Friday, May 10, 2013

A Veteran's Story IV - Night Train to Berlin

Let me begin by saying I had many interesting experiences during my military service in Germany in 1959-62. Later in this memoir I shall focus on a particularly interesting mission. 

I was a communications security specialist with the U.S. Army Security Agency. My unit, the 102nd USASA Det., was stationed in Heidelberg, headquarters of the U.S. Army in Europe (USAREUR). Our mission was the monitoring of our own military's communications; i.e. telephone,teletype,and morse code radio transmissions. Our objective was to learn what damaging information a hostile power (the Soviet Union at that time) could glean from our communications and to report security violations whenever detected. 

In addition to monitoring communications at USAREUR headquarters I was sent on several temporary duty missions throughout West Germany, one mission to Orleans, France and one to divided Berlin (which mission I will describe shortly). Remember, Germany was a divided country until the reunification Octber 3,1990 by which time the Soviet sponsored East German economy had collapsed and the Berlin Wall had fallen in November 1989*.

Sometime in the Fall of 1960 I was ordered to temporary duty in Berlin, the divided city. To get to Berlin required traversing communist East Germany by rail in a special "sealed train", known as the Frankfurt/Berlin duty train operated by the U.S. Army**. 

This train would leave Frankfurt/M in the evening and arrive the following morning in Berlin. No one, except U.S. and East German officials, was allowed to board or exit the train at any of the checkpoints when entering or leaving East Germany. Prohibited activities while aboard these trains were the taking of photographs while in East Germany, attempting to converse with Soviet or East German personnel or even making eye contact with Soviet personnel at checkpoints. As these journeys were all overnight affairs both East and West bound trains carried only sleeping cars and some baggage cars. 

My roughly two week stay in Berlin was largely uneventful so my memoir focuses mainly on the transportation aspect. Here are some additional details about the Army Duty Trains:

Route of the Duty Train
The U.S. had a total of four passenger trains that traveled from Frankfurt and Bremerhaven to Berlin, and vice versa. Each train consisted of three compartmentalized sleeping cars, an escort car, and a mail and freight car.
The Soviets allowed 16 to 19 trains a day to travel to West Berlin.
The trains traveled only at night, departing at 8:30 p.m. and arriving at their destination at 6:30 a.m. the following morning, allowing the passengers to sleep throughout the trip.
The train ride was 115 miles through the "Iron Curtain," typically taking nine hours, depending on the time to check passports and orders at the checkpoints.

Documents Required to Ride the Train
Each year about 80,000 people made the journey through East Germany. Movement orders or "flag orders" were carefully drawn up with name, rank, and personal information copied exactly from the identification card. Any typographical error would be grounds for refusing passage or detention by the Soviets or their "friends" the East German Border Police.
At checkpoints, no one was permitted to get off the train except for the commander, interpreter, and senior MP. The Soviet soldiers would inspect passports and orders of all the riders, which took about an hour.

A Ride on the Train
Once aboard the train, passengers could purchase snacks before settling into their sleeping compartments. At checkpoints, they were advised to keep the window shades down and not make eye contact with the Soviets.
Helmstedt (below) was one of the checkpoints between Frankfurt and Bremerhaven. Here, the communist locomotive was exchanged with the West German locomotive to continue to trip into Bremerhaven. In Soviet occupied territory, the locomotive had to be East German. A ride from west Berlin to Frankfort, for example, entailed an engine change in Potsdam (W. German to E. German) and Helmstedt (E. German to W. German). 
Source for the above details

*The Berlin Wall was erected in the dead of night (August 1961) and for 28 years kept East Germans from fleeing to the West. Its destruction, which was nearly as instantaneous as its creation, was celebrated around the world. 

**At the borders of West Berlin and the West German Bundesrepublik, U.S. Train Commanders were required to dismount and present "flag orders" prepared in three languages (English, French, Russian) to Soviet military authorities. Soviets were not allowed to enter Duty Trains or to check its Allied passengers but insisted on inspecting travel documents


  1. John we are so grateful to have you amongst our ranks! Thank you for your service and sharing your story. We are honored. You are a great writer and teacher.

  2. Looking forward to more stories from you, John!

  3. I was an Army Brat that rode the duty train to Berlin from Frankfurt. My father was stationed in Frankfurt, my mom was German and her family was from Berlin. They were in the West side of Berlin, thankfully and therefore as a child I would spend a great deal of time in Berlin. We took to duty train to Berlin 3 times every year for the duration of our 3 year tour. I have vivid memories of having to wait for what seemed forever to get on that train. For a kid, a few hours at the Bahnhof was forever. But, once on the train, and securely in our "room" and getting settled in, for me it was an adventure. The sleeping berths were not comfortable, and the sheets, blanket and pillows were military issue. Hard and scratchy instead of soft. The window shades were black and had to be kept pulled down and it was just so confining in that "room". Bathrooms were down the corridor on the left, and you would hear MP's walking up and down the corridor all night long. I always had a hard time sleeping on the train and so with each stop, I would look out the window that had a black shade that had been pulled down. There were several stops throughout the night at different towns, but finally the train would pick up speed and there would be no more stops until the first engine change. It never failed that each time we would have to switch the engine out that the delay would be at least 2 hours. The Russians were never convenient to the "duty train". We were told not to engage with our eyes or try to communicate and never take any pictures during the trip through the Russian sector. One time we were delayed for at least 3 hours during the final engine switch and my dad took me out into the hallway to stretch our legs. I was 9 to 12 years old and like any kid wanted to look out the windows, and several soldiers were walking by, I guess about 5. They looked at me and one smiled. Actually smiled at me. My dad saw the exchange and grabbed me by the hand and took me back into our room. My mom would always pack us sandwiches and drinks to have on the train. For a kid, it was an adventure. For the adults, it was stressful as the Russians would board the trains and knock on the doors to check the paperwork and to look at everyone. Getting to West Berlin was always interesting as the Russians were always a pain in the ass. My mother being born and raised in Berlin and a child of the War was always uncomfortable during that time of checks and rechecks. I never really understood it as I was a child, and my father was there to protect us. But, now, as an adult, I understand so much more about the duty train, why the trip was only at night, and why my mom was so uncomfortable on that train. These of the memories of a child on the Duty Train from Frankfurt to Berlin and Back.


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