Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Secret War, Red Alerts – At the Cold War Front

Very early morning, late spring of ’57, I found myself in the back of an Army truck – a so-called 6x6 troop carrier with benches running along the sides and a canvas canopy. Just off a military plane from the States, I and about a dozen fellow GIs were rolling through the streets of Frankfurt am Main at a pretty good clip. Just the day before I had taken leave of the family and my younger brother Jeff for the next couple of years.

Frankfurt on the River Main, West Germany, 1957

I had arrived in West Germany after a long flight. I don’t know about the other guys, but I was excited. I had finally made it to Europe, always just over the horizon beyond my family’s means for a college boy tour on summer break.

We incoming GIs were headed to various units in the Frankfurt area, replacements for men finishing their tours and heading home. My orders were for the ASA’s European HQ.  ASA, or the Army Security Agency, was a worldwide outfit which surreptitiously gathered communication intelligence on US Cold War adversaries, principally the Soviet Bloc and their Communist allies in Asia.

Although we wore US Army uniforms, ASA reported to the National Security Agency (NSA) back in Washington, a behemoth civilian intelligence organization. Within the Cold War writ large, ASA Europe was part of America’s secret war against the ‘enemy’ less than a hundred miles to the east.

Peering out for my first glance of Europe, I saw only a few people stirring in the streets of Frankfurt at that early morning hour. As the vehicle careened around corners sending us sliding into each other on the benches, I spotted a young German man pedaling his bike furiously to our rear.

We all watched him out of curiosity. Closing the distance as the truck slowed, the cyclist came within hailing range, raised a cupped hand to his mouth and shouted in accented English, “Fuck you, Yanks.” Welcome to Europe.

I was billeted in a 19th century Imperial German cavalry garrison near the city center. It was a walled assemblage of brick buildings, mostly three-story barracks, arrayed around an enormous, cobbled parade ground. ASA shared the place with a spit and polish Military Police (MP) battalion tasked with keeping hard-drinking off-duty GIs on the streets of Frankfurt in line.

They assigned me to a big high-ceilinged, six-man room. Two large windows at the back looked out over the stockade, the Army’s prison for wayward soldiers. The other five guys, mainly ASA security guards and truck drivers, had been in Germany for a while.

Good buddies, they’d come off night duty and continued their long-running, high stakes poker game accompanied by Sinatra on the record player.  Lit by a single lamp, they’d softly call their moves – ‘See you’, ‘Raise you’ – cigarette smoke curling upwards in the darkened room.

Since ASA was only nominally part of the Army, military discipline was lax. As a front line unit in the ongoing secret war against the USSR and its East European satellite states, our intelligence mission took precedence over barracks inspections and the like.

I had arrived on a Friday with the weekend free so I began to explore the town on foot. A few blocks away, I discovered the Hauptbahnhof, Frankfurt’s main train station for intercity and transcontinental travel. A mammoth old structure, the station was filled with small shops and stalls, all quite intriguing to a newly arrived foreigner. Off the cavernous waiting area were the vast concave skeletal steel and glass ‘departure halls’ with trains constantly arriving and departing.

                       Main railroad station, Frankfurt am Main, late 1950s

In the square out front of the station ran the Strassenbahn, the public streetcar system with its quaint-looking trolleys going off clanging in all directions. I walked up one of the busy thoroughfares running like spokes off the square and found all manner of eating places from small restaurants to simple joints as well as many sidewalk Wurst counters selling jumbo German sausages and steins of beer.

Dropping into a middling place for dinner, I found my waiter spoke some English, so I asked for typical German cuisine. It turned out to be tasty and inexpensive – a shot of Schnaps, a clear fruit brandy, with a beer chaser; Ochsenschwanzsuppe, or ox-tail soup; and Wiener Schnitzel, a breaded and fried veal cutlet – all capped off with a fruit tart for dessert.

Wandering in the early evening, I chanced into a hole-in-the-wall café for a drink. A small orchestral ensemble was playing, and a middle aged couple was earnestly dancing. He was a short man in a white suit and she a tall woman in mauve. Despite his size, the man led vigorously, albeit with jerky movements, his right elbow sawing the air as they spun around the postage-stamp dance floor. I left and walked back to Gutleut Kaserne – the garrison’s German name – ending day one in Deutschland.

On Monday I reported for work at the I G Farben building, a large multi-winged structure set in a small park in another part of Frankfurt. When built in the ‘30s, it was one of the largest office buildings in the world. Originally the corporate headquarters of a giant German chemical firm infamous for the gas used in the death camps, the building had been nonetheless spared from allied bombing during the war.

