Welcome to DECODED, a blog site for those interested in the period of history between the end of the Second World War and the final reunification of Berlin, Germany. This site is maintained by a Cold War history enthusiast, for other Cold War history enthusiasts and will be a source of information from both sides of the Cold War for history enthusiasts, political science fans, researchers, military history collectors and military veterans alike. Please visit the site regularly for updates. This site by no means is to represent or endorse any political agenda or ideology, information contained within is strictly used for the purpose of education and preservation of history for future generations. Thank you for visiting my blog, and welcome to the brink...

Sunday, August 25, 2013

On the Frontlines of the Cold War: Voices of the Veterans Vol. II

SrA D. Fair, United States Air Force
Air Force Security Police
Memmingen, West Germany /Barksdale Air Force Base, United States

My interest in serving the United States as a member of its armed forces began when I forged a bond with a childhood friend whose family had moved to the United States from England. His parents were older than most parents in our community who had children my age. One of the things that stood out the most to me was that his parents had grown up through the German Blitz and the Battle of Britain during the Second World War and hearing their stories of their wartime experiences and descriptions of the German Luftwaffe aircraft they saw soon inspired me to one day join the United States Air Force with hopes of one day being assigned to Germany. With German ancestry in my family background it would be an interesting experience to witness my cultural heritage first hand and soon I became determined to make my dream a reality.

Nothing could prepare me for the experiences that I had while serving in the United States Air Force. My enlistment took me not only to Germany but also warranted me inclusion into a small unit independent of the larger Army or Air Force organizations which allowed for greater immersion into the German culture. The unit had a manpower strength of roughly 120 personnel, dependents included and placed us in a Bavarian community away from the areas with greater American presence.

By the time I came of enlistment age I was more than ready to go. I had grown up in a small town in Ohio which was mostly rural and afforded not much else beyond the scope of agricultural work. I had about a year’s worth of college under my belt, but coming from a relatively low income family I saw military service as a way of improving my education while learning an occupational skill. My dream to join the United States Air Force officially became a reality when I formally enlisted in July of 1983. Due to the amount of people wanting to join the Air Force at this time, my shipping off to basic training was postponed until 1984 when I was sent from Cincinnati, Ohio to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. Following the completion of basic training, I was awarded my first stripe and the rank of Airman partially because of my previous college. After basic training, I progressed on to Tech School where I went to the Air Force Security Police Academy also located at Lackland. As the Air Force is not a primarily land focused combat organization, the Security Police in the Air Force fulfill multiple duties. One of the best ways to describe the Security Police is as a combination of Military Police, Security and Infantry forces. Some of the training involved included guarding sensitive areas such as silos housing Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles and undertaking the appropriate measures necessary to ensure their safeguarding. One of the primary missions of the Air Force Security Police is defending airbases in the event of attack as well as guarding aircraft, components and munitions. 

Soon I came under orders to report to West Germany. With the risks associated with performing security assignments in Germany, all Security Forces had to participate in the Air Base Ground Defense or ABGD course.  The Air Base Ground Defense course was essentially a training course in infantry tactics which provided familiarity with a wide variety of weaponry ranging from individual small arms such as the M-16 rifle to crew served weaponry such as the M-60 machine gun. This portion of my training took my fellow Security Policemen and myself from Lackland Air Force Base, to Camp Bullis part of the Army’s Fort Sam Houston installation also in San Antonio.  Going from an Air Force facility such as Lackland to an Army facility such as Camp Bullis provided a bit of a culture shock. Almost overnight we went from having nice dormitories to plywood huts on slabs in the middle of Texas. We went from running a mile and a half in basic, to two miles in the Police Academy to having to run in combat boots during the ABGD course. Running was always the most difficult part of physical training for me and I disliked it. Being from Ohio, I was not prepared for blistering Texas heat of summer. Another part of our training included Nuclear, Biological & Chemical Warfare Training often abbreviated as NBC. This trained us in how to  prepare and respond to a potential situation if the Soviets or the Warsaw Pact employed chemical or nuclear weapons against us. This training continued yearly throughout the duration of my enlistment and we I can’t recall exactly how many times we were gassed. As part of this training we became familiar with not only our individual gas masks but also the individual ChemSuit along with rubber gloves and boots.

