Return to Hidden Stories

 

Late Winter 1989 and the Coming Spring

The New York Times often visited the Blackhorse Regiment to measure the morale and check on the mission of the 7th Army in Germany.  The article below, from early 1989 reports a re-armed force ready to do its job despite the privations of being so far from home in expensive Germany.  In many ways, that day in 1989 echoed the past; despite more and better equipment,  improved training and morale, troopers were still patrolling along roads and trails adjacent to East German barbed wire just as they had in 1950.  But there is also that subtle feeling of possible change to the status quo.

With Gorbachev leading the Soviet Union, a new style leader was at the helm and for millions of Europeans and the troopers at Point Alpha, the 1st Squadron Border Observation Camp, maybe there was room for change.

Who could have imagined that nine months after this article, indeed everything on the border and soon after, with the Blackhorse would be so dramatically different.

On the Central Front in Germany, Quiet Life and Good Duty for GIs

SERGE SCHMEMANN

Special to the New York Times

February 27, 1989

FULDA, West GermanyŚ Had the Russians invaded the West that day, the American Army sergeant perched with elaborate binoculars on the watchtower of Observation Post Alpha could have been the first to spot them.

For a few hours, his assignment was to stand watch at the Fulda Gap, where the East juts farthest into the West and so, in theory, the corridor through which invading Soviet tanks would slice into Western Europe.

But the central front was quiet that frosty day, as it has been for the 44 years since Gen. George Patton drove Hitler's armies back through here.

''I've never seen any Russians,'' conceded the young sergeant, David Rinehart.

Unlike the Americans, who patrol right up to the line, Soviet troops of the crack Eighth Guards Armor stay out of sight, leaving day-to-day patrolling of their side of the divide to the East Germans, who peer at Alpha from a watchtower 300 yards away. Frontier and Symbol

In any case, the Russians have no evident intention of attacking these days, and even if they did, American satellites would spot the movement long before the first tank would come within sight of Alpha.

But even if the strategic significance of Alpha is moot, it was clear that the border post played a central symbolic role for the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, which is responsible for this 228-mile stretch of the border, as for some 350,000 American service personnel in Europe.

''We call it the frontier of freedom,'' said Capt. Bart D. Nolde at the start of a drama-packed briefing at 11th Armored Cav headquarters in the picturesque city of Fulda, about 10 miles west of Alpha.

Soldiers moved about in full field gear, officers wore side arms, and when a helicopter arrived with a visitor, troops lay prone with M-16's at the ready around the landing field to ''secure the landing zone.''

Yet as a symbol of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's traditional doctrine when the strategies and presumptions of the alliance are being buffeted by shifts in global politics and public perceptions, by new winds in Moscow, by a quickening momentum in disarmament and by the exigencies of shrinking budgets, Alpha may also be a threatened outpost.

New negotiations on reducing conventional forces are scheduled to open between NATO and the Warsaw Pact in Vienna on March 6. In Washington, the Bush Administration has already announced the closing of several domestic military bases as a prelude to cuts in defense spending.

In West Germany, the public is showing ever greater irritation at the concentration of foreign troops on German soil and at the sense that the land is still under the vestiges of military occupation.

And from Moscow, the peace overtures of Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the Soviet leader, have divided the Western allies between those - predominantly in Washington and London -who would wait and see how the economic changes in the Soviet Union fare before making any modifications in Western defenses, and those - most notably in West Germany - who believe the West should actively encourage Mr. Gorbachev.

Is Gorbachev Serious? Seeing Is Believing

Such notions are not widely shared among the soldiers who stare daily across the broad no-man's land - once the border of the Kingdoms of Prussia and Saxony - with its three parallel fences stretching the length of the inter-German border, obviously designed more to keep East Germans in than the Americans out.

A landmark at Alpha is a white birch cross at the foot of the watchtower, where an East German farmer was fatally shot one Christmas while trying to escape with his son.

''When we start seeing fewer coming over, I'll believe Gorbachev is doing something serious,'' Captain Nolde said.

From a purely military standpoint, trying to stop Soviet invaders at the border would be foolhardy, since the attacking forces would have the advantage of surprise and mobility.

But then the American military's function in Europe has long been a shifting blend of firepower, politics and bluff.  

A Show of Resolve And a Display of Force

About a quarter of West Germany's population lives within 30 miles of the border, and the mission of the 11th Armored Cav - the elite ''Blackhorse,'' with 4,400 soldiers, state-of-the-art Abrams M-1 tanks, Bradley armored combat vehicles and attack helicopters - is to show both the Russians and the West Germans the determination of the North Atlantic allies to protect every inch of the West.

That forward defense doctrine has been fundamental to NATO since the alliance was forged 40 years ago, and it is one reason that the United States and its allies have contributed to putting on the central front the heaviest concentration of military firepower ever massed in peacetime.

While debates on military doctrine, the ''Gorby factor'' and the new German assertiveness swirl through Washington, Bonn and Brussels, for the soldiers secure in a transplanted America of PX's, fast-food places, movie houses and Armed Forces Network television, only the vagaries of exchange rates mar a closed world that otherwise has never been so good.

