The Cold War was a period in U.S. history that defines our generation, our Army experience and much of the collective experience of our military careers for the Class of 1969. We were indoctrinated during our cadet experience in the notion of the Warsaw Pact military as our recognized enemy. Although we were preparing for combat in Southeast Asia, the concept that we would someday have to fight against Soviet Armies in Central Europe was a key facet of our cadet education.
Many of us spent one or more tours serving in the U.S. Army in Europe in units with assigned missions along the borders with Warsaw Pact nations (Soviet Union, Albania, Poland, Romania, Hungary, East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria) and defending in depth within then West Germany.
We war-gamed scenarios while in our officer education programs; the Fulda Gap was the canonical terrain box in which we conducted those scenarios.
When assigned to the United States Army Europe (USAREUR), we rehearsed those or similar war plans during REFORGER.
REFORGER meant Return of Forces to Germany, an annual, large scale war games on the ground, usually involving US-based units who were designated to reinforce Europe if a major conflict occurred.
We frequently conducted other unit exercises as well as no-notice deployments to our unit’s sector according to the established General Defense Plans (GDP). It was a sobering experience to consider how we would stand up against the Soviet Armies we were briefed would attack our defenses in mass. And the further thought of potential use of nuclear and chemical weapons, by either side, was never outside the planning consideration in these scenarios.
Personally, I served two tours (both 4 years) under the regime of being ready to respond to a Warsaw Pact incursion into West Germany. One with a Direct Support Field Artillery Battalion whose defense position was basically up against the border to reinforce the Armored Calvary Covering Force as it sought to slow or repel the initial advance of the enemy. On a second tour, I was a Division Artillery Operations Officer responsible for the plans and exercises to deploy our battalions into the border sector when notified. The border near the Fulda Gap in our sectors during both tours were essentially closed to residents of either East or West Germany who could not cross except at designated checkpoints and then only for documented business or personal reasons. U.S. personnel stationed in Germany were not allowed to cross the inter-German border except under a special provision that allowed them to transit East Germany to visit Berlin with orders. Many of us with special clearances due to the weapons we controlled were very restricted from such travel. To ensure these travel restrictions were observed, the border on the East German side was heavily patrolled, not only near potential roadways but in forested and mountainous areas.
It was then with collective relief that we watched the demise of the Warsaw Pact and the stand down of the massive troop formations and units of the Soviet Union that we viewed as our key adversaries in the 1980’s and early 1990’s. I am sure most of the Army, U.S. citizenry and our Class did not have insight into the implications of the enemy’s retrograde from the previous adversaries’ border regions along the eastern border of West Germany. I gained some small insight while on a temporary duty assignment (TDY) to Frankfurt, Germany in March 1991.
It was a memorable experience because it was during that period after the Berlin Wall had come down, but while East and West Germany were wrestling with reunification and executing plans using former West German investment to repair the infrastructure in the former East. During a weekend break, I was able to drive in my rental car directly across the border in the area near where my units had previously been assigned defensive positions, not that far from Fulda itself.
I could freely hike onto the terrain and look westward. I had the same view which the East German Border guards would have had when they observed us during our deployment rehearsals or terrain walks, we used to familiarize ourselves with the location. I was able to view the perspective Soviet and East German forces might have had if an order to invade the West came. This was not so long after the borders had opened; the border patrol roads made of Pierced Steel Plank (PSP) and guard towers were still in place, so I drove through forest roads to visit them and the guard towers along the border. It was a poignant emotional experience for me (I’m not sure if I was even permitted to be there, but no one else was around and I decided this was a case of taking the risk now and begging forgiveness later- if stopped.)
As I traveled further East, I saw Soviet unit “Kasernes” or Barracks still identifiable by their unit signs and crests which were now vacant. During my visit to the East, there occurred a poignant personal experience when I stopped for a coffee and lunch in one of the towns which was in the former East Germany. It was Sunday and, as in the West, the locals were out in force walking, as is the German habit, on what I remember was a mild Spring day. However, unlike taking such walks in the West Germany where fellow hikers would not let you pass without a friendly greeting such as Guten Tag or Gruss Gott (Good Day and God’s Greetings) , the citizens in East Germany would not look at me (I don’t think I was recognizable as an American) or even at each other directly; it was an eerie experience. My perception at the time, and nothing has changed that over the years, is that this provided clear evidence of what suppression does collectively to a culture. In some ways it did make me feel like a victor (or a member of the victors) in the Cold War because these people deserved to be released from the oppressive yoke of a Communist government. Today, I am sure one would not recognize behavioral differences between German citizens anywhere in the country. The Cold War was, and still is, a seminal event in our collective generational psyche. We should never forget that our generations served nobly to help win that war without a major confrontation of forces due to our service, commitment and professional execution of our duties in the West German theater.