After completion of the ABGD Course, I briefly returned home to Ohio before shipping out to West Germany. My destination was Memmingen, a small town in the Swabia region of Bavaria. I would arrive here in December of 1984 where I was assigned to the 7261 MUNSS Munitions Support Squadron. This was a small unit comprised of security, munitions maintainers and support personnel who were assigned to support the West German Luftwaffe’s Jagdbombergeschwader 34 or ‘34th Fighter Bomber Wing’. The JaBoG 34, was a unit of the West German Air Force assigned under the 4th Allied Tactical Air Force or 4 ATAF responsible for the defense of the southern approaches into West Germany against Soviet or Warsaw Pact offensive operations. Our unit and the Germans forged a close bond and many of those friendships remain intact even up to this day. The 7261’s commanding officer was a Lieutenant Colonel named Worthen and my Chief of Security Police was a Captain named Rivera. Daily, we carried M-16 rifles complete with a two day supply of ammunition, a canteen, gas mask, ballistic resistant flak jacket and a steel helmet for personal protection.  Due to the JaBoG’s status as being a quick reaction force and front line fighter unit, the upmost measures for facility security were in place and German K-9 units were on hand to further augment the already strict security measures.

By September of 1985, I was training to become an entry controller for our facility, but on the final day of training I broke my leg when I deployed from a Mercedes Benz two ton truck we used for transportation around the base. The tailgate on these vehicles are very high and with my rifle in one hand and kit bag in the other I leapt from the vehicle and landed on the cement curb causing great damage to my ankle and left leg. By this time I had received a promotion to the rank of Airman First Class, and now with my injury I was temporarily assigned to assist the NCOIC Law Enforcement. Intended to be a temporary assignment while I recovered from my injury, it became permanent and I became accustomed to filling out police reports, vehicle registration, as well as processing and issuing ID cards along with other administrative duties. When I finally recovered from my injury, I returned to pulling sentry duties across the installation. These duties would often prove uneventful with long hours spent with no personal contact however occasionally the monotony was broken by the sound of alert sirens and the sight of pilots rushing for their aircraft. This would be such a thrill with a rush of adrenaline because it was always unknown whether or not it was just another drill or the pilots were actually launching on a real time mission.

The facilities at Memmingen had been constructed in 1937 and were utilized by the Luftwaffe during the Second World War. One of the buildings in which I worked was one of the original structures used by the Germans during World War II and many times I often found myself wondering who had been here and used my office during the years of the Third Reich.  What happened to them? Had they survived the war? I never received these answers but it still proved interesting to think about none the less.

Our West German unit’s insignia consisted primarily of blue and white, the colors of Bavaria and incorporated two planes against a blue background over the Alps and the NATO symbol in the upper left corner of the insignia. Two of the subordinate squadrons utilized World War II era insignia with the first squadron utilizing the ‘Grunherz’ emblem reflecting their title ‘Green Hearts’ and the second squadron utilizing the Edelweiss insignia as their emblem.

Training exercises were a regular occurrence during the duration of my assignment in Germany. These exercises varied in scope and scenario ranging from small scale exercises to the larger NATO exercises which included the REFORGER exercises. West German and Canadian armed forces fought mock battles on the airfield and on several occasions friendly aircraft from other NATO nations would fly low level mock air attacks on the base facilities. I was confident in our Luftwaffe partner’s ability to fight a coordinated effort alongside us. At the time, Germany was a warzone without being exposed to an exchange of gunfire. Battle tanks and artillery moved freely through towns and villages and combat aircraft were constantly flying in training scenarios to prepare for conducting live combat operations in the event of war in all weather scenarios to maintain the upmost state of combat readiness. One of the things I’ll never forget is the sounds of working at Memmingen, between the roar of the F-104G Starfighters taking off and landing day and night and on occasions ground crews test firing the Starfighter’s 20mm Vulcan cannon you tend to get used to the noise of daily operations.

There was always a looming threat for potential terrorist encounters particularly during that time. The Baader-Meinhof Gang and Red Army Faction amongst other groups were a threat we took very seriously in the mid 1980s. We were always receiving or conducting detailed briefings on terrorist activities in the region and we were constantly on the lookout for them within the vicinity of our facilities. The local German Polizei and the Air Force OSI services worked hand in hand to ensure we had the latest detailed reports on the groups and any potential threat. Sometimes I would work as a liaison between our unit and our Luftwaffe counterparts. I was on duty the night of 15 April 1986, when President Ronald Reagan authorized Operation El Dorado Canyon which was a series of strikes against targets in Libya.  The event came as surprise when our shifts that usually were eight hours were extended to twelve hours. The heightened state of alert caused much excitement and we were never quite sure of what was exactly going on or the cause behind some of the things we were doing but we were ready none the less. The going joke was that even though we were ready to go to war at a moment’s notice we would go to neutral Switzerland which was only some forty miles away.

