By Phil Metzler

In the spring 2023 issue of VBC Magazine, we ran an article about the Berlin Airlift of 1948-1949. Army veteran Phil Metzler of Lancaster, PA, responded by sharing his own memories of serving in Berlin, not in the Airlift, but thirteen years later during the second Berlin Crisis. Below is his story. After his time in Germany, Phil would serve another five years in the Army Reserve as Commander of the 29th Administrative Company of the 29th Infantry Division, Maryland National Guard.

Woman at the Berlin Wall

August 13, 1961: Wall erected to divide East Berlin from West Berlin (Dan Budnik)

In June 1958, I graduated from the Pennsylvania Military College with a commission as a 2nd Lieutenant in the US Army. Two months later, I married my girlfriend, Sue.

It was “peace time,” so I could choose to go on active duty for either two years or six months. The shorter option meant six extra years in the Reserve, so I chose the longer stint.

I had excellent duty for those two years: Adjutant General School at Fort Benjamin Harrison, Indiana, followed by an assignment at the Presidio in San Francisco as a Personnel and Special Services officer for the 40th Artillery Group.

As the end of my tour drew near, my Captain called me in and asked if I had given any thought to staying on active duty.

“Officers in your branch are needed in Germany,” he explained. “If you took your wife along, it would require a three-year commitment.”

I went home and mentioned the offer to my wife. Her response has gone down in Metzler family lore:

“When do we pack?”

So it was that on March 1, 1960, Sue, our two-month-old daughter Margie, and I boarded a Douglas DC-7 turboprop at Idlewild Airport in Jamaica Bay, New York, with dozens of other military personnel and their dependents. Our destination was Rhein-Main Air Base near Frankfurt, after fuels stops in Greenland and Ireland.

Reinforcing the Berlin Wall in East Berlin, Germany

East German workers near the Brandenburg Gate reinforce the Berlin Wall (NARA)

We sat tight in a Rhein-Main base hotel for a couple days and then boarded an old Douglas C-47 “Goony Bird” with metal bucket seats. We flew over Soviet air space in East Germany and touched down at Tempelhof Airport in West Berlin.

I reported for duty the next day as assistant housing officer. My job was to inspect NCO and Junior Officer quarters at check-in and check-out. Later, I became Army Postmaster in charge of the mail in West Berlin for all US military and civilian personnel.

It was good duty, and our lives were peaceful for the first year-and-a-half. We traveled around the region freely. Access to East Berlin was easy. No restrictions. No checkpoints.

On May 21, 1960, Soviet officers even attended our Armed Forces Day parade as well as the reception that followed at the Officers Club.

By the following year, however, the mood of the city had changed dramatically.

Relations between the United States and the Soviet Union had soured. Berlin became a flash point in the Cold War, just as it had during the Airlift thirteen years earlier.

Millions of East Germans had migrated to the West since the Airlift. Most, at first, fled for political reasons as the Communist regime in the East crushed every hint of dissent.

In 1960, a new flood of economic dissidents began leaving the German Democratic Republic (GDR), as East Germany was called. A coercive new Seven-Year Plan all but wiped out private ownership of farms, shops, and industry in the GDR. The economy ground to a halt, and young, white collar workers, East Germany’s best and brightest, began to flee.

Most of them simply walked into West Berlin to start new lives in the Federal Republic of Germany, the US-aligned state in the West. By August 1961, the East German brain drain reached 2,000 per day.

We in the Army saw this mass migration first-hand, as waves of luggage-toting East Berliners were processed non-stop through the Marienfelde Refugee Transit Camp in the American sector. There, they received the basics—food, medicine, shelter—and then were flown to points west for settlement.

The mass exodus was a humiliation for the Soviets. In June 1961, at a summit in Vienna, Austria, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev threatened President John F. Kennedy with cutting off US access to West Berlin, much like Khrushchev’s predecessor, Josef Stalin, had tried to do during the Airlift.

