BIA Newsletter – 15 May 2004
Attachment 3 - Exciting and Tense Times - 6912th RSM, Berlin, Germany

by Paul Nikulla (59-62)

            I had just wrapped up the course: AFSC 2031 “Intelligence Communications Officer” at Goodfellow AFB in San Angelo, Texas.  That was a real eye opener for a guy who had never been in the Security Service. It opened up a whole new world for me.  I had taken the one-year Russian language course at Syracuse and had majored in German at Wichita University.  When I learned that my assignment was to be in Berlin I was amazed, but convinced that the Air Force personnel people really knew what they were doing. I was ready.  How can a guy be that lucky?
            In May 1959, Loretta, who was 5 months pregnant, and I were packed and headed for Berlin,
Germany.  I was assigned to Detachment One of the 6910th Radio Group, Mobile; later to become the 6912th Radio Squadron, Mobile. Not knowing better, we and our 2 small girls took the duty train from Frankfurt to Berlin just at the time that the Soviets had issued an ultimatum that they were going to stop the duty train.  Nothing happened, but the people in Berlin were amazed to see us arrive by train thru the Soviet zone of Germany during the threat of Soviet harassment. For the first few weeks we lived in an apartment in the Columbia House on Tempelhof.  Then we found an apartment “on the economy”.  In short order our older daughter was playing with the German children and speaking German freely.  We found Berlin to be a very exciting city. The Wannsee and the Grunewald!.  The Kurfurstendamm!  The Funkturm!.  We loved to eat at the Pavilion du Lac in the French sector.  The cheeses at the French commissary!  We enjoyed wild boar and bear meat dishes at some of the Jaeger-type restaurants.  Bratwurst and Baerenbier at the Schnellimbiss!  Loretta loved to shop at the KaDeWe and stroll the Ku’damm..  I could not believe that you could get freshly baked Broetchen and Loewenbrau delivered to the doorstep every morning for a few cents.  The dollar would buy DM 4.20 at that time. Our son, Paul Jr. was born in the Berlin Army Hospital on September 25, 1959.  The doctor who delivered him was a big hulking Berliner civilian with a huge dueling scar diagonally across his face.  I pictured him doing experiments on concentration camp inmates during Nazi times, but Loretta said he was a great doctor.
            As the fourth and most junior officer assigned, I became the assistant operations officer.  My position was not yet authorized. The first thing I was told about my job was that I had to get my slot authorized if I wanted to stay in Berlin.  The operations section of the 6912th RSM consisted of over 300 young, very bright enlisted Airmen - linguists and otherwise.  Initially, each of the four operational flights was commanded by an NCO Flight Commander, Tech and Master Sergeants.  Later, after the changes to the unit master plan and manning document that I had a part in were accepted, lieutenants and captains that ranked me were assigned as Flight Commander.  Imagine my pride as Capt
Perez kept me on as Asst Ops Officer!
            I think the main reason most of us are proud of our service in Berlin is that we know we had the greatest job in the Air Force.  We were in a place that was important to the world; a place that was surrounded by forces hostile to our way of life.  It was literally an island of freedom in a sea of oppression. Our mission was located 360 degrees around us.  Also, we had the best people you'd hope to find anywhere.  We knew we were doing our job right.  Everybody had a part to play.   Everything came together in virtual real-time. We knew who was doing what exactly where, when and how well at all times - 24/7.  We also knew that if it came to that, we could make a seamless transition to support the war fighting effort.  We were a force multiplier in the true sense of the term. 

Now for some recollections from this time over forty years ago. 