On one occasion before we were to start our normal shifts, we learned from an outgoing flight coming off guard duty that one of the German tower sentries had attempted to commit suicide. In the United States, a flight is organized roughly into 100 men but due to the small size of our unit in Germany, a flight for us was roughly about ten men. An investigation was launched into the incident and it became aware that the suspect had suffered a particularly bad breakup with his girlfriend and became fixated on the idea of taking his own life. Standing guard in what was known as a mini-tower, a small two man observation post roughly six feet above the ground the sentry had taken his issued G3 rifle and placed the barrel to his stomach and pulled the trigger. By the time that I had come up for duty, the sentry had already been removed however things got worse when during my shift, several VIPs came to visit and viewed the mess left in the tower. The sentry survived his wounds but his fate following the incident is uncertain.

In April of 1986, the nuclear reactor at the Chernobyl facility in Ukraine went into meltdown and spewed radioactive clouds across Europe. We were issued strict orders not to go outside and no one was certain what would happen in the wake of such a disaster. Memmingen is located about 1,000 miles from Chernobyl but even at this distance, roughly 40 to 50% of Europe would be contaminated by fallout from the Chernobyl disaster. Although, I have had follow up checkups and appear to be healthy and unaffected, several members of the 7261 MUNSS have developed signs of exposure to radioactive materials which include loss of enamel in teeth and degenerative disk development in the spine, as well as having children with birth defects and in others sterility.  Thyroid cancer is another potential concern.  Because it is impossible to prove that Chernobyl is the cause, it is not considered a harmful source of radiation by the Department of Veterans Affairs. Due to the amount of radioactive fallout absorbed into the water and soil, were told not to eat foods grown locally such as vegetables or meats.

Life in Memmingen became routine but at times there were groups that posed problems for us. One of these groups was of course members of the United States Army. During REFORGER, several of them became intoxicated and caused some problems but never anything too serious that we could not handle. The second group, were usually Jaguar pilots from the British Royal Air Force. They would cause random mischief and in one instance even stole a restricted area warning sign from one of the perimeter fences.

My time in Germany came to an end in December 1986 when I was reassigned to Barksdale Air Force Base in Shreveport, Louisiana. This would be my final duty station where I would end my enlistment.

When I arrived at Barksdale, I was assigned under the US Air Force’s Strategic Air Command where I performed essentially the same duties I had in Germany at the airbase in Louisiana. I went from the real feel of Germany, to the simulated atmosphere of stateside duty assignments. The massive force of Boeing B-52 Stratofortress strategic bombers was kept on a constant state of readiness, capable of being deployed 24-7, 365. The assignment to Barksdale did not share the same appeal as the assignment to Memmingen and I do not share the same strength of bond with service members from the SAC assignment that I do with members from the Germany assignment. Like Germany however, there were often readiness exercises conducted and sirens would sound often to the response of crews rushing to their aircraft and preparing to deploy in response to attack anywhere in the world. I would finish my Air Force enlistment at the rank of Senior Airman, and even though I was urged to attend the Air Force Non Commissioned Officer’s Academy I chose not to reenlist.

On 17 September 1987, tragedy struck when SGT. Joseph M. Burgio Sr. was killed when his Boeing KC-10 Stratotanker exploded on the ground at Barksdale. Three dozen others were injured in the disaster and following an investigation it was learned that a fuel leak caused the fatal explosion. While offloading fuel from the tanker, a generator unit ignited the fumes of the fuel and caused the explosion. I became aware of the disaster when one of my fellow service members SGT. Gray; stated that something was on fire. I turned to see a large black cloud of smoke billowing into the sky. I turned in time to see one of the largest explosions I’d ever witnessed echo through the area in a series of three blasts. The first explosion blew apart the center section of the plane, the second blew apart the nose and the final blast occurred when the wings ruptured.

Since Barksdale is the home of the Eighth Air Force headquarters, we took up defensive positions and only after it became apparent that this was an accident and not an attack did we stand down. While the investigation was carried out on the accident, I pulled security over the wreck many times.

By the time my Air Force enlistment concluded, I was a Senior Airman and I had been awarded the Air Force Training Ribbon, Overseas Long Tour Ribbon, Air Force Good Conduct Medal, as well as the Air Force Outstanding Unit Award. Of particular significance to me were letters of service and a plaque presented to me for my service in the 7261 MUNSS at Memmingen. I will never forget the many American, German, and other European allies and friends I served with throughout the duration of my enlistment and I definitely have no regrets about my service during the Cold War. 

1 comment:

  1. This is a powerful post! I completely enjoyed the read and felt as though I were there. It is a rare treat to see history through the eyes of those who lived. Thank you!