We all began to wonder if the much-feared Third World War would flare up right where we stood, in West Berlin.

We kept up with our normal duties into early summer, but our infantry troops and tank units intensified their training.

East Berlin Soldiers in front of barbed-wire

Barbed-wire barrier on Bernauer Strasse: People’s Police keep East Berliners in check, 13 August 1961 (German Federal Government, Photographer: Horst Siegmann)

Sunday, August 13, 1961, dawned a cool, bright, and crystal clear 50 degrees, a perfect day for a drive around town.

Sue and I packed Margie and our new baby into our little Volkswagen Beetle and made our way toward the reception center at Marienfelde, where there were small wooded areas for family recreation.

The line of refugees waiting at the transit camp was tremendous, several blocks long. Those in line seemed to know that something was up. Something big.

Just across the border, in East Berlin, we could see some military activity. It looked like East German troops laying concertina wire.

I told my wife that we better head back to our apartment as I was sure we were going to go on alert

Sure enough, as soon as we got back, I was told to put on fatigues, grab my combat gear, and report to the Army Post Office. We stayed mostly on alert for the next several weeks. This Wall going up to the east had caught us all by surprise.

It was a dismal and frightening scar cut through the city, zigzagging north to south, about 100 miles: barbed wire and cinder blocks stacked up to fifteen feet, later replaced by solid concrete walls. At the Wall’s foot sat barbed wire and mines. Perched atop, more barbed wire, watchtowers, and gun emplacements.

No more free passage. No more open streets and sidewalks. All vehicle and pedestrian traffic narrowed to a single crossing point at Friederichsstrasse –“Checkpoint Charlie”–manned on our side by US Army MP’s and on the other side by Russian soldiers and East German Police.

Eventually, our duty got back almost to normal, although we now received briefings on how to get our spouses and kids out of Berlin if the shooting started.

Looking back, I realize now how brave the spouses were. Very few of them left Berlin. If World War III had erupted, they would have suffered whatever fate we did.

I also see how naïve many of us were. We wanted to knock the wall down and re-open the city in brave defiance of the Soviets and East Germans. Some Assistant Secretary of State came to talk sense into us at Berlin Command, letting us know we couldn’t just tear down the wall. He was roundly booed.

The agreement signed between the Great Powers at Potsdam back in 1945 after Germany’s surrender had guaranteed free passage of all parties, US and Soviet, between East and West Berlin. We were determined to demonstrate that right on a nightly basis by passing through Checkpoint Charlie without showing IDs or otherwise asking permission of the East German police.

That was my duty about once a month, and it was always tense. My duty sergeant and I, armed with nothing by our .45s, drove our Army Chevrolet through the checkpoint as the East Germans glared and harassed us.

Other American personnel were on occasion stopped and turned around.

President Kennedy sent General Lucius D. Clay, hero of the Berlin Airlift, to the American sector, along with an infantry brigade, tanks, and Vice President Lyndon Johnson, as a show of resolve.

Clay increased the number of probing rides like the one my sergeant and I did. Each time the East Germans stopped or harassed us, Clay escalated the standoff by adding MPs, jeeps, even Army bulldozers to the crossing parties.

Finally, on October 27, Clay ordered ten M48 tanks into position opposite Checkpoint Charlie. The Soviets on the other side responded with ten T55 tanks. The two sides stared each other down for sixteen hours, engines rumbling, a football field-and-a-half apart on Friederichsstrasse. Once again, World War III seemed close to starting right outside my family’s doorstep.

Both sides, thankfully, pulled back. Just like in 1948-49, neither the US nor the Soviet Union wanted war in the middle of Europe. The Soviets tacitly guaranteed access to the East in return for an equally tacit pledge from Kennedy not to attack East Berlin.

My tour of duty ended in March 1963, three months before President Kennedy’s iconic  “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech.

I’m proud of the small part I played in this history-making saga, that moment in the Cold War when the fate of the world hung in the balance.