Monthly Archives: December 2020

Marine Returns Samurai Sword, 1967

From The Fighting Bunch, by Chris DeRose (St. Martin’s, 2020), Kindle pp. 291-292:

Bill [White] allowed the samurai sword he had sent home from Tarawa to be displayed at Tennessee Wesleyan. A group of Japanese businessmen had come to town to look at buying Mayfield’s Dairy. They visited the college and read the inscription on the blade. Word spread back in Japan that the sword had turned up in Athens, Tennessee. The Japanese government made a formal request for its return. Collectors offered Bill White serious money. He wasn’t interested. But he made it known that he would return it to the family of the man he’d taken it from.

In 1967, Pakaore Hashitami [sic; see below] arrived in the United States and traveled to the Tellico Lodge in the mountains of East Tennessee to meet the man who had killed his father. He admired the polished sharkskin scabbard and gold-tipped handle of his father’s sword. Before he could accept, he asked Bill to tell him how his father died. He had to know that he had lost his life honorably. Bill told him the story of Swede and the concrete blockhouse on Tarawa. Hashitami bowed to Bill, drew the sword from the scabbard, and held it over his head. Bill realized a second too late that he had given this man room to take a swing at him. Bill took a big step closer. But Hashitami had no intentions of revenge. He thanked Bill for restoring honor to his family. The sword had been with them for four hundred years. Of course, Bill said. The war was over.

There have been many such stories of U.S. Marines returning samurai swords captured on islands in the Pacific, ever since the WWII generation or their children began contemplating their own legacies. But the Japanese name cited above is utterly improbable, and the only place it appears in Google searches is a clip in this book (on page 292 and in the index). The family name is more likely Hashitani (橋谷 ‘bridge-valley’), and the given name Pakaore is impossible in Japanese. If you search for it online, you’ll find links to a few people in India and to images and recipes for pakora. Any name starting with P in Japanese is likely to be of foreign origin, like Pekin, Perusha, Porando, Porutogaru, or even Ponto-cho (< Portuguese ponte ‘bridge’). If St. Martin’s reprints this book, I urge the author to confirm and correct the name of the samurai descendant who took home his family’s sword.

1 Comment

Filed under Japan, language, military, Pacific, U.S., war

Navy Seabee KIA in Athens, TN, 1944

From The Fighting Bunch, by Chris DeRose (St. Martin’s, 2020), Kindle pp. 140-142:

Earl Ford, a navy Seabee, was happy to be home after sixteen months. It was his first night of leave and he wanted a drink and to hear some music. He and Luke Miller, another sailor, went to the Halfway Court, two miles out of Athens on the Sweetwater Road. Ford asked to use the telephone, which was in plain view. They told him they didn’t have one. Ford got up to leave. His friend went with him.

Deputy Minus Wilburn thought they looked like easy marks. Servicemen always had money. He’d arrest them and pocket a nice fee. He deputized George Spurling and Clyde Davis, notorious criminals both, as officers of the law in order to assist him in making an arrest. They caught up with the sailors in the parking lot.

Spurling clubbed Ford repeatedly over the head. Ford, stumbling, backed up, his hands raised in surrender. “Don’t move or I’ll blow you in two,” said Spurling. Ford didn’t move. Spurling shot him in the chest from ten feet away. Ford staggered, struggling to stand, trying to comprehend what was happening to him. Earl Ford fell to the ground, where he was left for twenty minutes. Ford was pronounced dead at Foree Hospital.

Sheriff Mansfield defended the shooting to the newspaper: Wilburn “undertook to subdue a bunch of disorderly sailors and others, and deputized Spurling and others on the scene to help him.” Mansfield claimed that they had pulled Ford off Spurling’s back and that Ford had charged Spurling with a knife. Why hadn’t anyone else seen the knife?

