x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Checkpoint Charlie guard tells how he helped to avert World War III

In his new book, which he will discuss at a Dubai forum on Saturday, retired US Army lieutenant Vern Pike recounts the tense atmosphere along the white line dividing East and West Berlin in 1961.

For Vern Pike, a young lieutenant stationed at Checkpoint Charlie in the American sector of West Berlin, the month of August 1961 should have been all about golf. In the end, however, the only thing that really teed off was the construction of the Berlin Wall.

In a development reminiscent of the activities of the fictional fun-loving army surgeons in the long-running TV show M*A*S*H, the 24-year-old Pike had been detailed by his superior officer, a keen golfer, to oversee the restoration of a derelict course so the colonel could enjoy a few rounds.

A platoon leader in the US Army Berlin Brigade's 287th Military Police Company, Pike had even lined up some caddies, and it was only when they stopped showing up that he understood that the Cold War was really starting to heat up.

"All of my caddies were from East Germany and they would crawl through a hole in the wire," recalls Pike, one of the speakers at the BOLDtalks series of lectures at Dubai Community Theatre & Arts Centre tomorrow. Then, "a couple of days before the wall went up, they told us 'We may not be able to get over here much longer'."

Pike was about to find himself playing a walk-on part in the drama of unfolding history.

On the night of August 12, 1961, he was on duty in his observation post on the fifth floor of an apartment building at the corner of Friedrichstrasse and Zimmerstrasse. "I got a call from one of our patrols, 'There's some strange activity over in East Berlin, you might want to come and have a look'."

Over on Zimmerstrasse, three or four metres into the Soviet sector, Pike found workmen installing a fence of cement posts and barbed wire. It was the forerunner of the 140-kilometre-long, 3.6-metre-high reinforced concrete wall that would divide the city until 1989.

Since the end of the Second World War, Berlin had been divided into four sectors, each overseen by one of the victorious allies. But in 1949 the Soviets declared the Russian sector, East Berlin, to be the capital of the new communist German Democratic Republic, itself cut off from the rest of Germany by the Inner German Border.

Until 1961, Berlin had remained a loophole through which East Germany's brightest continued to flow west. The wall was designed to stem this exodus, and it was largely successful; before it went up, more than three million had fled; between 1961 and the tearing down of the wall in late 1989, only 5,000 or so are thought to have made it across. Officially, 80 were killed attempting to escape, but some estimates put the total into the high hundreds.

As Pike recalled in his book, Checkpoint Charlie: Hotspot of the Cold War, suddenly, "I was aware that we were stationed at the possible epicentre of a world war and, if World War III was to start, I would probably be an early casualty." Within two months of the start of the construction of the wall, that war seemed imminent. In late October 1961 the Russians, contrary to agreed practice between the former wartime allies, had started to restrict the movements of US personnel. General Lucius Clay, President John F Kennedy's man in Berlin, decided to test Soviet resolve by sending a series of civilian vehicles across the border at Checkpoint Charlie, escorted by Pike and his military police, and a stand-off quickly developed between tanks on either side.

Crucial to the US response was the question of whether the unmarked opposing T54s were East German or Russian and Pike was given the job of finding out.

"General Clay said, 'Find out whether they are Soviet tanks or East German, because if they are East German we go to war'."

With the fate of the free world in his hands, Pike "drove over, parked behind the tanks, got out and there was nobody around. I climbed up on one, went down inside it, and there on the instrument panel was Cyrillic script, and the driver had left a Red Army newspaper by the brake handle."

Proof in hand, Pike reported back to General Clay. Shortly afterwards, the Russian tanks melted away and the crisis was averted. General Clay's action had forced the Russians to admit that they, and not the puppet East German government they had installed, were still responsible for the security of their sector.

"And from that day on," says Pike, "the Soviets were in a defensive position ... it took another 29 years for the wall to go away, but that was the high-water mark of Soviet influence in Central Europe."

Not that life on the Cold War's front line was without its lighter moments.

One day, Pike spotted a man who seemed to be wearing some kind of American uniform walking down the middle of Friedrichstrasse from East Berlin towards Checkpoint Charlie. Later, it emerged he was a schoolteacher who had adapted an old wartime Eisenhower jacket, adding a corporal's stripes on one arm, an Eighth Air Force patch on the other and a pair of metal discs on the collar on which he had scratched "US".

It was enough to confuse the Vopos, the East German border guards, but just as he was about to reach the West the man's nerve gave out and he collapsed on the white line that separated the two sectors.

"The Vopos grabbed him by the ankles. I had two MPs down there and they grabbed him by the shoulders and they had a tug of war going on between the four of them."

This particular Cold War struggle was a win for the West, secured when Pike's sergeant joined the fray and tipped the scales in favour of democracy. "He came out of the guard shack, went over with his billy club and bopped the two Vopos on the head. They said 'Ouch' and turned the guy loose."

In February 1962, Pike found himself in the wings as another classic piece of Cold War drama unfolded. "I got a call from the provost marshal who told me to tell all the German employees and policemen to go home ... A half-hour later these three people show up and go immediately down to our detention cells."

The next morning, Pike and his men escorted the three to Glienicke Bridge, the so-called "Bridge of Spies". "These three goons get out, walk to the middle of the bridge, three come from the other side and after doing a little eyeball check they swap the two guys in the middle."

The MPs escorted the party to Tempelhof airport, where an aircraft was waiting with propellers turning. "These three guys go running up the ramp, the plane takes off, and my colonel says, 'That was Gary Powers'."

CIA pilot Powers had been captured in May 1960 when his U-2 spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union. On February 10, 1962, Powers was swapped in classic Cold War style for Soviet spy "Colonel Abel" - the man who had spent his last night in western captivity in Pike's cell.

"I tell you, that was very moving," he says. "To me it was a signal honour to be involved."

And that could be Pike's motto, for a life lived in the shadow of history: "You were right where the action was; everybody else was just bystanders."

BOLDtalks takes place at Dubai Community Theatre and Arts Centre on February 25 at 9.30am. Tickets cost Dh200. For more information, call 04 441 6216 or visit www.boldtalks.com