Memories of the Berlin Wall - I Was Held at Gun Point!

Real Estate Broker/Owner with Venture Realty International

Twenty years ago today, marked the end of the Berlin Wall.  Of my memories of the wall, the most poignant is the one of a day when the East Germans held me at gunpoint.  It is a horrible feeling to look at West Berlin and freedom only a matter of yards away and to realize that it might as well be a million miles away.  With three or more machine gunners and a bunch of cameramen covering your every move you realize what the loss of freedom means.

Checkpoint Charlie - Berlin Wall

Berlin was an occupied city and divided by the four allied powers, the US, the British, the French and the Soviet Union.  The three western powers controlled what was referred to as West Berlin and the Russians controlled East Berlin.  The Russians gave authority to the East Germans, but the western powers refused to recognize East German authority and insisted that anything to do with us would be handled by the Russians.  When we went to East Berlin we had to go through either the walk-up gate or the drive through gate at Checkpoint Charlie.

One cold February day, several of us from my army unit walked into East Berlin.  I was wearing a lightweight summer uniform with only my name, my unit and US Army -- no rank or medals.  Over it I wore a light army raincoat which looked much like the civilian ones in the East.  I spent the day sightseeing, shopping and having a great lunch.  I was having such a great time that when my friends got tired, I insisted on staying as they left.  Hours later I walked up to Checkpoint Charlie (from the Eastern side) and was ready to cross into the West.  An East German border guard stepped out of the guardhouse and told me to halt.  I answered, in German that I was an American and opened the raincoat to show my uniform.  He said, "You are not an American. You are not in uniform.  You do not have a hat."  I reached in the coat pocket for the hat and it was gone.  I explained again, politely in German, that I must have lost it, but certainly he could see the rest of the uniform.  He demanded an ID.  I told him that I could not show it to him; please get me a Russian officer. 

By this time, I could see that the walk through gate was closed and they had moved in several border guards with machine guns to cover me.  The first border guard told me to wait and he would get an officer.  Quite some time passed and he came back with a higher ranking German.  Again I asked for a Russian officer.  This went on several times and I kept getting higher ranking Germans.  Several cameramen arrived and were filming from several areas.  Each higher ranking German tried to get me to show an ID and I refused each time. After about the third German, I conveniently stopped speaking German and also requested a translator.  About the time the translator and the commander of the guards for the checkpoint arrived, a US Air Force Sergeant drove up on his way out the drive through gate.  I asked him to get me some help.

Several minutes later, a US Military Policeman walked through and said he was there to help.  He said not to worry, the worst they had ever done was hold someone for a few months.  Then he said,"Look, the gate is still open, see if you can just calmly walk out.  I started for the gate.  The first German border  guard dashed and grabbed me.  We scuffled and then I could hear the bolts on the machine guns as they loaded rounds.  The MP screamed, "Stop, I think they are ready to kill you."  I stopped.

The MP then asked for a Russian officer.  We waited.   I was cold, miserable and worried.  After a long time, the first border guard came out and asked the MP, "Are you certain he is an American?"  The MP said, "Yes, he is an American soldier.  The German then said, "OK, take him, but if he is not an American it is your fault.

He stepped back inside the guard post and suddenly I could hear a loud hum as an electromagnet unlocked the gate.  We then walked through to freedom.

That was over 20 years ago and I can still hear the hum of that gate unlatching.


Checkpoint Charlie - Berlin Wall

Checkpoint Charlie the day after restrictions were lifted.

Comments (15)

Lottie Kendall
Compass - San Francisco, CA
Helping make your real estate dreams a reality

Oh, Gary--I'm sure that will stay fresh your entire life. I can only imagine

Nov 09, 2009 09:06 AM
Gary Coles (International Referrals)
Venture Realty International - Las Vegas, NV
Latin America Real Estate

Lottie,  It is something that I will always vividly remember.  Thanks for stopping by.

Nov 09, 2009 09:20 AM
1~Judi Barrett
Integrity Real Estate Services 118 SE AVE N, Idabel, OK 74745 - Idabel, OK
BS Ed, Integrity Real Estate Services -IDABEL OK

A day that you will NEVER forget.  You told the story so well, I was right there. 

A great write and a great read, Gary.

Thank you.

Got any more stories?

Nov 09, 2009 11:22 PM
Gary Coles (International Referrals)
Venture Realty International - Las Vegas, NV
Latin America Real Estate

Judi,  Thank you.  It was the first time I have tried to write one of these stories about my life. I am thrilled that you enjoyed it.  I do have a few more and now I will start writing some of the others.  Maybe set a goal of one each month.

