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Checkpoint Charlie: Hotspot of the Cold War
When Vern Pike chose a two-year stay as an officer in Berlin in 1958, he had no idea that the occupied city and its infamous Wall would become part of his life forever. His two-year stay became indefinite, and indefinite became a twenty-nine-year career, with most of it spent in military police work. His most memorable duty was as a lieutenant in the 287th MP Company stationed at Checkpoint Charlie. His experiences there at a critical period during the Cold War have made him uniquely qualified to tell the story of the Berlin Wall and the gallant men who secured West Berlin against the Soviets. After World War II, Germany became a divided country. The Western Allies merged their occupied zones to produce a West German state that, with the help of Americas Marshall Plan, rose from the ashes of the war and developed a stable democracy. In the Soviet sector, meanwhile, life was dramatically different under the heel of communism. Seeking a better life, East Germans began a mass exodus into West Berlin. In August 1961, intent on keeping their citizens in and the Allied forces out, East German authorities began sealing off the Soviet sector of the city, setting off a shock wave across the western world. The East Germans were now prisoners in their own city, and West Berlin an island of freedom separated by an ugly monstrosity known as The Berlin Wall. Vern Pike was stationed in Berlin when the initial barricades began going up. The East Germans expected the Americans to cross the border and destroy the wall, but despite warnings from the MPs and West German authorities, U.S. officials did nothing. The barbed-wire fences and concrete barriers eventually became a wall thirteen feet high, guarded by a death strip on its Eastern side and soldiers who shot to kill. It was at this border where many dramatic escapes would take place during the stormy history of the Cold War. After the Wall went up, the military police of the 287th stood as the thin green line securing West Berlin against the Soviets. Pike and his fellow MPs, together with the German police, were responsible for police and security operations in the city, conducting patrols along the sector borders and ensuring Allied access rights. Their job was made especially difficult by Soviet opposition and by differences in language and philosophy among the four occupying nations. They were frequently subjected to harassment and were often the first to bear the brunt of new Soviet tactics and policies. When checkpoints were established along the border to control the flow of Allied traffic between sectors, Pike was dispatched to oversee operations at Checkpoint Charlie and was involved in many dangerous incidents that occurred in 1961 and 1962. While taking his new MPs on a post-graduation tour of East Berlin, Pike successfully smuggled two young East Berliners back to the West in the back of an Army tour bus, despite the enormous risk involved. During the tank confrontation in 1961, he leapt into an enemy tank, fortunately unoccupied at the time, to identify it as Soviet or East German. His MPs pulled an East German woman and her infant from a bathtub in the Wannsee River after her husband was shot during their escape attempt. Pikes company commander, then-Lieutenant Gil Jones, describes the apprehension of an inebriated Soviet soldier that wandered into the US sector of Berlin, his release back to Soviet authorities, and his ultimate, shocking disposition. These and other events serve as testimony to the precarious state of Berlin and Soviet-American relations during this time. The city was a tinderbox ready to light at any moment. Pike recounts his trip to the Soviet Union in 1962 and the stark contrast there with Western Europe and, indeed, West Berlin. The trip started and ended through Soviet checkpoints on the highway connecting West Germany with West Berlin, and provides an incredible example of what happens to a Soviet officer communicating with an American officer. The men of the Berlin Brigade represented what freedom was all about for West Berliners and for those in the East who could see them. Members of the 287th were specially selected and had to meet strict standards; their appearance and demeanor were world-class. The fact that they were 110 miles behind the Iron Curtain and surrounded by Soviet forces didnt faze them. The book closes with an account of Pikes visits back to Berlin in the 70s and 80s, and the departure of all Allied military from Berlin in 1990.
The Voices of North Carolina; July 2011
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