Once the Nazis were defeated, General Eisenhower had it in mind as his HQ for US occupation forces. In 1957, I G Farben served as HQ for the Northern Area Command with a few higher floors at one end given over to ASA Europe.  To reach my office on the 7th floor, one took the ‘paternoster’, an unusual two-passenger elevator consisting of open compartments moving slowly in a loop up and down a building.

I G Farben building, Frankfurt am Main

ASA took security very seriously.  As linguists, or lingys for short, our work was classified Top Secret, requiring high security clearances. As soon as one stepped out of the paternoster, a pair of armed ASA security guards barred the way forward. They carefully looked at the ID badge hanging around each of our necks before permitting us to pass into the suite of offices. 

As a Czech lingy, I was assigned to the largest room designated for East European languages. It ran about 100’ along a wall of good-sized windows. A number of library-style tables filled much of the space. I worked at the first one with other Czech lingys.

Gordon, a Polish lingy and a pal of mine from Army Language School (ALS) back in California, was at the next table, but under the Agency’s Need to Know rule we weren’t permitted to discuss our respective tasks. On the opposite wall was a line of heavy filing cabinet safes where at day’s end and over weekends we locked up our work materials.

My first week on the job passed in a blur. I lost track of time and date. Having been on a long leave after ALS, I was hustling to tune up my translation skills.  At the end of the week, I was told to report back to the office the next evening, a Saturday. My name had come up on the duty roster to serve as ‘charge of quarters’, or CQ.

Although our suite was well-guarded 24/7 and all classified material locked up on weekend nights, ASA required an internal guard as well. Security guards couldn’t enter the suite; they didn’t have clearance. It was the lingys’ job and my turn.

I reported Saturday night to the senior security sergeant (sgt). He handed me a shoulder holster with a snub-nosed .38, outlined the night’s routine, and instructed me to call him if I noticed anything awry. I took my assignment seriously, perhaps too seriously.

A menacing Cold War was underway, and I was in divided Germany on a ‘front’ in the secret war. The shoulder holster proved a tangle of straps, and I couldn’t get it on, so I took the .38 out and kept it close at hand.

During early evening I killed time reading a book. What could possibly happen – I was on the 7th floor, I had locked the door, the hallway was heavily guarded, and the building secured. Easy duty.

Sometime between 9 and 10 o’clock, I noticed bright flashes in the distance. Curious, I walked over to the big windows – which faced in the direction of Communist East Germany and Czechoslovakia – to take a better look. During the periodic flashes, I could just make out a low mountain range.

As I stood there wondering, the flashes grew in size and frequency, interspersed with splashes of red bursting in the sky. Very faintly, I could hear booms preceding the sprays of light now highlighting the horizon.

I became concerned and thought, could these be artillery explosions, incoming illumination rounds to light up a target followed by lethal high explosives. I said to myself, I can’t believe this, I’m here barely a week and that could be the Soviet Army pouring through the Fulda Gap – a cut through the mountains east of Frankfurt on the border of divided Germany, a historic invasion route.

I finally decided to ring up the sgt at his post downstairs. In as calm a voice as I could muster, I reported what I was observing. Sarge didn’t bite – in a weary tone, he said in effect, cool it sonny, it’s the Fourth of July.

Not long after, one of the Czech lingys who had completed his tour and had orders for the States had a car to sell. It was an old French Citroën, and at first glance I was enchanted. Sleek, black, low to the ground, and with front-wheel drive, it cornered like a racing car. I bought it.

        A Citroen like the one I drove in Europe in the 1950s

Mobility made a world of difference. I was really able to get to know Frankfurt a lot better, a large city on the River Main – the banking and financial center of the Federal Republic of Germany, the country’s official name. Driving around randomly at first, I came across reminders of WWII – streets where bomb damage was still visible. And here and there I glimpsed ruins of another era in European history, stunted fragments of once mighty medieval walls dating back over half a millennium.

Back at the garrison, my living arrangements left much to be desired. Chief problem was the stockade out back run by a tough airborne unit. Much too early in the morning for those of us asleep in the barracks, the hard-nosed stockade guards would be shouting commands as they relentlessly marched the prisoners back and forth in the yard.

I said to hell with this and checked out the city’s rental market. Found a comfortable, nicely furnished room in a fine old town house in a leafy neighborhood. An elderly widow, Frau Hildebrand, took me on as a tenant. Off-duty troops could wear civvies, so after work I’d return to my new digs and get out of my uniform as soon as possible.

Weekends were for nights on the town with Gordon and other guys. Our favorite haunts were the crowded, smoky cellar bars with juke boxes pounding out German pop, frequently songs by husky-voiced female vocalists copying the Dietrich sound.

