Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Farewell Europe, Hello Vietnam

Late summer ’58, my European Cold War tour was drawing to a close. I had secured an ‘early-out’ on my three-year enlistment. That meant getting out of the military three months early to return to college. My adventures on the Continent would soon come to an end.†

Karin, an attractive young German girl whom I had hung out with much of the past year, was not yet due back to school for her last year. She was an only child of divorce – her mother, remarried, lived in Bad Homburg, an upscale suburb of Frankfurt am Main; her father lived up in Hamburg on the north coast of West Germany, a Cold War composite of the American, British, and French post-WWII occupation zones.

Karin proposed a farewell fling before we’d inevitably have to go our separate ways – she soon to university in her homeland, I back to college in the States to pursue my new aspiration of ultimately becoming a professor. Since her father was off in London on business for his bank, she and I would stay at his place. We caught an express train to Hamburg, a city largely destroyed by allied bombing during the war, but rebuilt since and again a flourishing center of sea commerce at the intersection of the North and Baltic seas.

Hamburg was Karin’s second home, and she knew the city and environs well. We spent the first day on the Baltic Sea beach at Travemünde. For the last leg of the trip out to the beach, we rode a rickety two-car trolley-train that clattered along a lengthy spit of land parallel to the sea. The day was sunny, but windy. Obviously German bathers knew how to deal with the elements, for the beach had row upon row of open-ended, wooden cabanas, each with a colorful awning. We rented one to get out of the wind and warm-up after swimming.

The beach at Travemünde

The next day we went down to Hamburg’s great harbor, the second largest in Europe, on the River Elbe, its access to the North Sea.  It was a bustling place with tugs crossing to and fro and freighters from many ports of call. Karin’s cousin was a Merchant Marine officer, and his ship was in port. He welcomed us aboard, and we toured a working ship that plied the world’s trade routes.

Then he took us for a swing around the harbor on a small craft that nosed in and amongst the jetties and ships. Putt-putting amidst hovering ocean-going vessels was akin to exploring mighty canyons. We stood off a safe distance and watched cargo ships loading and off-loading hard goods and grains at the port’s various terminals. Quite fascinating.

The harbor at Port of Hamburg

On my final day in north Germany – Karin would be staying on to see her father on his return from England – we took the train and ferry across the Baltic straits to Denmark for dinner in Copenhagen, an especially festive European city. Returning very late to Hamburg, we picked up my overnight bag and taxied to the main railway station. I was due back at my Frankfurt garrison for ‘separation processing’ – in the Cold War military full discharge came much later after several years in the inactive reserves – and to pick up my travel orders for stateside.

As planned, I caught the last train of the night from Hamburg’s Hauptbahnhof to points south. Standing in the cavernous departure hall on the nearly deserted platform, Karin and I said our fond goodbyes – for me it was Farewell Europe.

Final out-processing from my intelligence outfit, the Army Security Agency (ASA), took place at Agency’s HQ in the I G Farben building where I had worked in a well-guarded, tightly secured classified operation. Summoned to the office of the commandant, I expected a little pro-forma chat on leaving the Agency. I presented myself, saluted the colonel, was put at ease, and then pleasantly surprised when he rose from his desk, a document in hand, and solemnly began to read from it.

It was a special ‘Letter of Commendation’ in which he wrote:

               Upon your departure from ASA Europe, I wish to take
               this opportunity to express my appreciation and
               commend you upon the manner in which you have 
               executed your assigned duties while on duty with this 

              Your willingness to earnestly apply yourself and the
              skillful use of your linguistic talents have contributed
              abundantly to accomplishment of not only the branch
              mission, but also of the entire ASA Europe….

Needless to say I was pleased ASA had noticed, came to attention, gave a sharp salute, and left his office, believing the time had come to hit the road. Not so fast – I was instructed to report to another office before leaving the building for the final time. Locating the office, the legend on the frosted glass door merely bore the letters ‘CIC’ in modest black caps.

The author off-duty, Frankfurt am Main, West Germany, 1958

I had been ‘invited’ to a so-called exit interview by the Counter-Intelligence Corps (CIC), a shadowy branch of the Army charged with preventing treasonous activity by US military personnel, especially those of us bearing secret information that could give aid and comfort to the enemy. With the utmost seriousness, a gruff CIC sergeant (sgt) warned that if I divulged any classified information about my mission, I would face 10 years imprisonment plus a $10,000 fine – serious money in those days.

With that sobering message filed away, I shouldered my duffel bag and began the long return home. While I had arrived in Europe by air so that ASA could get maximum mileage out of me – at the end of my tour I was to depart by slow troopship. My orders took me back up to the North Sea, but this time to Bremerhaven, the US military’s port of embarkation. Ironically, I was retracing the steps of my grandparents who had emigrated from the Tsarist Russian Empire in the late 19th century, making their way to the New World from the very same port to which I was headed.

My ship was waiting. Named the USNS Geiger for a Marine general, it had been acquired by the Navy for Korean War service. The Geiger carried a crew of 200+ and could transport 2000 troops. For this crossing, its complement of passengers was to be an ‘element’ – Army-speak – of the 3rd Armored Division. After its role in WWII under General Patton, the 3rd had gone on to serve for years as a frontline unit in Cold War West Germany facing large Soviet forces across the border in East Germany.

