Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Cold War Blues – Trieste Forsaken

I was anxious to get to Berlin, epicenter of the Cold War and a flash point between East and West. The former capital of the Third Reich, located in the middle of Communist East Germany, was like postwar Germany itself a divided city. It was where Americans and Soviets came face to face at the heavily guarded crossovers, the ‘Checkpoint Charlies’ separating democratic West Berlin from East Berlin.

In West Germany, where I was based with the US forces, the only way to get to West Berlin was via narrow land, rail, and air corridors that cut through East Germany. The Border Troops of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) closely monitored and controlled the access corridors. Whenever tensions flared between the US and the USSR, Moscow merely had to give the signal, and the Border Troops created pretexts to hold up road traffic, delay trains, and hassle flights from the West.

Under the Four Powers Treaty dividing up Germany, there were limits on numbers of American troops in West Berlin, so the only way I could visit the city was as a courier carrying classified documents. I was a linguist, lingy for short, in a communications intelligence outfit, the Army Security Agency (ASA). In Frankfurt am Main, I was assigned to ASA’s European HQ which regularly sent documents to its West Berlin station.

Only personnel with high security clearances were eligible for courier duty. In early January 1958 I was called to an unfamiliar office where I was briefed and given travels orders to West Berlin along with a weapon and a briefcase. The holster contained a loaded .45, the briefcase was locked – I didn’t have the Need to Know its contents – and it had an attached handcuff. They cuffed it to my wrist, gave me the key, and told me the briefcase and I were never to be separated until I reached my destination. I was sent off to the Hauptbahnhof, Frankfurt’s main rail terminal.

On my orders, printed in the languages of the four powers, the Cyrillic Russian was the most prominent. The train was sealed; no one could get on or off until it reached the terminal in West Berlin. Provincial East German towns flew by, but it was too dark to see much. However, once we reached the outskirts of West Berlin things came alive.

On arrival we were shunted to a siding brightly illuminated by overhead flood lights. East German customs officers came through the cars checking passengers’ documents. The delay continued. Looking out the window, I could see soldiers from the Border Troops, identifiable by their green shoulder straps, using German Shepherds and long handled mirrors, methodically inspecting the undercarriage of the each car.

It was an eerie deep winter scene in central Europe – steam rising from beneath the heated cars, the troopers in greatcoats, Kalashnikovs slung over their shoulders, big dogs straining at their leashes.

Clearing the border late, I was met by an ASA security guard with an enclosed jeep. He dropped me off at the ASA station in the administrative complex of the US Berlin Command. The halls were predictably deserted, but I was surprised to see helmeted GIs manning .30 caliber machine guns at every intersection of the corridors.

An alert was underway, and the gun positions were SOP, or Standard Operating Procedure. Should West Berlin be overrun, the gun crews were to fire on any attackers who penetrated the building in order to buy time for destroying secret documents. After delivering the briefcase, I had two days leave in Berlin before heading back.

The following month I drove to Switzerland to meet Peter, an old friend studying there. We were both avid skiers from a small town in the Adirondack foothills of upstate New York. Peter and I spent a long weekend at Grindelwald, a small storybook village in the Swiss Alps. Skiing conditions were excellent; we stayed at a traditional chalet, most notable in memory for a lovely French girl on a ski holiday with her father, a retired French admiral.

Mornings, the three of us would climb aboard a big horse-drawn sleigh with jingling bells and glide along snowy roads to the base station of the mountain ski train. At the summit, a number of steep but wide trails lay before us, each falling thousands of feet to the valley below.

Whichever trail we took, the runs were long and scenic, and around mid-point there would be a clapboard trailside café where one could warm up, have a welcome hot chocolate, munch a hardboiled egg. Glorious Grindelwald, a memorable weekend.

Ski train, Grindelwald, Switzerland

That spring I managed to get to the World’s Fair as well as to Paris, more adventures thanks to Uncle Sam. The World’s Fair of 1958 opened in Brussels in early April with much hoopla. I mentioned to Karin, a German girlfriend, that I was driving to Belgium for the weekend to visit the expo, and she wanted to come along. I said, ‘Your mother keeps a tight leash, how are you going to manage it?’ She coyly replied, ‘Leave it to me’.

Karin and I headed to Brussels and booked a room at a down at the heels pension; no questions were asked. We toured the American exhibition and a few of the more exotic-looking pavilions, sampled various national cuisines, went on a couple of rides at the adjoining fair grounds, and generally had a pleasant time in spite of rain.

The following week Karin called to say she was grounded for a month. She had told her mother she was invited to a girlfriend’s for the weekend. However, her father called his ex-wife’s house and was given the girlfriend’s number, so the truth was out.

