A Different Path to the 6912th

by Kurt Kuhl (57-60)

From the May 2008 Newsletter

A recent article in the Atlanta Journal Constitution indicated that Tempelhof Airport was to be closed.  Another chapter in my life was ending.  At about the same time there was a TV program depicting how Berlin is today.  With these two stories in mind, I began to think back of the great duty station we all had in Berlin - the German KPs, the excellent food, the facility in which we were quartered, the Silverwings NCO Club with it’s nickel beer nights and monthly shows, the grilled cheese sandwiches and fries we were able to get in the evening at the Club’s back window, the pretty German girls waiting to meet us at the gate for a date.  The beer served in those days was Loewenbraeu and Becks, as well as the local Schultheiss and Berliner Kindl.  Those times were 50 years ago.  Where has all the time gone?

I started a dialog with Phil Adams about these things and my path to becoming a German linguist which was different than most. He thought it might be interesting for me to collect my thoughts and put them together for a newsletter.  I was reflecting on the long, lucky and curvy road it took for me to taste my first Curry Wurst.

A Little History
First I have to explain how I learned to speak German. Both of my parents were born in Germany. My father was born just north of Hamburg and came to the United States in 1923 when he was 16.  He started out working as a dishwasher at $9.00 a week.  He later became a home-delivery breadman and in 1941 became a milkman for Queens Farm Dairy.  My mother was born in a small farming town between Bremerhaven and Bremen and came to the US in 1928 when she was 18.  Her initial employment was as a domestic maid.  My parents met in Brooklyn, NY, got married in 1933 and I am their first child.

In 1939, after saving sufficient money, my parents were able to schedule a trip back to Germany.  My mother’s brother was planning a wedding on September 15th, 1939.  They booked the trip to Germany to leave the US on the last day of July, 1939 with a scheduled return on September 20th, 1939.  The dates are important because on September 1st, Herr Hitler decided to march into Poland and our return ship was conscripted into the German Navy.  We had no passage to come back to the US.  Additionally, bank assets were frozen by the Reich.  We had a problem without easy solutions.

Fortunately, my parents had become American citizens years before our departure and had access to dollars.  The people who might be able to help wanted dollars, not Reichsmarks.  My Dad vigorously searched for a way home.  Among other things, the US Embassy in Hamburg recommended that we try to depart from other countries such as Denmark.  We were finally able to book passage on a Holland-America Line ship, the Pennland, sailing from Antwerp to New York.  My mother would tell of the stressful trip just to get from Bremen to the port.  It took 5 train changes and untold document checks.  In late March 1940, we sailed from Holland, 6 months later than expected, but lucky to be among the 675 passengers who were able to make it out of there.

As a footnote, that might have been the last civilian sailing for the Pennland.  This grand 2-stacker ship was first named the Pittsburgh and had sailed the Europe-New York run for many years under several owners and both names.  One month after our departure, the Pennland was chartered by British Ministry of War-Transport as a troop ship.  One year after that, she was bombed and sunk in the Gulf of Athens while serving in that role.

During our extended stay in Germany, I was in the 2-3 age range, a time when children first learn to speak.  German became my first language.

When we got back to the US, we experienced some personal difficulty because of our German heritage and due to the extremely tense world situation. We didn’t have it as difficult as Japanese-Americans though.  I had to learn to speak English upon our return in order to be able to go to school.  This I did, but initially it was with a heavy accent.

In 1955, I enlisted in the Air Force after High School to learn a trade.  My High School years were not as good as they could or should have been from a scholastic standpoint.  Consequently, my parents and I often had stirring discussions as to what I would become.  Was I just to be a milkman like my father and nothing more?  Some of those discussions became heated – very heated.  I’d show them.  Bright eyed and bushy tailed, my best friend and I enlisted in the Air Force.  We were sworn in on Oct 11th, 1955, at the old Whitehall Street Station in lower New York and bused off to Sampson Air Force Base in Geneva, New York.  It took me no more than 12 hours to realize that the SOS they fed us at Sampson didn’t really taste as good as Mom’s cooking and life was easier having those heated discussions with my parents.  But, there we were and there we would stay.  I took the prescribed tests they gave us at Sampson and was qualified for a number of Tech Schools.  My choices were Air Traffic Controller and a few others that had to do with flying.

