I first visited Berlin in 1970 on a Fenwick High School language trip with Father Nicholas Aschenbrener, O.P. After living through the 1960s’ Berlin Wall crisis with John. F. Kennedy’s “Ich Bin Ein Berliner Speech” and experiencing the wall in person, I joined the United States Army. I returned as an infantry officer in 1980 and my twin boys, Tim and Danny, were born in Berlin. I had previously led Cold War staff rides in Berlin for students in the Department of Defense Executive Leadership Development Program NATO deployments. In September 2018, son Danny, one-year-old grandson Asher and Shawna’s parents were able to watch Danny’s wife Shawna complete the Berlin Marathon, which I had done while stationed in Berlin.
The Berlin House of Representatives sponsors the Checkpoint Charlie Foundation, founded in 1994. The foundation runs the Welcome Home program to sponsor U.S. Military veterans to return to Berlin, to share their story with Berlin schools, government and other organizations, and for them to experience Berlin as it has emerged from the Cold War into a very lively city.
I was privileged to be the group leader for nine U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force Berlin veterans, representing a good cross-section of America, whose service in Berlin spanned from 1959 to 1993, greater than the life of the Berlin Wall itself. For each of us, the shared common bond and deep emotions about our service in Berlin, and connection to Berliners, caused us to form almost instantly into a tight-knit group.
We stayed in the Hotel Air, Berlin center near the “KeDeWe” department store. We had a warm and gracious “Welcome Home” dinner at the Europa Center’s Kartoffelkisten. On Saturday 11 May we started our tour at the Glienicker Brucke (Bridge of Spies) and a tour of the Russian Colony, Potsdam (including Sanssouci Palace), culminating with a tour of Cecilianhof Palace where the Potsdam conference at the end of WWII was held.
What made this year’s tour so exciting was the 70th anniversary of the end of the Berlin Airlift and the following reception in our old Outpost Theater, now Allied Museum, which allowed us to shake the hand of the famous Berlin Airlift “Candy Bomber” Colonel (USAF, Ret.) Gail Halvorsen (98 years old!). The host was the German Minister of Defense, who gave a very moving speech about the Allies saving Berlin and about the importance of Freedom – Freiheit! She awarded the German Gold Cross of Honor to recently retired U.S. Army Gen. John W. Nicholson for his service as commander of NATO Forces in Afghanistan. After receiving his medal he joined the BUSMVA vets for some soldier stories. The evening concluded with an honor guard and serenade by the Luftwaffe band and troops.
On Sunday 12 May, we participated in the wreath-laying commemorating the 70th Anniversary of the End of the Berlin Airlift at the Luftbrucke Memorial at Tempelhof. Col. Halvorsen was the featured speaker along with senior representatives of Germany, Berlin and all participating Allied nations. A reception followed, with a greeting of Airlift veterans, other dignitaries, and ourselves by the Berlin Governing Mayor in the main Tempelhof terminal hall. An interpretive music and dance performance held at the Columbia Theater (former US Air Force base theater) featured children from Berlin’s Gail Halvorsen School and the Stiftung Luftbrückendank (Airlift Gratitude Foundation founded in 1959 by Willy Brandt). Daniel de la Fuentes performed an original work “Flying for Freedom.” You could see these things done in their honor having a profound effect on Airlift veterans of each nation. Most stayed to enjoy the mass celebration under the Templehof aircraft awning. The USAFE Band played, dressed in WWII-era, Glenn Miller band uniforms to huge crowds, with an Airlift museum set up in a the hanger. Tempelhof is no longer an active airfield but a massive park where thousands of people play and stroll.
Monday 13 May we toured our former headquarters, Clay Compound, and McNair Barracks. Almost all is recognizable, but where we once did PT, or stood formation or lined up our reaction platoon armored vehicles, children now play — and the buildings are apartments. Throughout there are little memorials to our presence and the streets have retained their U.S. names. Andrews Barracks now houses the German National Archives and has some new buildings. While an archives employee was telling us about the buildings, it was fun to watch their little fork lift go by still marked “U.S. Army!”
We ate lunch at the Schoneberg Rathause, made famous by President Kennedy’s “Ich Bin Ein Berliner” (I am a Berliner) speech. It houses a research library dedicated to memorializing those apprehended and killed by the Nazis. Students do the research and a Stolperstein (stumble stone) is embedded near the entrance of where the victim were last free. This stumble stone is a paver with a brass top engraved with their name, date of arrest and where they were murdered. Every time you touch one, you remember that person, what happened to them, and why the United States was in Berlin.
We toured the German Reichstag, seeing the Soviet Red Army graffiti along with the history of the building, and it’s post-Cold War rebuilding to house a modern government office building, and received a presentation on the workings and composition of today’s Bundestag. The highlight of the day was the walking tour of the new glass Reichstag dome where you can see all of Berlin. The U.S. Army Field Station Berlin Tueflesberg facility still stands out as a lone sentry on a hill! In the evening we dined at an Italian restaurant we used to visit near our old Duty Train Rail Transportation Office (RTO). While the RTO was torn down in 2008, memories remain of everyone’s duty train experience, traveling unarmed through East German and Soviet army checkpoints.
Tuesday we gave presentations to Berlin students. This was a very intimidating effort for most, trying to anticipate the questions that all of these youth born far after our service and after the fall of the wall. I gave my presentation to students at the Berlin Kolleg school for those older students completing their high school requirements. The students had many questions of our service and of the United States. They were particularly interested in documents and maps that we passed around and discussed, and in our feelings about serving in Berlin. I and the others in our group felt that these youth, being educated in a free, democratic, reunited Germany were our real legacy. Where the Soviets left concrete and bronze monoliths, we left freedom.
