Serving in Berlin in 1961
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.
William H. Lay
Capt, USAR, Retired