In the fall of 1973, I was a lieutenant in a Howitzer Battery, 2nd Squadron, 11 Armored Cavalry. The squadron was stationed at Daley Barracks in Bad Kissingen, Germany.
Our mission was to watch over the East German border portion of the Iron Curtain near Bad Neustadt in the Meiningen Gap. Our border camp was at Wollbach.
On October 6, 1973, The Arab Coalition started the Yom Kippur War with a surprise attack on Israel. West Pointers are trained military leaders, so it was no surprise that every classmate and graduate I knew paid very close attention to the conflict. (Related story: https://thedaysforward.com/panic-1973-war/)
Israel didn’t do so well during the first week of the war. Egyptian forces crossed the Suez Canal and drove deep into the Sinai desert. Syrian armor threatened to overwhelm the Golan Heights. The nation of Israel was in danger of being cut in half. Israeli losses of armor and aircraft were horrific. In spite of this, Israel held at the Golan and began to push back in the Sinai.
Now, lieutenants are not privy to a lot of military secrets, but they do hear rumors, and between October 10th and October 22, there were rumors a-plenty. Rumor was, the US was pulling ammunition, M-60 tanks, artillery, armored vehicles, and F-4 Phantom jet fighters out of European war reserve stockpiles and flying them to Israel as fast as aircraft came available. Other rumors said the Russians were doing the same for the Egyptians and Syrians.
What the lieutenants didn’t know was that the Russians sent a letter to President Nixon early on October 23. The letter said Russia would unilaterally enter the fight against Israel if the US did not join them to force a cease fire. Russia alerted seven Soviet Bloc airborne divisions to be ready to move to the Mideast. One division, with its air transport, mobilized at an airfield in Yugoslavia. In addition to this, the Russian fleet sortied 97 combat ships into the Mediterranean to shadow US Navy assets. Both fleets were ready to shoot.
Israel was in danger of being destroyed if the Russians entered the war. Golda Meir authorized the IDF to arm some of its nukes. The Russians, in return, moved a ship with their nukes into a harbor in Egypt. World War III was in the air.
Around midnight, DC time, on October 23, the Nixon Administration ordered the US military to DEFCON 3. The DEFCON scale defines stages of US military readiness with 5 being normal and 1 being war is imminent or underway. DEFCON 3 directs selected US forces to increase readiness for deployment. The US wasn’t about to allow unilateral Russian intervention. US action made that perfectly clear to the Russian government.
Midnight October 23 in Washington DC is early morning October 24 in Germany. The day dawned as a beautiful crisp sunny autumn morning at Daley Barracks in Bad Kissingen, Germany. Around 0830 on Wednesday, October 24 (midnight October 23, Washington DC time), an NRAS B Team member and I, an NRAS A Team member, were called to the 2/11 ACR HQ to decode an NRAS message.
NRAS stands for Nuclear Release Authentication System. This system is designed to prevent a single individual from exploding an atomic bomb. The system works by requiring classified codes to be stored in a safe with two locks, an A Team Lock and a B Team Lock. Each lock has a different combination. Access to any coded material under two-man control requires the presence of an A Team member with the A Team combination and a B Team with the B Team combination. Armed guards prevented any monkey business.
Higher headquarters often transmitted NRAS messages to 2/11 ACR via 3-character alpha-numeric code groups. The first code groups of a message identified a specific sealed plastic card. Popping the seal on the appropriate card allowed us to open one of two books and get instructions for decoding the message. The first book was the “practice” book. The second was the “real” one. There was little distinction between the “practice” books and the “real” books.
2/11 Howitzer Battery NRAS teams were very experienced. Practice messages came in several times each week. All of us had worked together for 18 months and decoded dozens of practice messages and we were good at it. On October 24, we unlocked the safe, opened the practice code books, decoded the message AND THE CODE DIDNT BREAK.
So, we tried it a second time and THE CODE STILL DIDN’T BREAK.
We looked at each other and in a split second, in unison we said, “Oh Shit, it’s real” This was not a practice message. We opened the REAL BOOK and popped the sealed WAR RESERVE card. THE MESSAGE DID BREAK AND IT WAS A REAL NRAS ALERT. We and the US military all over the world were at DEFCON 3, one step away from war.
The message told us info we never imagined. It sent units all over the world to alert assembly areas, it released weapons we never heard of and put us one step away from sending our wives and children to Rhein Main Air Force Base for evacuation to the United States.
Suffice it to say, this presented Howitzer Battery, in Bad Kissingen with a serious issue. Our 2/11 Squadron E, F and G Cav Troops and the H CO M-60 tank company were doing tank gunnery at Grafenwöhr. Graf is a long way from Bad Kissingen. This meant the only thing patrolling our section of the East German border around the Meiningen Gap was an under-strength artillery battery with 6 155mm howitzers.
We didn’t have enough people to move out of Bad Kissingen to our alert position.
So, how do we tell our Battalion Commander about this? Turns out we got him on the phone and suggested he go have a conversation with any neighboring nuke capable 155mm artillery battalion commander about current events. He did. Before he could arrange rail transport to bring the 2/11 tanks back to BK, cooler heads prevailed. A truce was arranged in the Mideast and the alert was called off before the end of the day.
I didn’t play any kind of an important role in this incident, but I did get to see a tiny part of history.