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.
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 the day after restrictions were lifted.