Wilburn claimed the knife was found under Ford’s body. He did not explain how a knife, held out in front of a man, could wind up behind and under him when he was shot. W. O. Swindler, a cattleman from South Carolina, was traveling through town with his son and didn’t know anyone involved. They were the first to come to Ford’s aid. Neither saw any weapons anywhere near the body. A doctor who came outside the Halfway Court and attempted to save Ford’s life saw no weapon. In fact, Ford was wearing a sailor’s uniform with no pockets, and had nowhere to conceal a knife. Two witnesses told a reporter that Ford “never did offer threat or resistance to Spurling.”

Ford’s funeral attracted “one of the largest crowds ever to assemble in Decatur.” His epitaph reads: “Killed in the service of his country in Athens, Tennessee.” Ford’s family pushed for Spurling’s prosecution. Trial was scheduled for October. Luke Miller, who had been blackjacked by Wilburn, was still in the hospital and couldn’t testify. The sheriff’s office told the newspaper that he’d be arrested for resisting arrest upon his release—an unsubtle threat to keep him off the witness stand.

The machine controlled law enforcement. They controlled the courts. They controlled elections. If they could murder an active-duty sailor in the middle of World War II and get away with it, then they could kill anyone. And who was going to stop them?

Leave a comment

Filed under democracy, economics, military, U.S., war

Marine Corps Boot Camp, 1942

From The Fighting Bunch, by Chris DeRose (St. Martin’s, 2020), Kindle pp. 58-59:

Bill [White] saw the Pacific Ocean for the first time from boot camp. “A big pile of water,” he decided, like an oversized pond back home. But he couldn’t stop looking: the waves rushing in and out, water as far as he could see. “It was something else,” he conceded privately. Bill strained to see the ocean without anyone catching on. He didn’t want to look like a “dummy” for being too excited.

“Man!” Bill couldn’t believe his new wardrobe. “Two pairs of dress shoes, three pairs of field shoes.” Back home he had a pair of “run-over brogan shoes” that had to last until his toes were sticking out. Now he had five pairs of shoes and new pants and shirts, “a dozen socks,” a “dozen pair of underwear, undershirts.”

Bill felt “on top of the world.” All the recruits did. They came from all over the United States but had being poor in common. Back home it was “thin gravy with a fork!” Now they sat at long tables and ate the best meals of their lives. “They passed the beans and chicken and everything right down the line; you got all you wanted to eat. Man, this is something else!” Bill realized that he had never been full before. He had to sign up for war before he’d ever sat down and had enough to eat. Another revelation was soon to follow. When the marines appeared to be doing something for your physical comfort, expect the worst.

“The training was hard,” Bill said. They “lived in the boondocks” and ran five or six miles every morning at sunup. They staged raids and war games. Bill and the recruits went on forest hikes—fifty or sixty miles over three or four days. “You’d think your feet was wore off plum up to your knees,” he said. “It never seemed to quit.” They never walked anywhere. It was always a run. They ran up hills with drill instructors shooting live ammunition at their feet.

There was a new vocabulary to learn. Underwear was “skivvies”; the bathroom was “the head”; “782 gear” was named for the form you had to sign. There were rough incentives to get things right. Drill instructors wouldn’t think twice about hitting you with a stick. Rarer but not unheard of was a punch in the nose. If you dropped your rifle, they’d make you sleep on eight of them. Bill, who as a little boy had bucked the rules at North City School, regularly got into it with his instructors. He spent a lot of time restricted to bread and water and cleaned plenty of dirty plates on “kitchen patrol.” It helped straighten him out “a little bit,” he admitted. Bill resolved to be just good enough to avoid getting kicked out of the marines.

Leave a comment

Filed under economics, education, food, military, U.S., war

Athens, TN, Voting Procedures, 1940

From The Fighting Bunch, by Chris DeRose (St. Martin’s, 2020), Kindle pp. 39-41:

The main attraction in downtown Athens in July 1940 was a model voting machine, purchased by the county court and on display so that people could gain familiarity before Election Day. A representative from American Voting Machines of Jamestown, New York, was on hand to answer questions.

