I am still proud to say that I helped NATO prevent the spread of Soviet hegemony into Western Europe during the 1960s, possibly avoiding WWIII. I was one of the crew of an M-60A1 tank, such as those pictured in the opening photo. Each of our tanks carried four men whose job it was to operate the vehicle and its various systems to destroy opposing tanks attempting to occupy our space and to protect our NATO allies and the German people from being overrun.
My unit, the 14th Armored Cavalry Regiment, was situated to block a pass through the Taunus Mountains, colorfully known as the “Fulda Gap”. The Gap was of strategic importance because it was the easiest route for armies coming from the east to pour through onto the plains of Western Europe. Two centuries ago Napoleon’s army passed through the same gap on his road to Moscow and again, after his disastrous defeat there in 1812. If the Soviets were able to get through that gap in force, all of Western Europe would lay at their feet, and the way would be open for them to reach the Channel.
Some people downplay what we did there—some people don’t even remember it, and most folks alive today were not even born then. Probably you would have to have been there, either as a soldier or a civilian to really understand the Zeitgeist of the Cold War.
Seems like many folks today belittle the contribution we made (from the safety of their cyberwombs) but, you know, nobody was criticizing us when it was happening, because they were too busy digging fallout shelters in their backyards.
The time I came home for a stateside leave, I was feted as a hero. Seriously. Every night the news was full of horror stories about advanced Soviet weapons systems and how many million Americans they could vaporize with a press of one red button. Then there were the movies—’Fail Safe’, ‘Dr. Strangelove’, ‘The Morning After’, ‘On the Beach’, et al.
It was the worst of times, and the best of times—there were modcons aplenty, with more and better just around the corner. Everybody who wanted a job had one, and at least one car. ‘Hot Rods’ and “foreign sports cars” were all the rage, and if you didn’t like the car, or the job you had, you could go out the next day and get a different one. Young people were optimistic about their future. The big question for them wasn’t ‘Will I find a job after I finish school?’, it was ‘Hey, after you finish school, what occupational field would you like to go into?’
Yes, it was a great big, wonderful tomorrow with lots to look forward to. If only we didn’t all get blown away in a giant mushroom cloud…. And most folks who lived through the 1950s and ‘60s thought that was a very real possibility; the threat of nuclear annihilation loomed as a dark presence in everyone’s lives.
That angst segued into the existentialism of the of the ‘70s with rebellion of the young, the questioning of authority for creating the postwar world they (we) were having to grow up into, the lack of direction, the felt need to ‘drop out’, to refuse to participate in a world that was not of our making. An entire generation was produced who had decided that there must be a better way to build a better world. 8,000 years of civilization had brought us this far, to this epoch were we have finally developed the technological ability to wipe out life on Earth when a spark sets off some tinder in some tiny protectorate in the Middle East, or some small duchy in the Balkans, and… will we all step back from the brink? It’s a game of chicken we can only play so many times before somebody makes a miscalculation, and that’s it—endgame for all.
At the end of the Second World War, the “Iron Curtain” divided Germany into East and West, and in the early 1960s the Berlin Wall was erected. Very soon rumors abounded about Soviet troop buildups near the border, along with fears of an impending invasion of western Europe. The American government had warned the Soviets to not take one step across the line, but it was clear that some credible deterrent would be required to discourage an incursion into West Germany.
The precedent occurred in 1945 when the United States’ President Harry S. Trumann ordered two atomic bombs to be dropped on Japan. Those bombs are the only nuclear weapons to have ever been used during a time of war, and they underscored the claim that the US was well-prepared and willing to do it again if circumstances required.
The key part of the US defense plan hinged on the Soviets believing we would use the nukes on German soil, and having used them twice before gave the U.S. the credibility they needed.
The Korean “conflict” of 1950 occurred when the North Koreans tested American resolve by sending an army across their border with South Korea and got surprised when the US struck back, pushing them all the way up to the Yalu River and their northern border with China. Not long after, the Chinese came to the defense of their neighbors, pushing the forces of the newly formed United Nations back south again until they were nearly pushed into the sea.
General Douglas McArthur strenuously petitioned President Trumann to loose the nukes on China and, reportedly, “keep right on going ’till we get to Moscow!” For better or worse, the President fired him.