Stories are still told about the disasters and near disasters on the "pater noster", the continuously running, small cabin elevator that you had to jump into and out of on the go in Head Building Mitte.  Does it flop over horizontally as it goes over the top?  Or does it stay upright all the way?  Some people even lived to find out. Furniture pieces, oversized packages and sometimes body extremities were said to have been caught between the cabin and the doorway and shaft.  It was reportedly used at times as a means of transporting unauthorized beverage, a bowling ball target, a place to inadvertently catch a nap after a long night on the ‘Strasse’. I’m sure you have many more tales to tell about adventures with the rattling endless chain elevator.
                Some have heard or maybe even personally experienced the horror stories about the stripe-ripping courts martial under one of our erstwhile, more notorious commanders, Major Woodrow Gentry whose preamble with a smile on his face was; "bring the guilty bastard in here and we'll give him a fair trial".  He was jesting, of course? God rest his immortal soul.-- and his compassionate marriage counseling that began with: "What?! You want to marry that whore?"  He was not joking here.  Ask Paul Boyette.  He'd reassign and ship the guy out of Berlin before the marriage could be consummated when he could.  When he assigned this junior officer to conduct a summary court martial for some infraction of military discipline and the punishment I brought didn't suit his sense of justice, I was convinced that I was in danger of being court martialled  myself.  Talk about an atmosphere of fear!  What a sigh of relief we all breathed when Major McCall came on board as commander!  A couple things I learned from Hugh McCall served me well the rest of my Air Force career.  The first thing was: ”Make sure that everyone that is helping the unit to be outstanding is recognized and rewarded for his contribution.  Go all the way, don’t hold back”.  The second thing was: “ If a man screws up, don’t try to kill him the first time.  Give him another chance.  If he really is no good, he’ll have plenty of opportunities to demonstrate that.  There will always be time to take corrective action.”
            Some of you may recall the rather sudden departure of four guys from the "pit".  It turned out that, unbeknownst to anyone at the time, these four guys had evidently had a different sexual preference and had become a little too amorous with each other.  You have to remember this was the early sixties and before the "don't ask, don't tell" policy in the Service.  Ops lost some hard to replace talent here.  This is when Major McCall decided it was time to indoctrinate "Brown
ie", our local OSI agent, to give him full access to our mission and to the Ops area.
            You may also remember when a troubled soul who worked one of our most sensitive positions beat it across to the East armed with loads of highly classified information.  We learned later that with this irrational act, he was attempting to punish an alcoholic mother who was living with him and who had embarrassed him severely in front of his friends on numerous occasions.  He left a note to that effect.  With the potential damage his defection could cause, the whole spook network in Berlin was alerted and immediately sprung into action.  Our guy, we learned later, went to an East German reception center in East Berlin bag in hand to turn himself in.  As luck would have it, the office was closed for some reason.  So he checks his "goodies" bag in a locker in a bus or U-bahn station and calls his best friend in West Berlin - one of our guys.  The good guys had already briefed this friend who was able to talk him into coming back across to the West to talk over what he was doing.  Needless to say, on coming back across, he was grabbed by the good guys.  The spooks, miraculously, were also able to retrieve the goodies bag from the locker in East Berlin before any of the Ostie henchmen knew what had happened.  This was before the wall.  A disaster had been averted.  The poor guy, however, was given a general court martial and received 20-30 years.  Our unit was actually commended by higher headquarters for the way things were handled. 

In August 1961, when the Berlin wall was erected by the East Germans and Soviets, things became very tense.  Confrontations between US Military Police patrols and East German Vopos (Volkspolizei) threatened to erupt into shoot-outs.  Open hostilities seemed very likely.  The three Western powers, US, British and French, acted very resolutely.  The British Black Watch Guards pitched their tents right at the wall just inside the East-West Berlin border.  They were very impressive in their black garb. US Army tanks moved up to Check Point Charlie muzzle to muzzle with East German tanks on the other side of the crossing.  Soviet tanks stayed back a little to give the appearance that it was an East German show.  Everybody expected that orders would be given for our tanks to run over the barbed wire and smash down the wall under construction.  That didn't happen.