A voter would walk up to the machine and pull a lever that closed a curtain around them. Next to every candidate’s name was a little lever. The voter would switch the lever next to the name of their preferred candidates. When they had voted for every office, they pulled a lever on the side of the machine, which recorded their votes, reset the levers, and opened the curtain. The running tally was recorded on a counter behind a locked panel. At the end of the day, the panel would be opened, and the results displayed for everyone to see. The voting machines weighed around eight hundred pounds and were not easily stuffed or swapped.

The county court had the legal discretion on whether to use voting machines. Nevertheless, John Cate and Reuel Webb, the Democratic members of the election commission, made public statements that the machines would not be used. The Republican candidates filed suit on July 11. The hearing before Chancery Judge T. L. Stewart included extensive testimony about “voting robots” and how they worked. Stewart ordered the election commission to use the machines.

Absentee voting was another matter of dispute. State law permitted voters who would be gone from the county on Election Day to mail their ballot. Strict rules governed the process: the election commission was required to write down the name of everyone requesting a ballot, in ink, on a publicly posted list; all absentee ballots had to be received by registered mail; the envelope containing the ballot had to be preserved; the date it arrived had to be recorded next to the name of the requester; and a certificate for each vote had to be delivered to the official in charge of that voter’s precinct. The election commission ignored every one of these laws.

Without these safeguards, commissioners could create as many absentee ballots as they wanted and place them in ballot boxes, in the names of real people, dead people, and fictitious people. Ralph Duggan, the Republican member of the election commission, sued his colleagues to force them to follow the law.

Duggan, thirty-one, was the son of the previous sheriff, Davy Crockett Duggan. He had gone to law school at the University of Georgia, where he had roomed with Herman Talmadge, son of the state’s governor and himself a future governor and senator. Unlike Talmadge, a fiery segregationist, Duggan was gentle, polite, and believed the laws should apply equally to everyone. Duggan returned home in 1936 and opened his own practice. The tall, lanky lawyer had a reputation for honesty and integrity even among his political adversaries.

The trial court sided with Duggan, holding that the Democratic election commissioners had to comply with absentee ballot rules. Duggan was surprised shortly thereafter to find Chief Deputy Pat Mansfield at his house. Mansfield, the physically imposing former railroad man, had an order from the Tennessee Supreme Court, overturning the decision of the trial court. He wanted to deliver it personally. The supreme court gave no explanation.

Leave a comment

Filed under democracy, U.S.

Tennessee’s Boss Crump, 1930s

From The Fighting Bunch, by Chris DeRose (St. Martin’s, 2020), Kindle pp. 47-49:

Athens, Tennessee, is closer to Dayton, Ohio, than it is to Memphis. Memphis, for its part, is closer to St. Louis than Athens—with a hundred miles to spare.

Edward Hull Crump lived in Memphis. He had grown up poor, the son of a Confederate cavalry captain who had died young. He sold peaches at train stations, did backbreaking work on farms, and clawed his way to a low-level bookkeeping job in a small town. This led to a similar job with a Memphis saddlery company. Six years later he bought the saddlery and married into a prominent family. Crump won an upset race for city council, pledging to take on graft and corruption. He was elected to the Board of Fire and Police Commissioners and demanded a midnight closing time for saloons. In a wildly popular stunt, he deputized twenty officers and took them on three raids, to prove to the police and public that the law was enforceable. Crump ran for mayor on the same good government platform and won by seventy-nine votes.

It seemed as though Crump would be good to his word. The police force was professionalized. Two officers were fired for getting drunk and “attempt[ing] to shoot each other and fight bears at the zoo.”

