It was a time of transition
for Flughafen Tempelhof 50 years ago. Eisenhower was
just then forming NATO. The Korean War was going full
blast. Joe Stalin was still alive, and had only
recently desisted from his attempted strangulation of
Berlin. The Air Force was only about three years old,
and lots of us were still in OD uniforms, and had to polish
The recently-departed Red
Army had tried to burn everything above ground in the great
arc of an operations building at Tempelhof (Largest building
in Europe?) which we all came to know so well. They
flooded the subterranean floors where Luftwaffe fighters
were kept. I never could find out how many levels were
below ground. Stone and steel don’t burn very well, so
quite a lot of building was left – about ¾ of a mile of it.
Detachment “D” of the 2nd
Radio Squadron Mobile occupied one long room “am vierten
Obergeschoss”, with a glass-lensed peephole in the door, so
that one could be eyeballed from within before he entered.
Thirty years later, someone knowledgeable told me the
peephole was still there. Also, the 3-man elevator
boxes were still said to be continuously running, carrying
voice and CW operators to their workplace.
Inside were numbers of
Collins 51J and Hammerlund receivers, along with
“Bendix washer” radar sets. A pair of powerful
binoculars was kept over by the one window, south-facing.
There was a direction-finding facility out between the
runways, made to look like another GCA shack.
Communications with the site was via Deutsche Post
land-lines between teletype machines. Communications
were encoded securely by NSA code-books which were changed
periodically. A weak spot was having those code books
out in that shack, with East Germany scarcely a mile away.
The shack area was surrounded by multi-lingual signs,
warning that access to the area was “STRENG VERBOTEN”,
“ZAPRESCHECHENNO”, AND “INTERDIT”. I came within a
whisker of having to ice a German shepherd lad, who was
probably illiterate and couldn’t read the signs, in any
language. Trouble was, he was wearing a ground-length
sheepskin cape, and I couldn’t see his hands, nor the Uzi he
might have had.
Shift changes at the shack
were made by a Jeep coming and going, always awaiting an
all-clear signal from the control tower before crossing the
tarmac. Shifts were four days, then four night shifts,
then four graveyard shifts, with a day off in between.
Det “D” comprised about a
dozen of us, voice and CW operators, covering all shifts.
T/Sgt Darrel Hanson and 2/Lt Kenneth Piersall were our
authority figures. The guys were a multi-talented
bunch. One had been a ghost writer in New York City,
another had been a superintendent of schools, and another
was an electrical engineer. The latter was probably
the most valuable man on Tempelhof; he could fix any of our
electronics, though he was there as a voice operator. All of
us were in our early 20’s.
In the late ‘40’s, there were
3-year enlistments. One of our guys, Dallas Clark, was approaching the end of his enlistment, and was actually en route
to the Port at
Bremerhaven, for his voyage back to the Land of the Big PX,
when he was involuntarily extended for another year due to
the NATO build-up, and he was turned around and sent back to
us. I’ve always admired the good grace he exhibited,
ever a cheerful and responsible member of the outfit.
On my arrival, in January
1952, I was shown a smoke-blackened room, about 50’ x 50’,
where I was to be billeted. It was just a few steps
from the operations room, but that was the only attractive
thing about it. I set up my folding metal GI cot in
one corner, drew bedding from supply, and I was then in
residence, with all my worldly possessions in my footlocker
and barracks bag. Later, some other guys moved in with
me, and painters finally came and brightened up the place.
Berlin had been destroyed
over its wide areas, as no other comparable place had ever
been done in. The Kaiser Wilhelm II Gedaechtniskirche
on the Kurfuerstendamm was blasted as it now stands, only it
had not yet been stabilized for safety, and entering it was
dangerous. The huge, cast-metal statues in the
Tiergarten were still full of Red Army bullet-holes. I
remember a massive bison having a spear plunged into his
side by a huge Nordic huntsman. There were a lot of
extra “eyes” in and around his helmet. All this, but
the U-bahn could still whisk you from Neukoelln to Spandau
in less than an hour, through 370-odd square miles of
debris. We were told not to ride the U-Bahn across
intervening portions of East Berlin, even though we didn’t
get off. Vopo’s were everywhere in the East.
Even if they had no arrest power over us, it was crucial
that we were not interrogated. The monument depicting
the three air corridors had already been erected on Platz
der Luftbruecke. An eagle facing it across the
quadrangle had already had the swastika blasted from his
A wonderful bright spot
happened during that time. Harry Truman’s last term
was drawing to a close, and he wanted to do something to
draw Germany back into the Family of Nations. He hit
upon a cultural exchange program. Harry was always
accused of operating “government by crony”, and this time
was no different. There resided in Independence at
that time one Blevins Davis. He had been a high school
literature teacher, but he had a football romance with a
very rich elderly widow. By that I mean he married
her, then waited around for her to kick off, which she
eventually did, making him a very rich fellow indeed.
He became a patron of the arts. Harry knew all this,
so he called on him to act as impresario for our end of the
cultural exchange, and what he did was sheer genius.