Hitler's Strongholds Now Have New Tenants

Theirs is a unique archipelago of 800-odd posts scattered through central and southern West Germany, ranging from tiny depots in the back hills of the Rhineland to large headquarters complexes in Frankfurt and Heidelberg and sprawling air bases like those at Ramstein or Hahn. Most were bases taken over by the United States Army from Hitler's defeated Wehrmacht at the end of World War II.

In the 43 years since, these islands have coalesced into an outpost of Americana. Ringed by cordons of pizzerias, used-car lots, bars and video-rental shops, the bases and the families that people them - typically Americans from small towns - have become a familiar and commonplace fixture of modern German life.

''When we were young, the 'Amis' were the ones with real money, who could afford the fuel for big cars,'' recalled Ludwina Otto, a German woman in her late 20's who grew up near the Hahn Air Base and eventually married an American airman. ''We thought they were loud and wore baseball caps and checkered pants and sneakers, and their kids had no discipline and they never spoke German.''

The stereotypes still hold, with the notable exception that the Americans are no longer the ones with money. And the main effect of the rise of the German mark has been to make the 217,000 G.I.'s more dependent on their own archipelago and isolated even more from the ''host country.''

G.I.'s Are Accepted If Not Quite Loved

In general, there is no evidence that the irritation increasingly voiced by West Germans over the concentration of men and arms on their soil, or more broadly the sense that they are still somehow occupied, has translated into overt anti-Americanism. Even as German irritation over low-flying jets or the damage from tanks on exercise has grown considerably more vocal, the sentiments rarely extend to the G.I.'s.

Some taverns near American posts display ''Members Only'' signs to keep out G.I.'s, but for the most part the soldiers are welcome at the bars and many village festivals, and many single G.I.'s still find German spouses. Even those Germans who may be fiercely opposed to new American missiles or screeching training flights pay little heed to the American corporal in camouflage fatigues pushing his luggage through Frankfurt Airport, or the Plymouth with ''U.S.A.'' license plates cruising the Autobahn.

''You have to distinguish between military exercises, which nobody wants, and the Amis, who are part of the local scene,'' said Karsten Voigt, a spokesman on military affairs for the Social Democratic Party in Parliament.

''I live near an American base in Frankfurt - you see them all the time, in the streets, in the subways, they're about 5 percent of the population, but they're part of a different world. They live in their own isolated villages, and normally they keep to themselves.''

Germans of 2 Minds On the U.S. Presence

The German attitude seems to reflect an ambivalence that comes through in public-opinion polls that show both a pronounced enthusiasm for Mr. Gorbachev and a matching desire to remain in NATO.

''What we're seeing here is a wish to have their cake and eat it too among the Germans, a desire to enjoy their prosperity and security without the hassle of low-level flights and ripped up cornfields,'' an American diplomat said. ''But it's hard not to sympathize. This is a country the size of Oregon, and all these troops are roaring around.''

The ''Amis'' may not seem as rich to the Germans as they once did. But within their own world, it has been a long time since they were so well off.

By common consent, the eight years of the Reagan era have been a windfall for the military, with the introduction of some 400 new weapons systems.

In the new tank shed at Alpha, crews tinker with six Abrams M-1 tanks, the cutting edge in armor. Back at the headquarters of the 11th Armored Cav in Fulda, new Bradley armored fighting vehicles stand alongside broad new ''Hummer'' (Highly Mobile Multipurpose Wheel Vehicle) jeeps.

The new sheen is not restricted to the hardware. Old barracks glow with new paint and insulated windows. The bunks are thick and comfortable, the mess hall has a salad bar and a burger counter, the roads and parking lots are smoothly paved.

To be sure, as the unit designated to absorb the first blow of the Russians, the 11th Armored Cav has always had it better than the soldiers on the hundreds of posts, large and small, tucked away in the hills and forests of Bavaria and the Rhineland.

There is a conscious elitism - a military salute is accompanied by a shout of ''Blackhorse,'' the unit's proud symbol. The commanding officer, Col. John N. Abrams, is the son of Gen. Creighton Abrams, the late commander of United States forces in Vietnam, for whom the new M-1 tanks are named.

But even the smallest depot the Hunsruck woods south of Frankfurt has benefited from the Reagan spree.

Army on the Mend: Soldiers Find Stability

''Before Reagan, morale was incredibly low, drugs were common, equipment was rotting away, soldiers lived six to a room in rooms built for four,'' recalled John Kominicki, who served in the Army in Europe before becoming city editor of Stars and Stripes, the newspaper for G.I.'s in West Germany.

Now at V Corps headquarters in Heidelberg, officers cite rows of statistics to demonstrate the recovery of the Army from the wounds of Vietnam and neglect - 94 percent of soldiers have high school degrees, drug abuse is way down, re-enlistment is high, spending on services is sharply up.

Despite the fallen dollar, the Americans have remained a major source of income for Germans living near an American base. Many Germans work on the bases or at businesses keyed to the Americans. More than half the soldiers are married, and many bases, unable to keep up with the demand for family quarters, are sending many more soldiers and airmen out to live ''on the economy.'' German landlords, keenly aware of military housing allowances, charge the ''Amis'' considerably more than they charge Germans.

April 2016

 
 

Return to Hidden Stories