Berlin 1961 Reader Stories

Serving in Berlin in 1961

by William H. Lay

I served with the US Army in Berlin from 1961 to 1963, a lieutenant with the 287th MP Company.

Company grade officers (like Lt. Pike & I) and even one star generals (Frederick Hartel) are normally limited to tactical thinking & decisions; however, Berlin in 1961 and ‘62 presented every soldier in the divided city with the potential for igniting a strategic response.  We were constantly reminded of that in company meetings and officer calls, but one had only to look at the Wall, or hear about if not actually witness would-be refugees killed by their own police force or army to grasp the danger.

All of us, at whatever rank, felt that responsibility deeply.  At the same time, we sensed the ambivalence of our superiors, all the way up to the White House as you so clearly point out, and at least some of us felt they were playing us as pawns.

Again and again we were put into dangerous situations with no orders other than “Just follow orders.  Keep your cool and don’t let your men be trigger-happy.”  We were to play by ear whatever happened, and if we did the right thing (judged later, pragmatically) we were praised, sometimes given a letter of commendation; otherwise a letter of reprimand or relief from duty would ruin an officer’s career.

I was the OIC at Checkpoint Charley the day Peter Fechter died. Understand that I never talked to reporters, apparently unlike Lieutenant Pike.  Perhaps orders not to discuss operations or even to talk with reporters or onlookers (who might be spies) came only after I was transferred to Berlin, after the Wall.  To me they were a nuisance and only borderline ethical, caring less about the truth than getting a story.  They would report rumors and innuendoes as fact and weave a story around it.  I can remember reading an account in Time that went on for a page or two of some episode at the Wall, then throwing the magazine down in disgust, thinking I was there, and this is all lies!

On that day in August, 1962, I had just gone to our latrine facility to get rid of some coffee when I heard automatic fire outside.  I ran back and asked what was going on.  Some bullets splattered overhead against the wall of a building.

“They’re shooting at refugees right here,” said an NCO.  “Call it in,” I said.

The Spec. 4 at the phone to headquarters started talking.  More shots whizzed by overhead.  “And keep your heads down!”

“Sir, Col. Sabolyk is on his way,” said the man on the phone.  “[Expletive], they’ve shot this one,” somebody yelled.  “He’s trying to crawl over the wire!”

More shooting, from at least 2 locations.  The other phone, the hot or red one, rang, and the enlisted man answered it, turned to me and said “Sir, it’s for you, the White House.”

I answered, “Sir, Checkpoint Charley, Lieutenant Lay speaking.”  The man at the other end swore, then said, “[Expletive], Lieutenant, I’ve got the President of the United States right here.  Get me somebody with rank to talk to!”

“Yes sir,” I said, “Colonel Sabolyk is on his way here now.”

“Fine,” he said.  “Hold this line open.”  By now the shooting had stopped.  We heard the siren screaming from the Colonel’s sedan blocks away, and then he sped up and leaped out.  I saluted and said, “Sir, it’s for you – the White House.”

He grabbed the phone and said “Colonel Sabolyk.”  There was a slight pause, then “Yessir, Mr. President!”  Another pause.  The Colonel’s face got redder, then, “Yes, Mr. President, no sir, we won’t move.”

“What did he say,” I asked.  He looked me in the eye and said, “We’re not going to start World War III over some [expletive] East German!”

Now, having read your book and realizing that Kennedy established precedence by referring to East Berlin instead of “the Soviet Sector,” that he felt it belonged to the Russians and anything they did or allowed the East Germans to do in that sector was their business, not ours, it is entirely possible that the Colonel followed up the exclamation from Kennedy about WWIII that I so vividly remember with the anticlimactic statement, “It’s not our business.”

Meanwhile the Berliners on the sidewalk were screaming at us.

Reporters were shouting, “Why don’t you do something?” I remember feeling frustrated, almost helpless.  In response, and feeling the same way they did, it is possible that I repeated the Kennedy line, instead of the simple truth that the President of the United States directly ordered us not to interfere.

In gratitude,

William H. Lay
Capt, USAR, Retired

5 Responses to “Serving in Berlin in 1961”

  1. SFC (RET) Michael Rafferty says:

    Wow! Now that is an amazing story! Thank you for sharing!

  2. SFC (RET) Rafferty says:

    Fantastic Story! Thank you for sharing!

