A few months ago,
Berliner Phil proposed that I interview our own Mario Perez.
The purpose being to recount Mario’s most notable
achievement at the 6912th during his tour from March, 1960
to September, 1963. Said notable achievement being;
determining the need for, and setting up the “remote
site” at Marienfelde. In those days, he was Capt. Mario
I gladly accepted the job
since my time in Berlin coincided with Mario’s. My own
link to Marienfelde was to be among the several drivers who
made deliveries to the site as it was developing. I drove
one of those old VW half pickups. Had some hairy adventures
in the snow, winding my way to the top of that old rubble
heap. The hill consists of rubble that was gathered during
the clean-up of Berlin after WWll.
Some of the specifics of this story were, once, classified.
The result is some less than specific language. There
are pertinent details that are veiled behind inexact wording
due to their probable, continuing sensitive nature. I wish
it weren’t so, because it detracts from the bold adventure
of the tale. You were there, so I leave it to your
imagination and memory to flesh out any vague references.
I’ve done my best to tell Mario’s story as completely as
possible while avoiding potential pitfalls.
At the reunion in San
Antonio, Mario was inducted into the BIA Hall of Fame. He
was ops boss when the Wall went up, when the tanks faced off
at the Wall, and during the Cuban Missile Crisis. His
Marienfelde coup, alone, would have sufficed to get him into
the Hall of Fame. But with all that history going on, he
managed a few other chores as well. To understand
Marienfelde’s genesis, one needs a sense of the man,
Mario Perez, aka The Mad Mexican. His was a daring and risky
enterprise that had an enormous impact on the history of the
6912th and its mission.
Mario’s military career
began when, driven by a desire to serve, he dropped out of
high school in 1943 at age seventeen, forged his parents’
signatures, and joined the Navy. He served during WWll in
the Pacific. He came out of the Navy in 1946. Did two years
at Fullerton JC to catch up on his college entrance
requirements. On to Loyola University. He joined the Air
Force ROTC because it paid him 28 bucks a month while in
college. He graduated in 1951 with a BA in business
administration, a commission as a 2nd Louie, and orders to
report to March AFB and the 98th Bomb Wing. The 98th was
deployed to Yokota, Japan. From there, the Air Force sent
him to Korea with the First Marine Division. He did two
tours in Viet Nam; 1969 and 1971. In there, somewhere, we
had him in Berlin for awhile. In time, he went on to retire,
in 1972, as a Lt. Col. He got into politics and, currently,
serves on the school board in his home town of Moreno Valley
in southern California.
Over time, I recorded
several phone conversations with Mario. And that’s
what they were. Conversations. What follows is not in the
usual interview construct. Rather, it is in narrative form,
with quotes where appropriate. Time and memories being what
they are, there may be some errors in chronology or
Ah, well. So be it. On to
It was the early ’60s - -
- The Soviets were harassing our corridor flights, accusing
us of violating altitude restrictions, and claiming that our
aircraft were straying out of the corridors. Soviet fighter
aircraft came dangerously close to some of our aircraft. All
of this resulting in the airport at Tempelhof being
modernized with more and more high powered navigational aids
for corridor flights. The proximity of all that equipment to
Head Building East created enough interference to, in
Mario’s words, “. . . almost amount to jamming of our
Word had come down from
NSA (National Security Agency, Ft. Meade, Maryland)
that the 6912th was going to lose the largest part of its
mission because we were recovering less and less critical
information. The plan was to send people to Hof to be
trained to take over that part of the 12th’s mission.
historical aside, here. While all this was going on, the
Berlin Wall was started on August 13, 1961. Mario recalls
the date because it’s his birthday.<<<
It was in the fall
of 1961 that Sgt. Al Roncari, who was in charge of analysis,
went to Mario with his concerns about that crucial part of
our mission being in jeopardy.
After Roncari’s report of
his concerns, Mario went to Maj. Hugh McCall, our CO at the
time. He told McCall that he wanted to conduct a
“hearability study around Berlin.”
McCall’s response was,
“Oh, shit. No wonder they call you the Mad Mexican.” “You’re
on your own. I haven’t heard a thing.” To which Mario
replied, “Oh, shit.” He had hoped for McCall’s overt support
in this adventure. The reality was that McCall’s tacit
backing was there from the gitgo.
Mario had been McCall’s
ops officer at the 6939th in Trabzon, Turkey. Their
relationship was firmly established there, and that’s how
McCall came to bring Mario to Berlin.
Without further ado,
Mario rounded up his assistant ops officer, Lt. Paul Nikulla,
employed a little GI chicanery and snagged a weapons carrier
under the guise of needing a vehicle to “pick up some
supplies.” He added a power system (batteries or generator,
he doesn’t recall), two receivers, “a Rube Goldberg VHF
antenna system,” a couple dash ones, and they hit the
As they wandered thither
and yon, Mario spotted “a mountain off in the distance.” In
typical adventurer spirit, he decided to check it out. Lt.