The Soviets were not prepared to use tactical nukes in Europe at that time, but they didn’t need them. They had the armies of the Western Allies so outnumbered in Germany, they could simply roll over us in a matter of days using conventional non-nuclear weapons.
And so we had the nukes.
My job in Germany, my “mission”, my ‘prime directive’, was to guard and protect a company of combat engineers whose only job was to deliver and detonate three nuclear devices in the path of the advancing Soviet army as they entered the Fulda Gap. One was a tactical nuke just powerful enough to obliterate the hill that our Regimental HQ had recently evacuated. The second one was to go to a destination near the town of Fulda, where a large suspension bridge spanned a major road junction in the hills above town. The third device, whose target had not been revealed to us, was destined to be detonated by our sappers at the critical moment, and it was my job, along with my tank crew, to protect those boys from harm until they could complete their work. The power of this third weapon was said to be somewhere in the same range as those dropped on Japan in 1945. The engineers towed those bombs around in trailers behind three jeeps, each jeep having a driver, one officer, and two engineer/infantrymen.
It never really dawned on us that we had been assigned to a suicide mission. HQ just kept telling us, “We have a plan, we have a plan to get everyone out safely.”
“The Plan”, as far as I could tell, was for us to lay low until the devices detonated, then scamper to safety in the welcoming arms of the big boys from the Third Armored Division who were supposed to be coming in from the west to rescue us. Ironically, they were famously known as the “Spearhead” division, but our little engineer company was really the pointy tip of their spear, since we’d likely be the first troops to catch sight of the enemy’s tanks.
The other problem came for me when I considered my wonderful girlfriend, living in that town with her nice little family. I began to think about how I really did not want to see them blown sky high in a mushroom cloud that I had helped create. I did a lot of soul-searching around that time, and the “Ban the Bomb” anti-nuke movement was gaining momentum in Germany. The local civilian population seemed totally unaware of our nefarious plan, and my German family went about their day-to-day existence, never knowing that my “duty” was to blow them all to kingdom come at a moment’s notice.
To say I was conflicted would have been an understatement. I was perfectly willing to go forth into battle against Soviet armor, but nuking my own girlfriend was something I had decided I would not do. Wow, was I ever having trouble handling that.
Lucky me, I was rotated back to the States, and I left my German friends in the capable (?) hands of the United States Army. I could not talk about the situation to anyone back home because I’d sworn an oath of secrecy. It weighed heavily on me for the next several years as I attended peace rallies and met other vets from the other branches of ‘the service’. Those were the days when paranoia ruled, when everyone suspected J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI of spying on them, and I figured I was probably “being watched”.
When I returned to Germany with my wife in 2008, I went and looked at our old ‘ground zero’. The Unification has brought with it tremendous economic and demographic changes. Of course the terrain has remained the same, but the bridge we had been ordered to destroy has been bypassed, and a new, even larger bridge now spans one of the gaps in the mountains we guarded back then. The weirdest thing was that the new bridge allows folks to drive across what used to be the old ‘West-East’ divider, the “IRON CURTAIN”, and there’s not even a sign to proclaim it.
In the evenings we visited some of my old Gasthauses (pubs) in the town where American soldiers were once generally seen as the Guardians of the Western World. But in 2008, none of the patrons were interested in talking about that era of their history. Ah, but that was half a century ago! They were only interested in discussing “The NEW Germany!” Maybe they didn’t know, maybe they didn’t care, maybe they were trying their best to forget—or maybe they’d since found out about the US Army’s diabolical plan to turn them all to ashes in the 1960s….
I never saw my old girlfriend again. I hope she married a good German man and is living the life of a happy grandmother somewhere in Fulda.
Oh, well, let bygones be bygones or, as our new Bier drinking friends kept insisting, “Alles gut, end gut!”
About five years ago I connected with one other guy who had been in my unit. He had been one of the jeep drivers whose job it had been to place those bombs and set the timers. We were both left wondering what kind of whacky-jacky outfit we had been in, and what crazy-making days they were.
As I sit here in the summer of 2017 reading over this story, it occurs to me that much of it must seem incredible to today’s reader, but those are the facts as I recall them. None of this story is classified as “SECRET”, or even “Confidential” anymore. It’s all in the historical record for anyone who cares to dig deep enough.
“The Cold War”—What a time that was.