            It was around this time that an Army unit came up the Autobahn into Berlin and set up camp on Tempelhof. All at once there were a lot of green suits on the airfield.  I recall that they set up big mortars aimed at the bridges between East and West Berlin in case the whistle blew.  Sure made us feel safe, ahem.  Some of our troopers getting off mids hit the Strasse just in time to run into these "heros in green".  Some of our guys giving vent to some of their pent up tension had to be bailed out of the slammer for getting into it with these guys.  Then, when a US Army MP patrol was stopped in East Berlin by some East German Army or Vopo border unit, we had a "Mexican stand-off" with weapons drawn.  An uncontrollable shoot-out was very likely.  It was at this time that all military units in Berlin were put on the highest DEFCON.  That meant hostilities were imminent.  In Ops we knew about what the military situation around Berlin was.  Not very comforting.  But, not to worry.  We had a good ground defense plan.  All off duty personnel were recalled to Head Building East and issued M1 carbines and our few 45 calibre “grease guns”.  Every last bit of ammunition was doled out to each of our defenders who were assigned to pre-determined positions around and on top of HBE with orders to shoot any unauthorized person approaching the building.  At this time we also dusted off our destruction plan.  Under this plan, when given the order by the commander, the 6th floor was to be flooded with Diesel fuel from the reserve 55 gallon drums  for the emergency generator.  Then thermite grenades were to be detonated on the commo gear and each position rack.  I think that plan might have worked.  Now, our escape and evasion plan was something else.  Once having destroyed everything of interest on the 6th floor, the joke went that we would each lose our uniform and get into a local Berliner street cleaner's uniform, grab a push broom and sweep our way down the Autobahn towards Helmstedt or Frankfurt.  In other words, there was no plan that had any chance of working.  Luckily we did not have to implement the destruction plan and nobody got shot. You can clearly see why military personnel who served in Berlin during this time were awarded the Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal.
                The tension contributed to several incidents, which resulted in the immediate transfer of some very highly experienced people from the 6912th.  The personnel shortages resulting further created additional stress for the remaining people.  New people had to be trained on an accelerated basis.  Routinely the bright young Airmen of the 6912th found many ways to get into trouble.  After an exhausting 8-hour trick on the job, which ended for some at 2300 hours (11 PM), Berlin presented all kinds of attractions for the release of tension.  An OSI briefing at the time reported that the East German intelligence service had sent over some 2000 young female operatives to engage our young troops in activities which would make them less able to function well on the job and to learn what they could about their work. Could our nanny, Giesela, have been one of these girls?  Or was this just a story cooked up to scare our young troopers away from the Fraeulines?  If so, it didn’t work.  We did know that there were a lot of East German agents at work in West Berlin, but most of them were not pretty females.
               President Kennedy came to Berlin around this time and declared "Ich bin ein Berliner!". The English language radio broadcasts from East Berlin tried to make the dependents nervous with all sorts of scare tactics and played "Don’t fence me in" as their theme song.  A lot of wives suddenly had sick parents back home that they had to visit and didn’t come back. Some of our people found themselves being quickly packed up and put on the "Gooney Bird" courier flight to the "Zone" often without knowing why.  One guy was shipped out with no notice just because his Schatzie was part of a "spook" operation and he was in the way. Our incident rate went way up.  We lost a lot of good people.  Our commander gave us pep talks that we had to set an example for the troops. Needless to say, it was an interesting period for this LT.
            It was also during this time that Gary Powers was shot down over Russia in a U-2 high altitude reconnaissance airplane. Many earlier unsuccessful attempts had been made to shoot down U-2s over Russia.  Khrushchev banged his shoe on the rostrum at the UN to make the point that he did not like that.
            At another time two West German F-84s got lost in heavy weather and strayed over East Germany.  Soviet fighters were up trying to shoot them down, but couldn’t find them in the weather.  An Air Traffic Controller at the 1946th AC&W Sq was able to pick them up and vector them to a safe landing at Tegel in the French sector.  The runways at Tempelhof were not long enough.  The aircraft had to be disassembled and were shipped to West Germany by train.  The Soviets would not let them fly out.
            Sometimes there would be flights of several aircraft from the West noted heading east toward the East-West border.  There would be all kinds of reaction to these flights.  All at once everything was turned on.  Somebody referred to these flights as “exciter flights”.  That they certainly were alright.
            I also recall that when we saw chaff drops over Berlin we could walk out onto the roof from the 6th floor of HBE and pick up samples of the real thing. They were hollow, hair-thin metallic-coated fiberglass filaments.   Where else could you do something like that?
            As part of the pressure the Soviets were putting on Berlin and the Western Allies, corridor flights were being harassed by Soviet fighters.  Some of the fighter passes made at the airliners were dangerously close.  The Soviets accused the Allies of straying out of the corridors and of violating the altitude restrictions placed on corridor flights.  To deal with this threat, new, high-powered navigational aids were installed at Tempelhof.  The idea was to give the air traffic controllers the capability to more accurately keep the corridor flights on track.  The side effect of these high output radars and communications equipment, however, was to essentially blank out huge portions of the RF spectrum all over Tempelhof.  This became a critical problem for the 6912th Radio Squadron, Mobile. In an attempt to resolve this problem, Captain Perez
took the word “mobile” in our unit’s name literally.  Without approval or permission from anyone he and I checked out a ¾ ton truck, got a couple of receivers from Maintenance, took a couple of ”dash ones” off flight and headed out to see where we might go to get out of the RF noise cone.  The rubble heap in the British sector called Teufelsberg by the Berliners was one place, another rubble heap south of Tempelhof at the Berlin suburb called Marienfelde was the other.  When results of these tests were included with our normal reporting, the people up the chain went ballistic and wanted to know how we did this.  Once they learned the facts a political/military bruhaha ensued that almost ended Captain Perez’s career.  However, once Major McCall weighed in with a trip to Wing, vans were flown in from Sembach and the rest, as they say, is history.                                        