Nikulla was not keen on the idea due to the “mountain’s”
proximity to the border. But, off they went. The audio
reception was outstanding.
After the recovered
material had been analyzed, Roncari reported that there was
information that had never been heard at T‘hof.
During the initial foray
into the Marienfelde experiment, there was considerable
excitement at the 6901st at Zweibruecken and NSA about the
quality of Mario’s product. There were glowing words for his
His only problem was that
the operation was, as he said, “illegal”. The pretense was,
and had to be, that all the traffic, that his crew
collected, was from Head Building East. A necessity to cover
the reality of what he was doing. Col. McCall weighed in and
went to the base commander to borrow a van to “store some
things.” The van ended up on top of the rubble heap that was
Marienfelde and became the beginning of our “remote site”.
Finally, the folks at the
6901st and on up the line wanted more. They wanted to
know how the deed had been done.
Mario said to tell them
the truth, that it had come from a hill on the outskirts of
Berlin. As he says, “That’s when the shit hit the fan.”
Maj. McCall got messages
from the 6901st and Wing Commander Col. Erickson in
Frankfurt, wanting to know about this “violation of
security.” They wanted to know who had authorized the
operation. Keep in mind that there were four GI’s with the
highest security clearances, wandering around town in an
unsecure vehicle handling highly classified material.
Orders came down from on
high that he was to cease his illegal operation, in spite of
the good stuff that he was intercepting. He didn’t. I heard
a hint of pride in Mario’s admission that he disobeyed those
orders. He did so based on his conviction that he was onto a
good thing. Mario recalls that a number of intel
firsts came from Marienfelde.
The wrath of Hades and
senior officers was to be visited upon Mario for his sins.
He was to be “fired” for disobeying orders. His clearance
was to be pulled and he was to be shipped out of Berlin back
to Zweibruecken to the logistics department. A secret
investigation against Mario had been started.
When Maj. McCall heard
about the investigation, he assured Mario that, “If they
fire you, they’ll have to fire me.” McCall then went to
Frankfurt to see Col. Erickson to try to save the situation.
It came out that Erickson’s ops officer was doing the deal
against Mario behind Erickson’s back.
As was bound to happen,
the word got back to Gen. Klocko, USAFSS commander at
Kelly AFB in San Antonio. Mario had briefed the general a
couple times and Klocko remembered him. With the
intercession of the general and NSA, Mario’s misdeeds were
deemed worthy and he was back in the saddle.
Time passed. The 6912th’s
voice mission had been saved and the Marienfelde site was
developing into what, Mario said, was to become the,
“outstanding intelligence collection site in Europe.”
Mario also told me that
during all the hoorah, as the wall was progressing, that we
were sending intel directly to the White House.
As things got hotter, the
12th was given instructions on when and how to use thermal
devices to destroy; first, comm equipment, then, receiver
equipment. McCall was, also, notified that when no more
transmissions were being received from the 6912th,
that, “. . . we will consider your situation
unviable.” Such a comforting thought.
As you know, it all more
or less settled out and we got back to ‘normal’. That is,
until the Cuban Missile Crisis arose. There’s always
When Mario left Berlin in
’63, he requested Det. 1 at Cudjoe Key, Florida (near
Key West). He was CO there and continued to monitor the
Cuban situation. Being Mexican, it was a slam dunk for him,
since he is equally comfortable in English or Spanish.
From Florida, it was on
to Kelly, Goodfellow, Viet Nam (twice), and finally, in
1972, at Mrs. Perez’s urging, Mario retired from the
military and began his current political career.
Mario says that in all
his experience during his career in the USAFSS, that the
6912th had the best morale of all his stations.
I believe it! We
all know that Berlin was some kinda town!
Mario asked me to include
the following: “I say, with deep humility and lasting
gratitude, that this chapter of my life could not have been
written without the wholehearted commitment, to our mission,
of every single person involved. With great recognition to
the men who were ready to give their lives when we believed
that the Russians would cross the line. I have never doubted
that every man would have stood his ground. God bless you
He was also quite clear
that this chapter is only part of the story of Marienfelde
and the 6912th Radio Squadron Mobile. He wants that the
story shall be continued by those who came after.
Indulge me, bitte, for a
personal observation. After forty-plus years, I’m still in
genuine awe at having been in the middle of, and
participating in, such astounding world altering events. I
daresay many of you share that sentiment. I’ve never quite
found the words to express that part of me. But, if you were
there, you know. VK
Mario and I are going to
get together for a couple beers when we hit Florida. Y’all
come an’ join us.
My thanks to Berliner
Phil, aka Phil Adams, for the idea and many boosts when I
needed them. Also to Paul Nikulla for responding to my
emails asking for the aid of his memory. Most of all,
my thanks to Mario Perez for allowing me to quiz him for
hours on the phone. If any of the facts are garbled .
. . time and memory, memory and time.
Lt. Col. Perez, your
grace and good humor made this a most pleasant exercise.
Gracias y vaya con Dios, mi Amigo.
Victor Keithley (61-63)