Nov 10, 2009 01:48 PM
Sonja Patterson
Keller Williams - BV - College Station, TX
Texas Monthly 5-Star Realtor Recipient for the Hou

Exciting story, Gary!! :)  Glad it had a happy ending and weren't you thankful for the MP coming along at the right time?? Whew!!

Nov 10, 2009 01:54 PM
Gary Coles (International Referrals)
Venture Realty International - Las Vegas, NV
Latin America Real Estate

Sonja, I know I was glad for the "happy ending", although there actually was a little more before it completely ended.  I was debriefedby agency after agency for the next two days to make certain that I had done nothing wrong and to be certain that I had not inadvertently recognized the East Germans.  The real happy ending was when the MPs, the CIA, and about a dozen other intelligence and police agencies got through with me -- and decided I was a good guy after all.

Nov 10, 2009 02:03 PM
Jon Zolsky, Daytona Beach, FL
Daytona Condo Realty, 386-405-4408 - Daytona Beach, FL
Buy Daytona condos for heavenly good prices


That was quite an experience. But you were lucky you WERE AMERICAN. Let's only imagine those who were not.

Nov 10, 2009 02:27 PM
Gary Coles (International Referrals)
Venture Realty International - Las Vegas, NV
Latin America Real Estate

Jon,  I have always been proud and felt lucky to be an American -- I've also had many friends and associates from all over the world,  I've heard their stories, looked in their eyes and seen their fears and their joys.  I've partied with high ranking officers and officials in Moscow;  I've slept in a tent in the Sahara; I've gone to the hospital to support a young girl who lost her leg trying to make it to America, the land of her dreams; I've helped find a home for a political refugee; I've been shot at; I've been attacked.  All this has made me realize the great things about America  --- it also gets me upset about some of the bad points that we do have.  I try to empathize and imagine what others are thinking.  My experiences have given me a taste, but as you said there is no way, I can completely understand as thoroughly as someone who has live their entire life where they are not as lucky.

Nov 10, 2009 02:54 PM
Debe Maxwell, CRS | The Maxwell House Group | RE/MAX Executive | (704) 491-3310 - Charlotte, NC
The right Charlotte REALTOR!

OH, my, now this is definitely a personal memory for you!  The sound of that gate latching behind you must be a reminder to you that you were, indeed, lucky to be an American.

Nov 10, 2009 04:00 PM
Gary Coles (International Referrals)
Venture Realty International - Las Vegas, NV
Latin America Real Estate

Debe,  It is quite the memory.  It helps me realize how fortunate we are to live here.  And how so many others in the world  are unfortunate just because of where they are born.

Nov 10, 2009 04:33 PM
Silvia Dukes PA, Broker Associate, CRS, CIPS, SRES
Tropic Shores Realty - Ich spreche Deutsch! - Spring Hill, FL
Florida Waterfront and Country Club Living

Gary, that is quite a story and it must have been quite a scare.  Good thing you kept your calm through this.  S.

Nov 10, 2009 10:56 PM
Kevin Robinson
Twin Falls, ID
Fractional Developer

Very nice post Gary. And just think, smewhere in this world, there are still people trying to escape communism.

Nov 11, 2009 12:04 AM
Gary Coles (International Referrals)
Venture Realty International - Las Vegas, NV
Latin America Real Estate

Silvia,  It was scary, although at the time I think I was the most worried about doing something wrong or embarrassing the US.  I had been through an orientation almost a year earlier and was told many things that we could or could not do around Berlin.  And as I stood there alone in the cold, I kept thinking, "Now, what were all those rules and regulations they told me?" 

Kevin,  Thank you.  Yes, I've met some who have escaped communism and also from other horrible regimes.  There are also so many who are also trying to escape poverty and hunger. One organization that I think is very deserving is Children International.  I am currently sponsoring a little girl from Guatemala.

Nov 11, 2009 05:42 AM
C. Bartch
Newark, OH

Wow Gary, hearing those bolts on the machines guns as they loaded their rounds would have had to been a moment in life you never forget! Quite a well told slice of your life you've shared here.

Nov 13, 2009 12:14 AM
Gary Coles (International Referrals)
Venture Realty International - Las Vegas, NV
Latin America Real Estate

Cynthia,  Thanks for stopping by.  Your comment is great encouragement for me to keep writing.  As I told Judi, I will start telling some of the interesting things and places that I have encountered in my life.

Nov 13, 2009 02:57 AM