Stories: Fourth of July

by Robert W. Rynerson, 

formerly SP5, Berlin Brigade

5 Jun 94

Torn, spat at, burned, trampled angrily under foot, the Stars and

Stripes were having a tough year in 1969. Used as a partisan symbol,

tugged at by "doves" and "hawks", its very appearance in a public event

could create suspicion or controversy.

Often forgotten at the time, however, was a place where the flag of the

United States meant the things that most Americans wanted it to mean.

The place was Berlin, the city where responsibility was thrust upon us,

a battlefield of the mind where three generations of Americans learned

simultaneously that all situations are relative and that some values are


Twenty-five years ago I had just spent a year of waiting and of Army

training thinking that I was headed to Vietnam, trained as a Personnel

Management Specialist at Ft. Ben Harrison. Instead I found myself

in West Berlin, working in the little U.S. Army train station (RTO), as

a Movements Specialist and On-the-Job-Trainee (OJT) Interpreter.

Through a chain of peculiar circumstances, the Army had accidentally

assigned me to work that I was not trained for, but could learn how to do.

Berlin Brigade was like that. Within the West side's city of 2 million

people it was a small town of its own, tucked away in various former

German facilities. New arrivals went through some formal training on the

situation, and then were put to work, usually in jobs for which they had

little or no training. One thing quickly became clear: our presence

there really did mean something to people.

My roommate, Spec 4 Swanee Flack, and I were assigned to work on the

sealed military trains over the Deutsche Reichsbahn (DR) through what we

called the Soviet Zone of Germany (the East called it the German

Democratic Republic - GDR). Flack, the first African-American to work as a

Russian interpreter had come to us from Harvard, and had a hard time

with military "stuff", as did most of us.

The Vietnam war had drained away many of the career military people, and

Berlin's military activities were often in the hands of one-term

draftees or enlistees. The often-maligned student deferments, when

properly used, had resulted in a number of people like myself who walked

in the door with a four-year degree. The political and military

situation in the divided city was a splash of cold water on people who

had heard little but criticism of our foreign involvements through their

college days.

Now, on our nights off, we could see the flares and hear the gunfire at

the barbed wire segments of the Berlin Wall not too far from our "dorm".

On our nights on the trains we could watch as hard-eyed men with trained

dogs searched under the frame and in the trucks for hidden refugees-

"flightlings" as the Germans called them. The spotlit walk of our Train

Commander (a lieutenant or a captain) and Train Interpreter, two young

American guys just out of college, down the station platform at tiny

Marienborn, the East zone's border town, could be marked by coarse

laughter and the sound behind them of a rifle bolt being clicked back -

the Red Army's idea of humor.

The situation was full of film noir vignettes. On our uniforms, we wore

American flags (GI's picked up on the Berliners' dark humor: "so the

cops'll know who to shoot at the border"). I stood on the platform in

Helmstedt, West Germany (home of little-known Checkpoint Alpha) on our

midnight turnaround from Berlin, and watched the East-West Express come

rumbling out of the East Bloc, its bleary passengers awakened by the

border hassle they had just endured. On warm evenings in that summer I

discovered that there were people who wanted to talk when they saw the

Stars and Stripes on my shoulder. They snapped down the train windows

and exchanged halting words of English-German-Russian-French, whatever

they and I could piece together. The words meant nothing, but I saw

that it was my flag and a PFC's uniform (Private First Class) that was

putting a sparkle into sleepy eyes.

On the warmest of those nights, I saw a figure walking, then running

towards me, past the Cyrillic-lettered Moscow-Paris sleeper and the long

string of dark Second Class coaches. A young man in American clothing

came up to me, out of breath.

"I saw the flag and your uniform. Are we in West Germany?" I told him

"yes". It turned out that he was a rather naive soldier from the U.S.

Army in West Germany, who had thought that he could just buy a regular

train ticket to West Berlin. He had been pulled from the civilian train

by the East German guards and held for hours in Marienborn, without

this being reported to the U.S. military (a violation of international

agreements- he should have been turned over to the Soviets, whose

authority we recognized).

While he had experienced nothing worse than being left alone to watch

East German television for long periods, the Gestapo-mentality of his

captors and the wartime setting of the border station had thoroughly

educated him. After a lecture and some note-taking from me, he

reboarded the westbound train. His unfortunately common story went into

the files, which bulged with the material for countless thrillers and

spy stories. It seemed that every movie set in Berlin might be true.

Back in the barracks, we noticed the symptoms in each other, not in

ourselves. I pointed out that Flack was polishing his shoes more and

shining up his brass without being reminded to do so. He noticed that

I, the former "C" language student, was cramming Russian and trying to

learn German at the same time. Flack was surprised when I did not

complain too much about marching in the Fourth of July parade, and

missing the day off. I was more surprised when my un-military comrade

listened to the urgings of a stripe-encrusted sergeant-major and signed

up for Officer Candidate School (OCS).

The Fourth of July parade twenty-five years ago included the clerks,

bakers, mechanics, and even journalists of the Headquarters and Service

Companies. With the war having drained our infantry units, the

lowest-ranking of us "white and blue collar" workers of the Army had

been thrown together and drilled repeatedly on a few simple moves. We

were warned that we dare not show our "@#$&!-ing, student-deferred"

lack of military bearing to the assembled Allied and Berlin dignitaries

who would be watching.

The handful of "lifers" who had drilled us need not have worried. We

marched down Clayallee and responded to the "eyes right" command at the

reviewing stand with elan. Each of us had a "Marienborn" or "Helmstedt"

or a "Checkpoint Charlie" in our heads by that time. Even if we had no

desire to be professionals, in the face of this situation we would do a good

imitation of soldiering.

A confused America had sent its best to a small corner of Southeast

Asia, and then sent substitutes to the Cold War. We did better than we

and the Army expected, joining the World War II generation ahead of us

and the volunteer Army professionals after us in defending ideas and a

flag that stood for freedom. Had they been paying attention, Americans

would have been proud.

  # # #

This article was written for non-military readers, but has been touched up

with the correct, vintage Berlin Brigade (BBde) terms and abbreviations.

Robert Rynerson was sent to West Berlin in 1969 by the U.S.

Army, to serve as a Russian-English Interpreter in the Rail

Transportation Office, after having been trained to be a Personnel

Management Specialist. Staff shortages resulting from the Vietnam

War led to his assignment as an on-the-job trainee Russian-English

interpreter, relying on his high school Russian and two years of

college Russian.

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 Midpoint of the Cold War

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