Understandably worried, Karin’s father had a setback and had to be hospitalized. Before the war, he had played on the German Army’s, the Wehrmacht’s, polo team, later serving on the Russian front. Captured, he languished some years in the Soviet Gulag, the USSR’s vast penal system. The harsh regime had taken a toll of his health, so I felt sorry I had unwittingly contributed to his crisis.

My trip to Paris later that spring went a lot smoother except for a briefly alarming incident enroute. At the time, France, defeated by the Vietnamese in ’54, was in the midst of another colonial war, desperately trying to hold on to Algeria. I had little awareness of this when I stopped overnight at an inn on the outskirts of the city of Nancy.

The next morning I had a coffee and croissant and hit the road early. Opening my garage door, I noticed a man looking at my Citroën and writing notes. In my clumsy schoolboy French, I asked what he was doing. He gave an indignant shrug, pointed to his pad, and replied he was writing down my license plate number.

I became concerned – I had several days leave, but had taken off a day early and was technically absent without leave, or AWOL in military jargon. Switching to English, I aggressively asked, “What the hell for?” Don’t know if he knew English, but he caught the drift and explained he was on the lookout for Algerians entering France from the north.

Relieved, I told him in a friendly tone I was a GI – I was wearing civvies – and part of an intelligence group in Germany. At that his face lit up, and he said he too was in the intelligence game, the French Sûreté, France’s national police. He even pulled back his coat to show me his shoulder holster. We parted comrades in arms.

I made it to Paris late morning, cruised along the Left Bank, and chose a dinky, inexpensive hotel on a street abounding in eateries and shops. I walked the neighborhood soaking up some of the atmosphere of La Ville-Lumière, the City of Light. Even so briefly, I felt the magic of Paris.

I love Paris in the springtime
I love Paris in the fall
I love Paris in the winter when it drizzles
I love Paris in the summer when it sizzles…

I stopped for lunch at a modest place with four or five tables. As I crossed the threshold into the semi-dark interior, I noticed Madame flip a switch; the lights went on, a waiter with towel over arm came into view, and the little place suddenly became animated like an old-fashioned juke box warming up. The meal was excellent and cheap, which was good – GI pay wasn’t much to brag about.

Next day I ventured farther, taking in the street life of the great city. Near dusk I passed an imposing building; through the well-lit first floor windows I could see elegant rooms. As I wrote my 16-year old brother Jeff – the subject of this blog – about my Parisian adventures:

          I stopped at what appeared to be the entrance to its
          broad courtyard. My curiosity aroused, I ventured
          toward the entrance arch only to be quickly challenged
          by a guard emerging from a sentry box I hadn’t noticed
          in the dark. He was smartly uniformed, a policeman or soldier,
          I’m not sure which, and politely confident as only a man
          with a sub-machine gun can be.

Apparently I was about to wander into an off-limits French government complex. Jeff wrote back an appreciative note, adding among other things as he was wont to do about his teenage life, “I can really drink beer now, and I almost like it.”

Back at the hotel, I had a message from Inge, another friend from Frankfurt – she had asked me to let her know where I was staying in case she could get away. While Karin was a schoolgirl of 18, Inge, a stewardess, was several years older and could come and go as she pleased. She flew to Paris the following day to join me.

I was glad to have her company. Aside from being a comely young woman, Inge spoke fluent French, having studied at the Sorbonne, and knew the city well. With her as guide, we wandered far and wide, riding public transport, taking in the Sacré-Cœur as well as the paintings of the Louvre, then spent a balmy afternoon wandering the parks and gardens. Dinners were in a better class of restaurants since Inge and I always went Dutch treat. My leave over, we drove back to Deutschland uneventfully.

The author, Paris, spring 1958

Duty beckoned, and it was back to the Cold War on Monday morning. Most of the time I worked both as a translator from Czech, the language ASA taught me, and as an intelligence analyst of classified material. Interesting though I found the work, it was a far cry from the popular image of ‘cloak & dagger’ associated with the secret world. However, my moment was soon to come – cloak, if not dagger.

One early summer afternoon in ’58 I was told to report upstairs to the office suite of the commandant of ASA Europe. Ushered into one of his well-appointed rooms, I found another fellow sitting there in civilian clothes; we nodded. A staff officer arrived, introduced the two of us, and announced we’d been selected for a hush-hush mission. He invoked the Need to Know rule; I was to tell no one in my office.

The captain briefed us, but we were not told our ultimate destination or assignment. The other GI was a German lingy from a different intelligence outfit. Actually, he looked like a German to me – he was wearing a German suit and had long hair, certainly not GI short. As it turned out he was of German-American background. As I wrote home, before the draft got him Rolf had been a press agent for a carnival.