USNS Geiger steaming out of Bremerhaven

I was fine with riding the waves with such a distinguished combat outfit except that I was the sole ASA soldier on the ship’s roster. In berthing arrangements aboard ship, the structure of the 3rd Armor was maintained, meaning that all troopers in a given formation along with their sgts were assigned to a common compartment. Officers were of course bedded down separately above decks and far more comfortably.

As an outlier, I was attached to the unit’s oddball collection of GIs –  soldiers designated to be mustered out of the Army under less than honorable conditions, as well as those slated for ‘Section 8’ discharges, men with psychological problems.

As you can guess, the oddballs along with me were given the least desirable accommodations on the Geiger – down near the ship’s screws with the immense, noisy driveshaft turning the propellers constantly running overhead. I found myself assigned for the return home in a densely packed, hot, humid, and relatively airless space. Uncannily, like my family leaving Russia, I too would be crossing the North Atlantic in steerage.

On our first day at sea, my fellow passengers were already becoming restless, loudly arguing among themselves as some whiled away the time lying in their bunks while others played craps against the bulkhead. There were even a few fights in one of which I glimpsed the flash of a short blade. Underscoring that we were in the butt end of the boat, I noticed when we exited for chow that an armed sentry was posted at the hatch.

I settled into my bunk with a book, figuring it was going to be a trip to forget, but shortly after lunch I was startled to hear my name shouted down the hatch – ‘Sharlet, Sp-5, report topside’. I climbed the two-story high metal ladder, and was met by a sailor who escorted me to the office of the ship’s chaplain. The chaplain, a Baptist minister and naval officer, invited me to take a seat and explained that he had two things he wanted me to do during the journey.

I was puzzled that he even knew of my existence until he gestured to the file on his desk, my file, from which he had apparently learned that I was the only detached GI aboard with some college education who was also Jewish. The two tasks were that I was to edit the ship’s daily paper for the troops, and with a Jewish holiday coming up – to preside over religious services for Jewish troops who wished to observe the occasion.

I had no problem with editing a paper, but wasn’t sure about my other assignment. I didn’t have much of a religious education, but I did my best. The chaplain had given me an office on the bright, sunny promenade deck and even assigned me an assistant, a company clerk from the 3rd Armor with office skills.

Every morning after chow I’d head to ‘my office’ and set up for the day’s paper. Then, at a designated time, I’d go up to the captain’s bridge to meet with the ship’s exec or executive officer (XO), a starchy type. He’d tear several sheets off the ship’s teletype, glance through them, and hand them to me as the source for the latest news. If he passed the material on without comment, I was free to use any of it in the day’s paper, a single legal-size sheet mimeographed on both sides.

However, if the XO drew my attention to a section of the teletype he had bracketed, that meant it was censored and could not be shared with the troops. That happened on two occasions – the first was a brief report on an aerial dogfight between Chinese Nationalist and Red Chinese fighter jets over the Taiwan Straits.

The other censored story concerned US airborne troops in Lebanon. President Eisenhower had ordered them ashore to combat ‘communist subversion’. I naturally followed the XO’s orders, musing to myself that, although I was soon putting the military behind me, the Cold War remained alive and well.

We published that day’s paper, and I gave the Middle East no further thought. Usually my assistant and I would hang out in our comfortable office the rest of the day, not returning to our billets until after evening chow. That afternoon was an especially pleasant one with a soft ocean breeze and just a light chop on the water. I was standing at the rail of the promenade deck taking the sun when suddenly I noticed that the ship had begun a 180-degree turn mid-ocean.

As the Geiger took a new heading back toward Europe, I thought, so long fall semester back in college. I figured it had just been decided on high that the 3rd Armor Division was needed as reinforcement in Lebanon, and I was along for the ride, stuck with them. But the ship continued turning, now making a full circle in the Atlantic. Puzzled, I shouted down to sailors on the deck below wearing big, blocky life jackets and asked what was going on.

Fate smiled on my academic plans as I learned the whole thing was a routine exercise, a simulated man overboard drill. We steamed on to our destination and my future. Only years later did I learn that just two months earlier it was the Geiger that had transported the paratroopers from US European bases to the shores of Tripoli.

After what seemed an interminable crossing, we sighted the outer banks of New York Harbor, and then the Statue of Liberty came into view. Though I hadn’t been overseas that long and was certainly never in harm’s way, I felt a little emotional tug at seeing the Lady of the Harbor.

Along with me, my French Citroën stowed below decks, and the 3rd Armor, the Geiger pulled into the Brooklyn Navy Yard docks on schedule. We disembarked, Navy longshoremen off-loaded my car, and I was once again a civilian. I headed north toward Boston and my junior year in college. ‘My war’ was over, but brother Jeff Sharlet’s lay ahead on the far side of the world. For him, it would be a reluctant Hello Vietnam.
† For those adventures from college to Cold War Europe, see previous posts:

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