and Soviet victors of World War II. The British French and American zones comprised 'West' Berlin, the Soviet zone was 'East' Berlin.
Passage between the three NATO allies' zones was easy, but there was an obvious border, later to be supplanted by the famous Berlin Wall. Western troops were entitled to cross over to other zones, for purposes of inspection, and an awkward form of heavily constrained tourism was permitted for US troops. I crossed paths with Gordon MacPherson on Twitter and it was our interaction over the Berlin Orientation Tours, as they were called, that inspired this interview.
He served as a United States Air Force air traffic controller in a unit that was in support of Strategic Air Command during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 and was stationed at Tempelhof Air Base in West Berlin from March 1963 to June 1965. His detail-rich 2009 article commemorating the fall of the Berlin Wall is a historian's dream, and conjured up some memories on the part of yours truly.
Bill: First things first: How is Dusa Dog?
Gordon: I am in NJ until Sunday so she is sad at home. When I walk through the door she will be so excited I will have to protect myself from scratches!
Here's a loving post about Dusa Dog on Gordon's blog, 5AMthinking.
More photos here.
Bill: How much time do you spend with her outdoors? How long are your walks? Do you talk to her?
Gordon: On a normal day Dusa and I walk twice in a very nice park that's about three miles from our house. She walks slowly most of the time, so what was a twenty minute walk when she could see is now an hour walk each time. I tweet and she sniffs! I do talk to her - when nobody's around! She used to go on hikes in the mountains with me, but not now, because there are often large trees lying across the trail and too many sharp rocks. We keep those hikes short.
Bill: Not sure from our brief exchanges whether you were in any actual 'hot' zones, or, like me, served, but were spared that experience.
Gordon: No, I was not in any hot zones, but I was in surrounded West Berlin during the most tense period of the Cold War. Does being surrounded count as the "tip of the spear"? Ha, ha! I don't remember who, but some international affairs scholars actually had a method of measuring this and it's been published. We did have two aircraft shot down over East Germany while I was there and, if memory serves me, there were one or two exchanges of small arms fire along the Wall involving our Army MPs. The big thing in Berlin at that time was that almost everybody thought World War III would eventually start there and we were so outnumbered. So it was like the tension of Desert Storm before the whistle blew, when they were just waiting. It was like that every day in Berlin and we could hear the other side's tanks on the other side of the Wall.
Bill: That World War III tripwire mindset and the presence of all those troops, and so much armor, in such a densely populated area reminds me of a novel that was popular at the time of my tour of duty in Germany, by General Sir John Hackett called World War III, which starts with an attack through the Fulda Gap, and is rich in detail and some fascinating 'what if' scenarios. I'll bring the book over and loan it to you sometime, if you don't already have it. I want to come back to this very interesting time, and an experience we shared among many other US service members, even if separated by several years. But, a more basic (no pun intended) question. Where did you serve?
Gordon: Basic training at Lackland Air Force Base near San Antonio, Texas like everybody else in the Air Force. Then to Keesler AFB in Biloxi, Mississippi for Air Traffic Control training. Then to Amarillo AFB in Texas for on-the-job-training and a very real Cuban Missile Crisis. Strategic Air Command had two wings of B-52s at Amarillo. Then TDY for two months to Clovis Air Force Base in New Mexico, a fighter base (Tactical Air Command). Back to Amarillo and then to Tempelhof Air Base in West Berlin, Germany.
Bill: To me, one of the unadvertised benefits of military service is that fellow veterans can almost invariably tap into a world of common, sometimes comic, references and sayings, for no matter how grim things can get, humor seems ever present, and even more welcome during the hard times. What's a GI without a gripe every now and then, and one that I always trot out when I meet an Air Force guy like yourself is to say "You guys always had better facilities." That's bound to elicit a laugh from time to time. (It's good natured on my part, but, c'mon guys, you know it's true). With that being said, where were you stationed during your career in the Air Force, and what was your favorite base?
Gordon:You're right, in the Air Force we had a cushy life compared to the Army and Marines. We sat in chairs, we slept in beds and we ate in chow halls. Most of us were dry and warm most of the time. Our small arms weapons training back then was about nothing but stationary marksmanship. No tactics at all, no moving targets. However, our technical training was superb and we had a lot of bright enlisted men.
Bill: What was a typical day like for you?
Gordon: Most of us, every day, actually performed the jobs we would be performing in a war. I was amazed even then at how the military can train teenagers to do the jobs they do. One afternoon when I was at Clovis Air Force Base we had a big thunderstorm pop up in the desert and we had aircraft all over the sky, all trying to get on the ground as fast as possible. There were hardly any controllers or pilots who were over 25 years old. In fact, most of us non-supervising controllers were about 19 (me) or 20. Young people make the military run. Always have and always will.
