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There’s Something In the Air

The East - West German border was certainly an area that tended to collect cutting edge military technology of every stripe.  Cav troopers may recall being part of early fielding of a number of new vehicles and systems, the M901 Improved Tow Vehicle, the M109A2 howitzer, M60A3 tank, first generation thermal imaging sights / viewers and the AN/PPS5A - B ground surveillance radar set immediately come to mind.  Although many of these systems had been under development for some time, when the money broke loose under President Regan, the cool stuff really started to flow.  But even back in the early 1960s, now and then, space age equipment showed up at the border.  Sam Compton tells the story.

Radar Sam

I was trained as an infantry man and assigned to the 3rd Armored Infantry Battalion of the 50th Infantry Regiment, located at Wildflecken.   During my assignment, the unit was re - designated as 2nd Bn - 15th Infantry, 3rd Infantry Division.   Our primary job beyond all the normal training was to serve as the OPFOR for other units as they visited the training areas.  In June, 1962, some of us were selected for training on the new ground surveillance radar system, AN/ PPS 4 that was being tested in Germany.  We traveled down to Aschaffenburg for six days of training.

  Here I am at Wildflecken in 1962.   Looking out from the tent area towards the
Camp Wollbach Ops Center

This radar system looked like a large pail set up on a tripod hooked to a control panel by heavy cables.  It was powered by a generator and had an effective range of about 1000 meters.  The operator listened with headphones as the radar unit would be slowly panned by hand across its sector.  When you set up, you also had to do a map study so that contacts you heard could be referenced to map locations. 

Basically,  this was an early Doppler radar system, the beam traveled  line - of - site from the device and registered an audible tone in the headset when movement was detected.  A man walking in the beam gave a sound return similar to someone walking on a hardwood floor wearing heavy rubber boots.  A group of men gave a different sound, a truck - a medium whine, a tank a deeper whine and so on.  In standard search, the device gave off a pulsing ping and the operator heard nothing.  If movement was returned, we got the audio cue and then could fine tune using controls for the best signal, distance to target and target type.  It worked best on heavy vehicles like tanks but could detect humans, even animals under the right conditions. We operated in teams of three men and carted our equipment in a ¾ ton truck with a shelter box on the back.  I guess for its day, it was pretty high tech.

  Here I am with the ground surveillance radar set.   This photo shows our truck, the shelter built on the rear, the
three man crew and the radar equipment.

As I recall, when we were part of the testing period, we were using a prototype of the radar, then somewhat later, we were issued an improved model that looked and operated about the same.

Because real world experience with the system was the best operator training,  our radar sections were often attached to the cavalry units nearby and this brought me to Camp Wollbach many times and as far southeast as Coburg once.  The 2 - 14 ACR border camp at the time was not much to talk about;  there was a combination ops building, cooking area, briefing area and that was about it.  It was staffed by a platoon rotated up from Bad Kissingen, maybe with some augmentation, we all slept in tents.  The routine was two weeks at the border camp and then two weeks back at Wildflecken. 

  Radar Sam and SFC Langley   A Series of five photos that show the
border areas we worked in.

Along the border, we had seven areas that were routinely used as radar observation sites. These had good sensing lanes for the radar - these were also good areas for an armored attack so it was an ideal combination for both training and tactical observation.  We would be briefed as to which one to use and head out so that we could be set up just after nightfall.  Often times, we were accompanied by a couple of cav jeeps and a few troopers for security.  We would observe all night and then break down the equipment and be on our way back to camp just prior to first light.  I believe that our team was the first use of ground surveillance radar in that 14th Cav sector 

You would be surprised just how busy and how porous the border might be on some of these nights.  Much of our border area still only had light, if any East German barbed wire.  It was not uncommon for the East Germans to be working with hand tools under cover of darkness setting up that second generation of fences and there were plenty of occasions when trip flares would go off, maybe animals or the weather,  and this led to indiscriminate gun fire from the East.  There were two nights that really stand out in my mind from that border duty and both involve the East Germans who really wanted to get their hands on one of our radar sets. 



One Winter night, we were set up and a huge snowstorm blew in.  When we finally pulled out, making headway on the roads and trails was nearly impossible.  We got just out of the border area when it became apparent that we could not get back to camp and we reported our situation.  They weren’t having any better luck getting out of the border camp to help us so we sat huddled next to the truck heater and as the day wore on, we ran out of gas.  Eventually, a cav Lt set down in a light helicopter and brought us coffee and said a better plan was in the making.  Some time later, a heavy helicopter came in to pick us and the radar set up.  We heard later that East Germans were reported in the area, they probably wanted to rescue the radar set as well.


On another occasion, we were out at one of the usual spots, right up on the border, as a matter of fact, East Germany was on three side of us.  We had set up a ring of concertina wire and had a security team from the cav with us as well, this was a standard operating procedure.  On the set, we got an unusually heavy contact slowly moving around, something like a tank or heavy truck and made our spot report.  Just a short time later, the security team reported voices nearby so we shut down the generator to listen; and then the little “ rattles “ that were hung on the wire began to sound off -  needless to say - this was too close for comfort!  We pulled in the security, threw the equipment into the back of the truck and took off like the whole Russian army was behind us.  When we finally got out of that area and into the clear, they guys in the back told me that the East Germans had been right on our tails when we left, pounding on the back of the truck and trying to hang on!  Do not know if it was a detail working on the fence that had blundered into us while making a short cut along the border or if this was a real attempt to seize us and the equipment.  I can tell you this - it did happen!

Just to wrap thing up, after I got out of the Army, I went into private business and owned a company that represented manufacturers and their products.  This allowed me to travel back to Germany several times and once, 1990 or so, after the border had opened and the Army was out of the border camp, I happened to drive over just to see the place.  Of course, a lot had changed but I was able to walk into the camp and take the modern day photo from the same point of view showing where the helicopter had landed after rescuing us from the snow storm.

  There is the helicopter that scooped us up
after the big blizzard.
  Fast forward to the same view in 1990.  

In retirement, I am active with the US Army Veterans of Wildflecken organization and am planning for a reunion at the old post on the hill, a tour of the former border region and an extended tour down the Romance Road in Bavaria.  For the Wildflecken part of the stay, we suggest standard Summer attire, wool hats, mittens and overshoes.

September 2012


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