Fourth of July

by R. W. Rynerson,  former 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 absolute.

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 ssigned 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 oft-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 observed 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 urging 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.

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This article was written for non-military readers, but has been touched up with the correct, vintage Berlin Brigade (BBde) terms and abbreviations.