Wednesday 12 May was much more somber as we toured The Berlin Wall Memorial on Bernauer Strasse. A section of the entire wall system still stands with towers and death strips. The Church of Reconciliation that stood there in no man’s land was dynamited in a despicable act by the communists in 1985, but stands in outline form today. For me, a very poignant moment was seeing the picture of Marienetta Jirkowsky, who was murdered attempting to cross the wall on the night of 21-22 November 1980. I was the staff duty officer that night in the basement at Clay Headquarters and received and sent reports on this highly charged incident whose political effects reverberated across Germany and the world. You could see each of our group deep in their own thoughts about what Berlin, and the Wall, meant to us and the effect on our lives. We then went to the Tranenpalast (Palace of Tears) at the Friederichstrasse Bahnhoff. This was an inner-German crossing point designed for maximum psychological effect on those moving through it whether into or out of East Germany. The museum is a house of oppression in all the ways the communist state tried to control the lives of their citizens.
After, we boarded a boat for a Spree river cruise. On the boat the CCF had arranged for us to talk to two former DDR border guards and hear about their experiences on the other side of the wall during communism and after. For most of us this was profoundly difficult to deal with given our experiences just remembered along the wall, in light of those murdered whose pictures we had just seen. It is obviously difficult for these men to reconcile their lives against the fall of the Wall and how they are now viewed by their fellow Germans.
On Thursday, we visited the German-Russian Museum Karlshorst. This historic building houses the room where the final surrender of Nazi Germany occurred and Marshal Zhukov had his offices. The museum is from the Soviet/Russian perspective of WWII but is also gaining a collection of Soviet presence during the Cold War and the Soviet Armed Forces withdrawal. Following this we visited Treptower Soviet War Memorial cemetery in an appropriately somber misty day. Although seemingly more worn, it is well maintained and full of bouquets from Russian visitors remembering their war dead. These monuments, including the one near the Brandenburg gate, are to be maintained in perpetuity as part of the Four Plus Two Treaty allowing for the withdrawal of the Soviet Forces and German Reunification. After, we did a walking tour of the Clay HQ Area. We were able to enter the All Saints Chapel, still maintained as an ecumenical chapel largely for the American expatriate community. My twins born in Berlin, Danny and Tim, were baptized here in 1983. The Berlin American ex-pats Veterans of Foreign Wars “Last Outpost” chapter hosts many events here and sponsors BSA Troop 46 that meets here, as it has since 1952.
We walked into the Clay HQ and Truman Plaza area, where our PX stood and where the German American Volksfest was always held. The whole area is now filled with high end apartments. We enjoyed a much more thorough tour of the Allied museum. A very special part was when the museum director opened up the last Checkpoint Charlie guard house for our former MP Gregg to recount his days there as the Wall fell. We departed for the Russian Samowar restaurant near Charlottenburg Palace, but our guide managed to get us a little turned around. Using my knowledge of Berlin and a little creative navigation, I got us on another bus route that twisted and turned through our old Duppel Housing area, which was an unexpected bonus, making it to the Samowar, almost on time!
On our last day, we were welcomed into the Berlin House of Representatives hosted by Ralf Wieland, its President. He spoke eloquently of the meaning of the Berlin-U.S. Relations and his own experience growing up near U.S. bases in West Germany, where he would hope to get an occasional baseball knocked over the fence! After lunch, I presented Mr. Weiland with small tokens from my Berlin experience and from Fayetteville NC. We then toured the new United States Embassy built on land purchased prior to WWII, and had a round table discussion with the U.S. Ambassador to Germany, Ambassador Grenell, and his defense attaché. Ambassador Grenell spoke about our service and also about the efforts to maintain German American relations.
Our farewell dinner was at Findberg’s Restaurant, with the Honorable Walter Momper, the West Berlin Mayor when the Wall fell and then Mayor of reunited Berlin for a short time. He engaged us is great conversation about his relationship to our Berlin Command and U.S. soldiers, particularly in hosting a farewell ceremony when Berlin Brigade Soldiers deployed for DESERT Storm and subsequent efforts after in Provide Comfort II. We said farewell to our wonderful CCF program managers who were so kind and gracious to us, to whom we presented bouquets and small gifts. Back at the hotel, we said farewell to each other and the incredible experience we had again as Veterans, and with Berliners.
The Checkpoint Charlie Foundation were wonderful hosts. They also administer numerous activities to continue the United States – Berlin relationship with a sister city, teacher exchanges and other programs. They do accept donations to sustain the endowment they have in order to sustain these activities into the future even after all of our Veterans have past. Organizations such as CCF, the Berlin Airlift Foundation, the VFW, the All Saints Chapel, BSA Troop 46, the Gail Halvorsen School, and the John F. Kennedy School continue that legacy, and deserve our gratitude and support.
My life’s journey, my life’s work, my twin boys, my understanding of both freedom and tyranny were all born in Berlin on my Fenwick journey there, for which I am profoundly grateful. I was delighted to hear about Fenwick sophomore Jack Kornowske (’22), who gets to study and live in Berlin for a whole year! Incredible opportunity that will serve him well and from which he will learn much. To all Fenwick students: know how fortunate you are and take advantage of these adventures as they are life changing!
Tim Fitzpatrick‘s Berlin Photo Album