This assignment was the most interesting and challenging of my whole career.  Some of my additional duties included: summary court officer for security violations, mortuary officer, summary court for the settlement of the estate of  Sergeant Lockwood who fell to his death in Mallorca, summary court for a line of duty determination in a shooting for a 1946th guy who shot himself in the foot playing with his weapon, an Article 32 investigation into a rape charge (no one was charged here), Top Secret Control officer, cryptographic materials custodian, ground defense team commander, unit master plan and manning document (UMD) change officer, briefing officer and unit basketball team manager. I was also on the Officers Club board of directors and pulled Officer of the Day (OD) duty for the host Tempelhof unit, the 7350th.

As manager of the basketball team, The 6912th Jets, my main contribution was to arrange time off for the players for practice and trips to the various tournaments in the “Zone”. For the guys who made the team, it was a great opportunity to have fun and get to travel out of Berlin.  It was a real break for me too.  We did quite well among the teams on Tempelhof and won some trophies and enjoyed meeting some of the guys from Wing, Group and the other RSMs.
            Berlin was definitely in the world news limelight and every official that could find a reason to come to Berlin did.  I guess it was kind of a ticket punch item for career enhancement.  This meant that we in Ops were deluged with "visiting firemen". We didn't mind the ones who had a good reason to be there.  To sort out the workers from the players, Capt
Perez created an operating plan wherein he and I would take them out for a long night on the town, then see which ones showed up the next day for work.  This cut the visitor load down considerably and we could get on with our jobs. 

Near the end of my three-year tour in Berlin, I was informed that my next assignment would be to the Headquarters of the National Security Agency (NSA) at Fort Mead, Maryland.  Learning that that was no place for a lieutenant, I volunteered to extend my overseas tour for assignment to a new Security Service unit in West Germany at Hof near the Czech border.  However, I had applied for instructor duty at the Air Force Academy earlier (it was a long shot and I didn’t expect to get it) but I was accepted before my tour was up. 

                For our return trip, I had requested surface travel instead of air and we were booked on the SS America from Bremerhaven to New York in May of 1962. 

Some of the people I can recall with whom I served in the 6912th were:  Maj. Woodrow Gentry, Maj Hugh McCall, Capt Merle Woodside, Capt John D. Davis, Capt Al McEwen, Lt Art Mussman, Capt Mario Perez, Lt Wayne Meadows, Lt Trudeau, Jerry “Whitie” White, Tony Angiletta, Sgt Roncari, Sgt Stacewicz, Chief “Maz” Mazikowski, Felix Cormier, Charlie Swanson, Gil Apaka, Paul Bieger, Ray Ammerman, Charlie Covern, Sid Davis, Dan Dawidowicz, Don Hanchey, Warren Knight, Maurice Evans, Jerry “Mouse” Loiselle, James Munsie, Roy LeddyJim Coats, John Ferris, Hal Linton, Charlie Brown, Vic Keithley, Jim Santone, Lloyd Epperson, Harry Smith, James Warchol, the late Chief “Mole” Kleifges, Ray Yarbrough, Ira Richter, Bob Herr, Don “Rocky” Graziano, Bill Grieshop, Hugh Horton, Steve Piecuch, Joe Ector, Harry Sheldon,  Joe Kinel , Walt Mercer,  Paul Boyette and many others, some of whom I knew only from sports activities.  Many are members of the BIA.

© 2004, The Berlin Island Association

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