Border Guards

By Jim Sack

Two new friends sat across from each other on a picnic table at a party in eastern Germany.  One from Fort Wayne, one from Gera, both tall men, both involved in the sister city program I has started, the German a school principle, the American a businessman, both lifting glasses of the local beer, Köstritzer, and trading stories of their lives.  It was the mid-1990s, perhaps 1995.  I was a leader of a group of Fort Wayne Aquatics swimmers who were in Gera for a friendly swim meet with their teenage counterparts.

I asked a question of the American that led to a surprising link among the three of us – we had all served in our respective armies along the defunct, then rapidly fading inter-German border, the Iron Curtain.  My story was boring by comparison.  I had served as a novice interrogator in Munich in the early 70s questioning occasional sources, defectors and deserters from Romania and Albania who had working knowledge of the military, economic or political situations back home.  t 

The German with his open smile and broad eastern face had served as a conscript border guard.  His duty was to keep one eye looking west for the ever expected NATO invasion, while the other eye kept lookout eastward for his fellow East Germans who snuck through the forests by moonlight hoping to find a crossing into the West.  The American had been a sergeant in the US Army regularly crossing into  East Germany testing the defenses of the DDR and frequently stirring up trouble kilometers inside enemy territory, crossing through the occasional mine field, slipping past the guard towers, skirting the dogs and avoiding Volksarmee patrols.

The ex-soldiers began telling “war-stories” to each other in a hybrid of the two languages, call it Gerlish.  The most interesting story rolled from the American who had been a long range patrol leader, an infiltrator.  

On one seemingly normal patrol they were well inside East Germany creating a bit of confusion.  The GI, Larry, said the patrol would move quietly, mostly at night carrying food and water with them, well armed just in case…  They would set a farm out-building on fire and then move quickly into the cover of the dense surrounding forest to enjoy the response   If they found an unguarded bit of infrastructure, say an above ground pipe, they would puncture it and return to the forest to observe the confusion.  

On one occasion their track was picked up by East German Soldaten.  Larry said the patrol quickly could tell they were being pursued.  To confuse the Germans, the 17-man patrol split into two groups and headed in different semi-circles toward the border where they had entered a week before.   During the day they would rest on a high point where they see whether they were being following.  The pursuing Germans could not move as fast as the Americans for fear of falling into a trap, not to mention tracking the experienced American was a matter or looking carefully for a broken branch or a boot print on the forest floor.  The Soldaten moved slowly giving the soldiers ample time to rest in the days and the move at night in the dark in the dense German forest.  For most of the trek back to the border the soldiers only encountered startled deer or a family of wild boar.  But, at one point the Soldaten  closed the gap and came within sight of the Americans.  The walk turned into double-time as the voices behind them got louder.

Finally, the Americans reached their exit and began to gather half a ilometer inside West Germany.  Sixteen men answered the roll call, one was missing.

Larry, the GI, said orders would not allow them to return to search for the missing man, so the patrol returned to their base to report what would soon become a hand-wringing problem among their superiors.  

A few weeks later at a crossing point the captured American was exchanged for someone going the other way, and a few days later Larry, the America intruder, was called to the office of his commander.  The officer asked more questions about the incursion, and then reached in his desk drawer.  He pulled out a soldier’s hat, the one Larry had lost in his hurried retreat.  The officer said that during the prisoner exchange an East German officer had stood on the other side of the border holding the American’s hat at arm’s length like a smelly sock.  The German officer had given the hat to the released American adding “with compliments of the Deutsche Demokratische Republik.”  It was a surplus souvenir, he added, he had a few others.

The two former border guards traded more stories of petty sabotage and frequent incursions in both directions, of tossing Pepsi cans into the illuminated no-mans land to cause the lights to sweep the barren space, to rile the dogs, to scare the guards and, with luck, to set off a landmine.  They laughed at the humor a scant six-seven years after the fall of the Wall and reunification, but for thousand of people from East Germany their attempt to leaved ended with a machine gun burst, stepping on a land mine or being mauled by a guard dog.  The same was true for hundreds from Poland, Hungary or Romania “Fluchtlinge” who failed crossing the border.  

But, tens of thousands did escape over the forty-three years of the Cold War and some of them were sent to processing centers in West Germany where those with the most critical or useful information about home were sent to interrogation centers  like mine on a quiet, leafy street in Munich where people like me conducted lengthy interviews and wrote reports for analysts at NATO headquarters and the Pentagon.   

Russian troops, Gera, Germany, Christmas 1990.