We were each given cover names – I’ve forgotten mine – and relevant ID, instructed to wear civvies complete with fedoras, and told an old Mercedes would await us at our intermediate stop for transport. My cover was as an American Philco salesman while my partner was to be a German rep from our Frankfurt corporate office. Rolf had grown up in a German-speaking home in Ohio and turned out to be so fluent and accent-free that he could easily pass.

We took a fast trans-European train, the ‘Rheinblitz’, to Munich to receive further orders. We had an address for our local contact, but were not to go there immediately. Instead we hung out for a day or two like real traveling salesmen away from the office, ‘borrowing’ a little time from the company. The city’s hotels were jammed with 100,000 gymnasts in town for a convention, so Rolf had booked us into a rustic pension in the alpine foothills outside Munich, a low-cost vacation spot for Germans.

With time to kill, my enterprising partner got acquainted with a couple of pretty young secretaries vacationing at the pension. They joined us for an afternoon at a nearby lakeside beach. I paired off with the one who spoke office English. She asked what I did, so I gave her my cover story. She politely replied, “Oh how interesting, tell me about your company.” I had to fake it since all I really knew about Philco was that they made radios. When I was a kid during the war, we had a stand-up model in the den.

At the designated time on the appointed day – 0800 – we made our way to the rendezvous. Our contact was an undercover ASA captain, a stocky man, probably early 40s, with thinning blonde hair and a casual manner, a former college athlete who looked the part. Still in his PJs, he opened the door and showed us to the living room.  

Just then I noticed a lovely dark-haired young woman tiptoeing out of the bedroom and quietly scooting out the front door. Ah, I thought, this would be the life for me.

There’s a man who leads a life of danger.
To everyone he meets he stays a stranger.
Secret Agent Man
Secret Agent Man
They’ve given you a number and taken away your name.††

To business. The captain moved over to a large Philco radio/record player – no doubt he was the source of our covers. He put on a record and turned up the volume. Then he whispered the crux of our mission – timetable, destination, to whom to report. That completed, Beethoven was turned down, and we joined him for morning coffee.

Very casually he asked about my background, the duration of my tour, and future plans. I had only several months left in ASA and intended to return to college, though I hadn’t decided which one. Then, unexpectedly, the captain put an intriguing question to me – would I possibly be interested in staying on in Europe as a civilian contractor for the Agency.

There would be an opening in Trieste at the head of the Adriatic, an international city under joint sovereignty of Italy and Communist Yugoslavia. I thought, great, I could live the life, the romance of the secret world. He said think about it, and get in touch after the mission if you’re interested. A plum assignment, a great adventure, a no-brainer.

As seen from the sea, Trieste’s main square

Our new orders took us over back roads down toward the border of Communist Czechoslovakia. After an hour or two, we came to a dense forest, then continued on a winding unpaved road that ended abruptly in a roadblock manned by armed guards.

We had arrived at our destination, a secret US Air Force (AF) listening post right up against the frontier of the USSR’s East European satellite empire. We parked and entered a long, prefab building. A senior AF sergeant told Rolf to take a seat – no further Need to Know – then escorted me to the major’s office.

I presented my orders with my real ID, and the major put me in the picture. Seems his post had snagged a Czech military defector who had managed to get through the frontier barriers. AF intelligence had interrogated the man, who had brought out valuable information to trade for his freedom in the West. Amongst the trove was a piece of intelligence of great interest to ASA Europe’s mission that I’d been sent to retrieve.

I was shown into a large room, empty but for a row of chairs along the wall. Invited to take a seat, I was joined by two junior AF officers who sat down on each side of me, the three of us like actors in a play without sets. One of the lieutenants had brought along a very thick, folio-sized binder with a single marker peeking out. He placed the book on my lap and opened it to the marked page. 

There before me was a nugget about Czech military communications that would indeed be of value to my organization. I made notes as the officers each kept a hand firmly on a side of the open binder should it have crossed my mind to attempt to turn the page. No way, this was an AF scoop to be passed on up their chain of command to Washington for kudos. ASA, a rival outfit competing for bureaucratic favor and military appropriations, was entitled to just that one item of information.

My fellow Philco rep and I made our way back north to Frankfurt where I handed in my report at ASA HQ. Mission completed, I eagerly called home long distance to relate the fantastic offer I’d received to stay on in Europe, in Trieste no less, a city of intrigue. My mother, an education hawk, was not impressed and quickly scotched the idea of my secret agent career, saying, ‘Come back here and finish college. Trieste forsaken.



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