Everybody Has a Story: August 1961 a tense marathon
He played a small role during a Cold War border crisis.
By John Morris Benson, West Hazel Dell
Published: August 15, 2021, 6:05am
This year is the 60th anniversary of the closing of the Soviet sector of Berlin and the borders between the British, American and French sectors of West Germany. It brings back memories of August 1961.
I’d been in Frankfurt, Germany, less than a month and at my Army Security Agency assignment as a communications center message controller for about three weeks. Routine message routing wasn’t boring, nor was it exciting. Confidential and secret messages were almost routine, and their content gave me little concern for my well-being or for the safety of my family in the United States.
When message traffic indicated that East German and Russian sources, which we monitored in the region, were becoming progressively quieter starting about Aug. 6, I started to feel some stress. I’d been schooled that more than one source of intelligence going quiet was a very good indicator that some planned event was about to happen.
A top-secret message came through my workstation saying our Berlin stations would be on covert alert starting the evening of Aug. 11. No specific reason was in the message text. Covert alert meant all normal activities would be overt and routine if observable by the other side, but all would be ready for full duty, ASAP, if full alert was called.
We weren’t on alert at our Frankfurt unit, but conversations among the more experienced in the secure break room gave me uneasy feelings.
There was continuing tension between authorities and military on both sides, East and West. But Saturday, Aug. 12, was like any other summer weekend for most Berliners and Frankfurters going about their daily routines. British, French and American soldiers were still “doing the town,” if not on duty. My morning was busy with personal things. I picked up my laundry at the post exchange and checked the reader board for approved apartments. My wife and two boys were scheduled to join me in two weeks.
Swing shift that Saturday started at 4 p.m. and I was told to expect an overlap to graveyard or a double shift. The graveyard-shift communications controller was in sick bay and the day-shift controller had been flown to Berlin that morning to strengthen that station’s staff. Another controller had been ordered for temporary duty at Frankfurt but probably would not arrive for several days.
Our observers communicated that Soviet and East German troops, usually out and about in limited numbers, were all restricted to barracks that night.
It was a little over an hour into my extended shift when I responded to a CRITIC message alarm on the teletype — a critical communication that must be relayed to higher authority within 10 minutes. The paper shot out the top: CRITIC – CODE-CODE-CODE – CRITIC. (I remember the code words meaning border closing, but I believe it prudent to not tell them.) It was my first real CRITIC. My gut wound tight as I read the follow-up text from our observers in West Berlin. Routine check points between the Soviet sector and the West were now fully armed guard stations with armored vehicle backup.
Simultaneously, our news monitoring section picked up a Reuters News Service dispatch from Berlin correspondent Adam Kellett-Long. His message alerted news agency teletypes around the world: “The East-West border was closed early today!”
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We did a well-practiced routine and relayed the critical message from our Berlin station to the White House, the Pentagon and other vital national security entities. Several follow-up critical messages, including notification that Reuters had already published the border closing story worldwide, arrived within minutes. Communications got more intense as Army Security Agency units and others went to full alert. I’d been on full alert before, but not with a long series of top-secret messages flying out of a teletype machine in front of me.
Frankfurt wasn’t too far from the border, where I imagined Russian tanks might be lining up as they were in Berlin. I had been at the Pentagon in 1956, when Russian radio communications went silent just before they drove tanks into Hungary to quell the student uprising. But the distance made it like reading about the situation in the newspapers.
This was different. The East German border was about 45 miles away from Frankfurt.
Training and mission-focused adrenalin didn’t completely remove initial thoughts about my wife and boys, scheduled to arrive in September. They were still safe at home, and the immediate intensity of the work drove those thoughts into the background.
My relief arrived at 4 p.m. Wednesday and I went to the barracks. I was exhausted after 104 waking hours, 96 of those on duty. But sleep didn’t come immediately. Acid stomach from gallons of coffee and mentally reviewing the messages I’d been passing on kept me awake until after dark. It seems odd, even to this day, that I slept only about eight hours after my multishifts and didn’t have to be awakened by my alarm to go to a debriefing and my next regular shift.
With a full complement of controllers and related personnel in place, my physical tension from fatigue was relaxed. But there were still underlying “what if” issues. I considered having my wife and children’s travel to Germany canceled, but didn’t.
But divulging any detail of top-secret military work was strictly forbidden, and it was extremely frustrating to not be able to share my workday with my wife. Not being able to just talk caused angst I’d not felt before. It was many years before I could share any of my role in those events of mid-August 1961.
I’m thankful that Aug. 13 is only an annual reminder of Cold War intensity, not the start of another hot war in Europe.
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