Hunter AFB
To my disappointment, no Tech Schools were open because the Air Force was readjusting their training programs.  Because this was post Korean War, the Air Force was in a reduction (RIP) mode but still had to maintain an operational force with skills distributed appropriately.  Many of my fellow flight members got direct duty assignment at various SAC bases in the 2nd AF in the Southern states of the US.  They were handed broom sticks, told they were Air Policemen and ordered to guard B-47’s parked on the tarmac.  I felt lucky to be sent as a Direct Duty Statistical Specialist, AFSC 68010, with on-the-job training to Hunter Air Force Base in Savannah, Georgia.  I attended several training or instructional sessions at Hunter and at Barksdale AFB in Louisiana.  The sessions generally focused on “Personnel Accounting”.   I achieved my Stat Clerk/Specialist rating, AFSC 68150.  One of my tasks was transposing Morning Reports into tabulating machine data.   The Morning Reports included rank, duty status, career field, skill level and the like, and had to balance with all the transactions taking place during the month.  The monthly balancing act always resulted in a tedious “all-nighter”.  The work supported proper management of the force and the ongoing force reduction but wasn’t the exciting field I had sought.

While at Hunter, I learned that the Air Force was looking for German linguists.  The service apparently didn’t want to open a German Language school for the few German Linguists they needed.  I was asked to take a German language test.  The results indicated my German was adequate for the task.  My scores were pretty much like those who learn a language by being immersed in it – my understanding was fluent, my reading was less strong and my writing was a little less than that.  The testing was followed with directions for me to complete paperwork requesting a Special Assignment where the language would be used.  The testing and application were completed in August of 1956.  I was then contacted several times requesting added background information concerning my parents’ immigration to the US.  While I was planning a Christmas leave that year, I got orders to report to the processing center at Manhattan Beach, NY for re-assignment to the 6910th RSM in Germany in February, 1957.  The Christmas leave was cancelled.  What I remember about the transfer to Germany was going to McGuire AFB, waiting for a plane, sitting backwards in the C-118 and landing in Prestwick, Scotland many hours later for refueling and…eating eggs with green yokes for breakfast.  The latter cannot be forgotten.

Sembach - Gruenstadt
Upon arrival in Frankfurt, I went to the processing center downtown for transfer to Sembach Air Base.  When I arrived at Sembach late in the evening from Frankfurt, there was no available place for me to sleep.  I’d been “on the road” for roughly 36 hours and did need a bed.  Because the First Sergeant was off base for the weekend, they let me sleep in his bed until Monday. After clearing the base and tending to affairs there, I took my first bus ride to the Gruenstadt site where our operations were located.  There they learned I was familiar with Morning Reports from my duties at Hunter.

They had an impending problem preparing their Morning Reports and someone at Gruenstadt decided to keep me on-site for awhile because their regular Morning Report Clerk, Airman Richard Graham, was to go on a 30 day leave in the summer of 1957. Mom and Dad Graham, along with his brother Otto Graham, were planning to come to Germany.  Brother Otto was the great quarterback of the Cleveland Browns football team.  My superiors kept telling me that my clearance had not come through yet and that was why I had to stay at Sembach.  Later actions indicated that this was not altogether factual, or stated more clearly, it was BS.

To understand the lay of the land, Sembach was a good-sized air base with all the related groups and equipment to support flight operations.  Gruenstadt was 20 or so miles away, in hilly country.  We were billeted at Sembach and worked at Gruenstadt.  We got there by travelling the autobahn, then turning off and using a secondary road through vineyards to the protected, secure site.  It was on top of a mountain and included a small building or two with trailers backed up to them.  Upon approaching the general area of the site, there was a large “Do Not Enter” sign printed in all the right languages.

One of the options some of us had was to travel to Gruenstadt and back by car.  All we had to do was pay our colleagues who had a car a few dollars each month.  It was such an improvement to ride with them rather than the slow, hard-riding bus each trip.  It cost a dollar a week, which was a bargain and took half the travel time.  We rode in a couple of full-sized Fords, a ’53 and a ’55 model.  I remember us racing against one another along the Autobahn sometimes going over 100 mph.  In the 50’s, most German vehicles were very slow and the Germans we were passing on the Autobahn likely thought we were nuts.  Maybe we were.  But one day, as we were on our way to work, we spotted a Soviet Mission car turning onto the road through the vineyards.  The tension level increased in our car.  What should we do if the Soviets proceeded to our site?  We decided that we would ram the Soviet car if it went beyond the “Do Not Enter” sign thereby gaining time for our own people to take charge.  The tension could be felt.  The Soviet Mission car stopped just before the sign and finally turned around and left.  Whew!  Maybe we weren’t nuts.  Maybe we were just spirited US Airmen with a job to do.

An event that remains fixed in my memory occurred on Good Friday.  We were at the Gruenstadt site and decided to drive down the hill to a local Gasthaus for a meal of Schnitzel instead of the on-site fare.  The Frau of the Haus explained that one did not eat veal on Good Friday.  We explained that we wanted Schnitzel anyway as our minds were made up and we were already salivating.  What she served us a bit later was schnitzelized fish with a hot mustard sauce topping it.  Talk about a taste bud revolt!  Some of life’s lessons are distasteful (pun intended) and not readily forgotten.