♫ Eine Sage erzählt

wenn die Liebe dir fehlt
und dein Herz wird vor Sehnsucht so schwer
such‘ im Mondlicht am Strand
eine Perle im Sand
wirf sie weit in das nächtliche Meer

(A tale tells
if it’s love you lack
and your heart becomes heavy with yearning
search in the moonlight on the beach
for a pearl in the sand
throw it far into the nighttime sea)*

Occasionally, we’d catch an American movie with German subtitles helpful in learning some of the language to get around. Bridge over the River Kwai (1957) with Alec Guinness comes to mind.         

One summer evening a buddy and I were pub-crawling in the outer suburbs, and I got lucky. It was an upmarket pub, and we were quaffing beers on a low balcony overlooking the dance floor. The band took a break, the floor cleared, and at a table across the room I spotted a striking blonde with her date, obviously a German guy.

She had that Kim Novak look which we all knew well from her sultry performance in the movie Picnic (1955). By that time in the evening I’d had plenty to drink, so when I saw her date get up and head to the men’s room, I sprang to my feet. Crossing the dance floor to the young woman’s table, I boldly asked if she spoke English. Flawlessly she answered, “Yes, I do,” to which I replied, “Could I get your phone number?”

Wordlessly, she quickly took out a pen and wrote it on a cocktail napkin. I scooted away just before her date returned – the entire encounter no more than a few minutes. That’s how I met Inge.

She was a stewardess for TWA, Trans World Airlines, then one of the major American international carriers. Frankfurt was its European hub. Inge was tall, slender, and quite statuesque – so attractive and well versed in languages that TWA had taken her off flight duty and made her a special ground stewardess.

As a representative of the airline, her job was to grace business receptions held for visiting US executives, German officials, and other European notables important to the company. She had a small apartment near the Farben building, very convenient for our rendezvous. From her place, I could see across the well-groomed lawns to the windows of my office.

My Europe, however, was not all fun and games. As I said, there was a war on; granted, a peculiar one since it was called a ‘cold’ war as against a traditional ‘hot’ war with flags flying and cannon roaring. Still, as we were often reminded, there was the ever present danger that the European stand-off between Soviet Bloc forces and the American-led NATO armies (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) might suddenly turn hot. A large Soviet army was garrisoned in nearby East Germany to secure Moscow’s westernmost satellite, but was also considered a potential threat to West Europe.

The US reaction was to train our forces for a possible invasion from the East. We were periodically drilled on the response scenario. US troops, including armor and infantry divisions, were based throughout West Germany, all facing the East. From time to time, the commander of US forces Europe would call an early morning alert to test readiness.

When the figurative ‘balloon’ went up, there was no way for troops to know if it was a ‘red alert’, that is, the real thing, or just another practice exercise. Living off-post illegally, the periodic surprise alerts presented me with a problem. Alerts usually took place around 4 AM, jarring everyone awake with loud alarms. ASA lingys had special assignments in the event of a real or simulated Soviet invasion.

Because we possessed secret information, we were not to fall into enemy hands. Thus, ASA taught us how to drive the Army ‘deuce and a half’, the standard troop truck. When the alert sounded, we were driven to a motor pool, assigned a truck, and given an address to pick up American servicemen’s wives and children. We were then to drive pell mell to a French port where waiting US ships would take us off the Continent and out of harm’s way.

Obviously, I’d have to be in my sack in the barracks to hear the alarm go off. Happily I found a solution to my dilemma – I got acquainted with a GI at ASA HQ who got early warning of alerts and would tip me off. On the designated night, I’d be sure to sleep in the barracks. To save time for what I knew was coming, l’d doze on my bunk in full field gear and combat boots, my helmet within reach.

This worked fine until one morning late summer ’57. Unbeknownst to me, my HQ buddy was on leave. As usual, I slept at my German lodging. Frau Hildebrand’s house had a bathtub, but that morning I wanted a shower, so I got up very early and drove down to the barracks in civvies with a fresh uniform in the back.

To my great surprise and extreme dismay, the streets were thronged with US military vehicles of all descriptions. As I neared the garrison, a command car flying a general’s flag passed in the opposite direction. I could even see the man himself in the backseat, decked out in combat gear with a shoulder holster.

I had never seen a general before, and it suddenly dawned on me that this was the real thing, a red alert – and, heaven help me, I was AWOL (Absent without Leave), and not in uniform in the middle of a war.

Absurd as it was at such a time, the thought running through my head was something my mother had once said to me as a youngster, “Remember, Bob, everything you do reflects on us.” In despair, I turned into the arched entrance to the parade ground at the garrison, slowed down to show the MP my badge, and with deep foreboding asked what was going on.

“Nothing,” he said in a bored voice, “just a yellow alert.” Saved by the bell, another practice alert for the invasion which fortunately never came during the long Cold War. When I next wrote home to regale brother Jeff and the family with my European adventures, I left out the part about nearly missing the war.

*Der weisse Mond von Maratonga, lyrics by Fini Busch; music by Werner Scharfenberger

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