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.Continue reading “Veterans Day Reflections on the Cold War, ‘Freiheit’ and the Berlin Wall”