While at Sembach, I kept contact with my friends in my office at Hunter and mentioned to them that I had traveled several thousand miles to get away from Morning Reports and here I was back at it.

Boy, did the Sheise hit the fan and the group received an urgent TWX from SAC, that if they weren’t planning to use me in my Special Assignment, I was to be reassigned back to Hunter immediately.  SAC was the boss in those days.  Someone in the SS had egg on their face.  Gruenstadt had to make other plans to cover the Morning Reports and they weren’t too thrilled with me.  Frankly, I didn’t care and was glad to leave as the First Sergeant and I were not the best of friends.  I could, however, go back to that Gasthaus in Enkenbach near the Autobahn to have some of their Schnitzel and Bier.  Many times, my friends and I played hearts there while waiting for our meal.  The cost of the Schnitzel was 3 DMarks (75 cents) and their home fries rounded out a fine meal.  One can’t have too much Schnitzel.  Enough of that!  The best thing for me was to get out of there as soon as possible.

The next day they had me on a flight to Tempelhof, and I finally started my new career as a 20330 - German linguist.  It was a ‘long way round’ to get there, but it was interesting.  And, finally in May, 1957, I got my first Curry Wurst for 40 or 50 Pfennig’s from one of those street vendors near Tempelhof.  A Curry Wurst or two and a Berliner Weisse is one of the best combinations one could have to satisfy all of life’s many pangs.

It didn’t take long for me to find out that the ball team needed another pitcher in the worst way.  Having previously been a pretty good pitcher in some stiff competition, I tried out - in cold weather, without warming up.  The shoulder went bad immediately thus ending my baseball career in Berlin before it got started.  There would be no Kuhl bust in Cooperstown.

I may have been one of the first Airmen to get a Top Secret clearance with foreign born parents.  I know many others were refused a clearance because of similar situations. To this day, I don’t know if someone made a mistake.

At that time, the East Germans were not at the top of the Soviet food chain.  They tended to only work days - nice days.  Because  of  that,  my  specialty  was  not as pressured as some of the others when we were on eves or mids.  One of the extra duties I was assigned led to my legacy for Airmen who would follow.  I was appointed to serve on First Sergeant Jung’s Airman’s Committee.  Because we were shift workers, we had people sleeping at all hours of the day.  Nothing unusual about that, but we had those huge Tempelhof windows and no proper way to cut the light during the day.  One of my assignments from Sgt Jung was to “find a guy to make curtains”.  Everyone appreciated those light blue curtains.  They weren’t expensive, but they were built to last.

While in Berlin, my Air Force career was diverted a time or two.  In the summer of 1959, many of us had found a nice Fraulein and wanted to get married.  I was one of them.  I remember some of my marriage interviews.  Our Commander, Capt. Bennett’s first question was, “Is your girlfriend pregnant?”  A lot of us had put in our papers to get married that year.  Because of security concerns, the marriages caused a drain on the organization and we all experienced difficulties and delays before approval.

Most GIs with clearances who married a German National were transferred out of Berlin once they were debriefed.  Again, my situation took a different turn.  Again, I was lucky.  After the debriefing, I had to stand guard duty on the 6th floor as it was being rebuilt, and for a short while I was the mail clerk.  The 6th floor was completely redone and among other things, we didn’t want any little listening devices planted in the walls, hence the guard duty.  Because my enlistment only had 7 months remaining, the Detachment was directed to transfer me to the 7350th ABG at Tempelhof.  At the same time, Det. 1 was to become the 6912th Radio Squadron Mobile and needed quite a few additional AFSC’s to fill slots in the new squadron. Because I had been a 68150 (Stat Specialist) at Hunter and they needed a 67150 (Budget Specialist) in the 6912th, I became the Squadron Budget Clerk.

Fortunately, I was assigned to MSgt Davis in Supply until my impending transfer home and discharge in early 1960.  I enjoyed working with Sgt Davis.  We received a commendation from General Klocko at the 6900th Security Wing for properly spending all of our fiscal year funds in support of the unit’s growing position.  If I remember correctly, we had about 60 cents left at the end of the year.  Subsequently we prepared a new budget for the next fiscal year for the 6912th.  The organization had no history and we had to play it all by ear as best we could.  I recall talking to a dedicated TSgt named McDermitt, who was managing the rebuild of the 6th floor and the temporary movement of Operations to the 5th floor, all the while under a great deal of pressure.  When asked about how many of “this, that and the other” he was going to need in the next year, like us, he could only guess.  But, we got ‘er done.

At this time in my tenure, I also met a fine new Second Lt., Paul Nikulla, who had the shiniest gold bars you have ever seen.  We travelled together to Frankfurt a time or two for budget reviews.  One time we shared a sleeper compartment on the Duty Train out to the Zone.  I was pleased, and not surprised, to see that he was inducted into the BIA Hall of Fame and that he had a distinguished career in Berlin at the 6912th and later at the US Mission.

