November, 2002 Newsletter - Section II

By Dr. Al Leinweber (52-53)

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 gold-colored brass.

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 claws.

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 glorious time.

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 Missouri.  Almost 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.

© 2002, The Berlin Island Association

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