He assembled a cast that was never to be forgotten to do
Gerschwin’s “Porgy and Bess”. Porgy was William
Warfield, who had just sung “Ol’ Man River” in the current
movie “Showboat” better than anybody ever had, before or
since. Bess was Leontine Price, then about 21 and
unknown, but had a long career as a diva the Met, famous for
interpreting Verdi. Cab Calloway was Sportin’ Life,
already well-established as a “scat” singer. Berlin
was one of their first performances in what became a
triumphant world tour, and I was there to see it. The
Berliners had trouble with the dialogue, but when Leontine’s
voice soared up into the high registers doing “Summertime”,
the whole place went wild. Cab did ” ‘Taint
Necessarily So” as no one else could. It was a
Now a little about the
beginning of it all – Brooks AFB was Security Service HQ,
with a wire enclosed compound where we mounted guard all too
often. The big outfit there was a giant “casual”
squadron, with about 2000 of us going to schools or waiting
for shipment elsewhere. Naturally, everything was
overseas except for the schools. I lived in a 200-man
barracks with holes in the roof, where Eddie Rickenbacker
had lived when he was a cadet in 1916. In this
setting, we went through 2 weeks of English Grammar
instruction, then two weeks of Russian language, during
which we mastered the Cyrillic alphabet and got a good start
on Russian grammar and, of course, some vocabulary.
Then came the Army Language School at the Presidio
of Monterey, CA. There was a year-long Russian course,
but we were in a 5-month course which had its genesis when
Russian voices were heard flying air cover for North Korean
troops. It was an all-Air Force program, designed to
quickly get us into the Aleutian Islands, small islands in
the sea of Japan, and assorted places in Europe, all
surrounding the Soviet land mass. I was in R6-3
(Russian, 6 months, 3rd group to start).
R6-1 was still there and in session at that time. 23
languages were being taught, but half the resources and
students were there for Russian language study. Our
day was split up into times for vocabulary study, speech
patterns, conversation, dictation, and some other things,
with a different instructor every hour. There was a
language lab, the first I’d seen. Tape recorders
hadn’t come along for personal use just yet, but there were
wire recorders. R6-3 was divided into sections A, B, C
& D. The group in D section were just hanging on,
maybe including some guys from the Deep South who couldn’t quite get their tongue wrapped around Russian vowel
sounds. The guys in section A contrived to look bored,
while they fondled their Phi Beta Kappa keys. Every
two weeks, there was a large oral & written exam and a
reshuffling of the sections, with now & then someone being
sent off, presumably to learn another trade.
If there are those of you who
have never ridden a troopship, you have my congratulations.
I and 2,500 poor lost souls were sailing on the stormiest
North Atlantic in history during Christmas of 1951.
There were 30-foot waves, and the normal 8 days from NY to
Bremerhaven took us 11 days. We were locked below for
most of the voyage, to avoid scattering bodies into the
ocean. Capt. Kurt Carlsen, a Danish skipper of the
Flying Enterprise, a merchant ship, made big news when he
was snatched off his bridge just as she foundered and went
down. We were near enough for visual contact somewhere
off Lands End when this was happening.
A shipboard troop bunk is a
piece of canvas laced to a pipe bent into a “U” shape, and
hinged so it can be turned upward to allow daily swabbing of
the deck. These hinged bunks were stacked five high,
with very little space between, so the top guy almost had to
get into his bunk last, and be the first to arise. The
guy on the bottom had maybe 3 inches between his derriere
and the deck. One night when the ship was heeling over
and pitching more than that for which it was designed, the
bulkhead door up above flew open and the sea gushed in.
Shoes and barracks bags began floating around, and some
colorful language was heard. The guys on the lower
bunks were in great danger, but everyone (200 of us in that
compartment) responded immediately, and no tragedy occurred.
Nowadays, whenever someone
suggests a sea cruise, it falls on my deaf ears. When
I was recalled and sent back to Europe ten years later,
someone was grousing because our C-118 had to remain
overnight in Labrador. I made an impassioned plea to
the person to count his blessings.
Heard in a compartment on a
troop train going across Germany about midnight our first night there:
“Damn, I never seen so many furriners in my whole life.”
“This train is going in
circles. That’s the third time we’ve gone through this
town of Ausgang.”
“Can you speak German?”
“I dunno. Mebbe. Ain’t ever tried to before.”
In 1961, when the Berlin Wall
went up, the Jet Age was upon us with full force,
Fighter-plane reflex time was needed against the East, which
brought into being a string of hitherto unused bases well
back of the Rhine, mostly in eastern
France. I had recently qualified in dentistry, and settled into a
small-town practice in
overnight, I found myself Chief of Dental Services at Etain
AB, very near the Argonne (Sergeant York) battlefield area of WWI. In a few months, I got
some leave time and, burning with curiosity, made my way to
Berlin and Tempelhof.
There, I was greeted by (my jaw dropped) a major. I
realized that I no longer had a proper clearance and “need
to know”, but I explained my curiosity to him, and he was
most cordial, without telling me anything. He said I’d
be surprised at some of the new technology.
The doctor draft (to age 52)
was in full effect in those days, but I had signed on as a
reserve officer, USAF, DC: thus my quick call-up.
After years of grinding poverty, I was trying to make a buck
wherever I could. The Korean GI Bill had paid only a
small fraction of my tab. Student loans? They
were for later coddled generations.