  3. I WAS IN berlin from 1970 /1973, in us army. It was great place to serve.the barracks I lived in are gone now. i think they built apartments there, being macnair barracks.

    James Springer

  4. Captain Hay:
    My names is James Bowman. I was a member of the 287th MP CO SOU, Berlin Brigade, from 1963-1968. I was also assigend to the 54th USASA and worked both at T-Berg as well as the Provost marshall’s Office (287th MP CO, Andrews Barracks) as liason office under Mr. Firestone, dealing with EOC at the US Embassy on Clay Allee as well as with the USMLM in Potsdam. I also worked some shifts at Check Point Charlie. I have always held a special place in my heart for Peter Fechter and for you, although until I read the information above, I did not kow your name. Thank you for your service, Capatin Lay, and your dedication to the defense of freedom. My eldest daughter has been Special Ops out of Fort Bragg since she entered the military right after highschool and just returned from her deployment. We are a military family. My best to you, sir, always.

    James R. Bowman, Captain, USAR, Ret.

  5. larry ripley says:

    I too was in Berlin 1969 – 1970. I was stationed at McNair Barracks in C-2-6. As someone who has an interest in history, it was a great posting. I pulled guard duty at Spandau and of course checked out all the places I could get to in the western sectors. I enjoyed the trips to East Berlin that I got to take. It was always interesting to go through any of the checkpoints, Charlie or the autobahn checkpoint when making convoy trips to West Germany for training in Hohenfels. I took the duty train in and out several times. the russians were always looking for something, but the enlisted men were often friendly if there were no officers around. I had a friend who drove a diesel tanker to Helmstat on the border to provide diesel to convoys going back into Berlin and occasionally go with them outbound. He got to know the Russians at the check points and began an exchange of uniform parts with them. He had acquired a complete Russian uniform including overcoat.

    I do have a story, but it’s not in the 1961 timeframe since it was 1969.I was a draftee, married and inducted on Valentines day of 1969. During Basic Training, I never saw or handled a weapon other than an M-14 during training. AIT was a company clerks school, during which I handled no weapons. I was sent Frankfort for futher disposition. There I was selected to go to Berlin and boarded the Duty Train with the other 200 or so that were also being sent to Berlin. All of us were cooks, clerks or MPs. We arrived and were divvied up among the 3 Infantry battalions. The Brigade had no need for anything other than 11B’s. I was assigned to 2nd Plt, Weapons squad as an assistant gunner for an M-60. I carried the extra barrels, tripod and ammo. I was given a .45 as a personal weapon. We were going out on Platoon ATTs. Our Platoon Sgt had done somrtjhing like four or five tours in Berlin already and knew the area we were going to conduct the exercise in like the back of his hand. We were the top of the test and were lined up with the rest of the Brigade on the Four Ring and informed that the Brigade Commander, a one star, was going to personally inspect the best platoon in the ATTs upon hearing this The company commander ran us through a quickie present arms drill before the General arrived. That was when I figured out I had no idea how to present arms with a .45. The General was arriving and I quickly asked my gunner who I was standing next to how to do it. He whipped out his .45, held it up in front of him, slid the slide back. The slide remained open for the General to take for inspection. What I missed that he didn’t think to tell me about was the latch on the outside of the weapon as it was held and that I had to use it to hold the slide back. The General stepped in front of me and I smartly pulled out my .45 pointed up to my left and slid the slide back. Oh crap, it didn’t stay!, OK, just do it again. Still holding the weapon properly, I tried to slide it back. It wouldn’t move. Something in my panicked brain said you’ve got to pull the trigger to be able to push it back again. Still maintaining proper position and attention, I pulled the trigger and slid the slide back again and it promptly slid closed again. By this time, I’m in a full bore panic and the Company Commander is not looking very good either. In my panic I’m slamming the slide back and pulling the trigger as fast as I can. The Company Commander looks like he is either passing out or evacuating himself in his pants. After several attempts which resulted in me pulling the .45 down from the proper position to right in front of me about waist high and pointed away from me and right at the General’s gut. The Plt. Sgt. figured out what was happening and asked to speak. The General never moving a muscle and standing at attention said yes. The Sgt. took the .45 from my hand and explained to the General that I had arrived in country just as the Plt. was headed out on the ATT and consequently had not had the opportunity to be given proper training. The general understood and then looking me directly in the eye, cracked a brief smile saying “just remember not to point the weapon at the inspecting officer.

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