Thursday, February 02, 2017

The Cold War and the Duty Train

Image from
A guest post from:
Michael P. Rethman
Prescott, AZ

As a teenager, age 12 to 16, I made the Frankfurt-Berlin-Frankfurt run a lot, either with my dad (who commanded an intelligence operation in Wiesbaden with sub-commands in Berlin and Munich) and as a kid who played on Wiesbaden High Schools’ (GO Warriors!) golf, track & basketball teams.
We kids generally observed the rules but when the sports teams traveled and the train was pulled onto fenced and patrolled sidings so as to inspect the train and occupants’ documents, many of us kids would barter cigarettes, (Kent was the favorate brand of both the Volkspolezei [VOPOs] and Russian enlisted soldiers), for uniform brass -- after these guys had inspected the train with dogs, mirrors and guns ready to shoot or arrest anyone caught "hitching a ride."  (The Russians and/or the Vopos also made sure from their vantage points outside the train that the "coast was clear" for a bit of commerce.) 
I never did figure out why Kents were so popular among these guys -- but at 11¢ or so a pack (tax free!) at the base commissary, they were much more fungible than cash.

The evening of May 1, 1966 or '67, I was making the trip with just my dad, a then USAF Colonel, who by virtue of his rank was the titular "train commander."  (The young American MPs really ran things and rightfully so, it was their day-to-day job.) That evening an Army MP Captain visited our compartment..  He advised my dad of problems that had occurred early that morning (in Pottsdam I believe) just outside of Berlin.  It seemed that the Russians (as part of the Communists' worldwide May Day celebrations) had decided to decorate the outside of last night's duty train with Soviet flags.  This was a violation of the Status of Forces agreements and caused the train's personnel to react by pulling the emergency stop while the train was astride heavily used rail switches just inside E. German territory near Berlin -- in Pottsdam, I believe. 
After the train stopped, all the manual "car" brakes were applied from inside the passenger cars.  These were big, heavy American coaches, not the dinky little rail cars then common in Europe.  The demand by the train commander (likely spurred by the MPs’ bosses back at USAEUR’s HQ) was that the train would remain where it was until the flags came down.  Three hours later, despite numerous multi-engine hook-up attempts to skid the cars down the track, the flags came down and the trip was finished otherwise uneventfully into West Berlin.
All this came at my dad in the context of the Cold War -- and his job, running a top secret, American-sector-wide intel command out of Wiesbaden.  (Indeed, unlike most of my high school friends, our family wasn't allowed "behind the Iron Curtain" for fear of being detained.  Technically and a bit odd now that I think about it, riding the duty train, wasn't considered being "behind the Iron Curtain with regard to the blanket "no Soviet zone" prohibition on our travel.
The MP completed his briefing with the statement that he "…didn't expect any problems tonight" to which my dad gave a terse "I hope not Captain, thanks for getting me up-to-speed."
I am not sure Dad slept much that night but I slept fine, in the blissful ignorance of youth.  My fighter & test-pilot dad died at 99+ in summer of 2015, long after I had retired as an Army Colonel myself.  May God bless Dad and his generation for all they did for America.
Finally, MI, thanks so much for providing this forum!  These "sealed trains" were, even in the 1960s a relic of the 1800's but they were a somewhat surreal but always a memorable experience shared by many who defended our nation in post-WWII Europe.  It surprises me that more hasn't been written about them.
#dutytrain, #coldwar

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