Bill: As one who was so closely associated with air transport in and out of that city, do you have any anecdotes from the Berlin Air Lift? I realize that you came in several years later, but was hoping that some tidbits had lingered on that you had heard.
Gordon: The Berlin Airlift occurred in 1948 and 1949 and, as you know, I didn't get to Berlin until early 1963. But some of my fellow air traffic controllers, on their second or third tours in Berlin, were there during the airlift. I don't remember their names anymore, but one of them had to bail out over East Germany because of mechanical problems with the aircraft he was flying in. While I was in Berlin we constantly rehearsed for another airlift. Until it was closed in 1964, a lot of our USAF transport aircraft came up from Évreux Air Base in France.
Gordon in front of his tour bus in West Berlin. The bus is parked at the PX on Clayallee
Bill: You have told me that you were a part-time tour guide. What are your recollections of the Berlin Orientation Tours for soldiers?
Gordon: Ha! The tours I guided into the East enabled me to cash in on The Cold War. Special Services, absolutely no relation to Special Forces, had us sell color 35mm slides of all the places we went on the tour. They sold well, since cameras weren't allowed. Tour guides like me got good commissions. We had a captive audience while we were in the East.
Bill: No pun intended, eh?
Gordon: It's funny, if you think about it, an agency of the U.S. military practicing capitalism in the capital of East Germany. What would Marx think? Actually, now that I think about it, I wonder if there was ever an audit of all that! And by the way, if you Google "Army Special Services" here's what you'll find: "The U.S. Army Special Services Agency was set up by the Army in the years following World War II to increase morale by providing recreational activities to troops stationed in Europe during the Cold War era. The activities included crafts, theatrical productions, and parties." Ha ha! And tours into East Berlin.
The serious side of the tours had to do with exercising our rights negotiated at the end of WWII to travel anywhere in Berlin. This became especially important after the Wall went up in August 1961. (I got to West Berlin in March 1963.) If we didn't have enough troops on leave from West Germany and other places in Europe, troops from Berlin Brigade would be assigned to go. Sometimes we were told to watch for certain things and to report if we saw them, but we had no formal intelligence mission.
We went to many WWII sites in the vicinity of the Wall on the East side where most of the Nazi government buildings had been. They were all rubble. Two sites that I can recall are Hitler's bunker and the exact spot where Colonel Von Stauffenberg, the dissident officer who attempted to kill Hitler with a briefcase bomb, was executed.
Bill: I saw those spots in 2001. There is a 'Topography of Terror' exhibit now present there.
Gordon: We also went to Treptower Park, where over 10,000 Russian soldiers are buried in mass graves, and to the East Berlin Zoo. Those were interesting stops because tourists from the East Bloc also visited and there was some mingling. At the Zoo, it sometimes happened that we could sit with our Russian counterparts and have a beer. I was always glad that we didn't have to wear those old-style wooly uniforms that they wore. If somebody who's reading this was there and would back me up, I'd appreciate it, but this is what I remember.
Bill: Did you ever feel a sense of personal danger? I remember how two US officers were bludgeoned to death in Korea in the DMZ by North Koreans.
Gordon: We were harassed and surrounded sometimes by armed East German police or military, but I never felt I was in any real danger. They would accuse us of running red lights and going places we weren't supposed to go. That, of course, was non-negotiable with our side – we went everywhere. Our instructions were to immediately request the presence of a Russian officer, because the US didn't recognize East Germany, which really pissed them off. While we were driving I would comment on life in East Germany, which the GI tourists could verify by simply looking out their windows. One of my recollections in this regard is people lined up for blocks when oranges became available. Oranges! No kidding.
Bill: Those centralized and bureacratized distribution systems were fragile and had spasms that produced ridiculous and wasteful results sometimes, and dire privation at others. As that saying goes, "That's not a way to run a railroad" (or anything else for that matter). I was actually in Romania of all places when Ceacescu was in power, on vacation (that's a long story in itself), and one day, across the entire region, there was suddenly no more white wine in any of the tourist spots, and we never saw any more again for the remaining week of an oddball and tense but fascinating experience.
Gordon: An Army officer was assigned to each tour, a different one every time, and the driver was Army. I was the only Air Force guy who guided the tours. I was recruited by an Army guy who was in my University of Maryland-Heidelberg German language class which we both attended in Berlin. The East Germans had photos of all of us involved in the tours in their office on their side of Checkpoint Charlie.
Bill: That was some good detail, Gordon.
Thank you for taking the time to speak with me and share your story. And thanks for your service.