One of the downers of being in the USAFSS back then was promotion.  It was poor to almost non-existent. While in SAC, I made A/2C in 6 months and was about to make A/1C just about the time I received my orders to go to Germany.  Time in grade for Airman First at the 6910th was about 18 months. When I reached 17 months, we only received one A/1C for that promotion cycle at Det. 1.  Time in grade was continually being extended with each cycle as only a few were being promoted.  Again, talking about good fortune - because I had to extend my enlistment 5 months before I could accept my Special Assignment to Germany and when I had 39 months time in grade, I finally made A/1C.  For this I owe many thanks to Sgt Davis.  Because I had more than 4 years active service, I could get my wife, a car, and 2000 lbs of household goods back to the US at Air Force expense.  I proceeded to get my wife a non-quota visa to enter the US.  The visa was valid only for 4 months through April 1960.  In January 1960, because there was no scheduled replacement for me as a Budget Specialist, the then Commander, Major W.W. Gentry along with Sgt Davis asked me to extend my enlistment.

I told them I would be glad to do so with the condition that they get my wife’s visa extended.  Unfortunately, it was not possible. On Feb 1st, 1960, my wife and I took the train from the station at Lichterfelder West to Frankfurt/Rhein Main AFB for return to the US.  On Feb 5th, I received my separation from active duty.  At separation, I was told that if I didn’t re-enlist right then, I would have to wait 91 days to do so and would lose one stripe.  No way was I thinking about that and losing a stripe which took 39 months to get, so off into the other world I went.  I had joined the Air Force to learn a trade which didn’t really happen.  I couldn’t see how to use my German to get a job and no one knew what a Stat/Budget Specialist was.  On the plus side, I was a little wiser, more mature and ready to tackle whatever came before me.

While working a number of jobs in the manufacturing sector, I pursued college courses at night and garnered a couple of Associate degrees in Technology and Management and a Bachelors degree in Electrical Engineering.  I served as Director of North American sales for a high-tech electronics firm and was hired by another technology firm to setup and grow their business in Europe.  During that last employment, I was boarding a plane every other Saturday for Europe.

Eleonore and I are now retired and live happily just north of Atlanta.  Eleonore is also of German heritage and was born not far from Leipzig.  “Living the good life”, I am able to take a moment to reflect on that long, lucky and curvy road to get to and stay in Berlin.  The only negative thing I could say about my tour of duty there was when I had burn detail or guard duty.  Neither job fit my style and still doesn’t.  I have so many positive memories from that period of my life.  I attended 2 reunions of mostly Detachment personnel and it was great to see everybody again.

My tour was before the Wall was built and the 6912th wasn’t as large as in later years. When I read the BIA newsletters and see how the activity grew and how the group had expanded to other locations, I am amazed.  From my time I recall other stories or events.  I remember how we walked up to the curb at Checkpoint Charlie and stared at the East German guards.  I recall that the main hall of what was to be the Tempelhof Civilian Air Terminal was still full of unused bags of construction cement and that the plank walkway on the roof of the hangers was completed in order that we could walk to work up there.  I remember the good times we had bowling on the “Brown Bagger” bowling team, the parties hosted by the IP’s at Fasching time, our Putz Fraus, for whom we paid 2 dollars a month to dust our rooms and polish our floors, and of course, I remember those Curry Wursts on the street corners.                                                     

Because my first wife was from Berlin, we re-visited the city several times. We went into East Berlin because she had an Uncle living there. Going through the checkpoint was always unsettling, either by car or train.  They took your passport and gave you a little receipt for it and you had to wait until they were good and ready to give you a pass to enter.  You could change for 25 Eastern Marks upon entry.  One time, we were harshly accused of some dastardly deeds.  We had a few oranges wrapped in a newspaper.  You’d have thought we were a regular propaganda machine with that Western newspaper and no telling how we were going to poison the people with those oranges.  Alas, the guards kept and presumably enjoyed both.

The city itself is just about completely rebuilt from my era.  No more streetcars in the Western part, but they still exist in the former Eastern zone.  No more GI’s in Berlin.  They do have an Airlift aircraft next to our end site where once the antenna field was located as well as a British Airlift aircraft near what was the Outpost Theater.  On my last visit I finally got a chance to walk through the Brandenburg Gate.  I had planned to visit again this year, but I learned that I have prostate cancer which is scheduled to be treated in the summer.  My career in the Air Force and the 6912th was rewarding, and I had a great time doing it.        

They still sell Curry Wurst on street corners.  They cost a little more, but they still taste great!

Full face photo by Keith Smyth, 2001; Victoria Park & plank walkway photos by Jerry Lewellan.

© 2008, The Berlin Island Association

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