In truth, Crump had discreetly legalized gambling for establishments that kicked back 40 percent of their revenue. A newspaper observed that Sunday closing laws for bars weren’t enforced, and saloonkeepers had taken a sudden interest in politics, registering voters and getting them to the polls. Crump earned supporters in a number of ways: fixing a traffic ticket, getting someone a city job, filling a pothole, or upgrading a school. Every city employee was expected to work on campaigns. The business community went along or faced negative consequences, such as No Parking signs in front of their stores or visits from city code inspectors. Crump once placed a police phalanx in front of a man’s business, searching every potential customer. Cowed by the corruption of Memphis, the owner moved to Chicago.

Tennessee permitted “ouster lawsuits” against public officials for dereliction of duty. If a judge agreed, the public official would be removed from office. The district attorney general went after Crump for his nonenforcement of alcohol laws. It was impossible for him to defend himself—everyone in Memphis knew it was true. Crump was saved by timing: the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled that he was ousted as mayor from his previous term, which was about to expire. His new term would begin in a matter of days. And he could not be ousted from the term he had yet to begin. Crump’s opponents announced there would be a new lawsuit immediately after his inauguration. Crump took the oath of office in secret, resigned his position, and convinced the city commission to replace him with his handpicked successor. Crump learned that it didn’t matter what title the boss held, or if he held any at all.

With Memphis under his thumb, Crump set his sights on Shelby County, electing a full slate of officers, including a write-in candidate for sheriff who won despite widespread illiteracy among voters. From this power base Crump set his sights on the rest of Tennessee. Shelby County had the most voters, and by delivering them nearly as a bloc Crump could pick the winner of the Democratic primary statewide. A Democratic nominee was as good as elected.

Crump supported Hill McAlister for governor in 1932. McAlister, who had lost twice before, carried Shelby County by more than three to one, handing him the nomination. One defeated candidate sent volunteers to inspect Shelby’s election books. They were arrested.

Crump identified friendly legislative candidates and made sure they had the money to win. One thousand dollars could tip an election in “a rural anti-Crump county,” while a “bigger county might cost $2,500.” If Crump had plenty of any one thing, it was money, and the craps tables and roadhouses of Memphis paid for election victories all across the state.

Leave a comment

Filed under democracy, economics, education, U.S.

Gorbachev’s Visit and Krenz’s Coup

From Checkpoint Charlie: The Cold War, The Berlin Wall, and the Most Dangerous Place On Earth by Iain MacGregor (Scribner, 2019), Kindle (pp. 235-237:

When First Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev arrived on October 7 [1989] to participate in the East German regime’s fortieth anniversary celebrations, Susie Corbett was in East Berlin on a regular shopping trip. “As far as I could see from touring the center of town in my car,” she recalled, “it seemed the whole place was enjoying a fête, with red Soviet flags dressing up the main thoroughfares and government buildings and the population seemingly keen to celebrate, too. Nothing seemed any different to my previous visits.” After a massive military parade, the Soviet leader’s pronouncements to the media in a public walkabout (unheard of by any Eastern Bloc leader until then) shocked Honecker and those closest to him in the SED hierarchy—Gorbachev announcing to the cameras, “A party that lags behind the times will harvest bitter fruit.” This was a clear and honest appraisal of the pressure the country was under from internal protests and his knowledge of the perilous financial state of the GDR. The planned torch-lit parade that evening, which would praise the creation of the GDR, the rule of the SED, and of course the leadership of Erich Honecker, turned into a farcical spectacle. Gorbachev looked on incredulously, standing alongside the grimacing East German leader, as they watched supposed loyal party activists shout to the Soviet general secretary, “Gorbi, Gorbi—help us!”

For the ailing Honecker, this was a disaster, which had quickly followed a fiery meeting, with the German and Russian men clashing verbally in private and in a meeting of the East German politburo, Honecker deriding Gorbachev’s reformist policies compared to what he believed were the GDR’s economic success. The Soviet leader had audibly hissed his derision at the old East German, with Honecker’s excuses met by deafening silence around the politburo table.

Robert Corbett received a request from Britain’s ambassador to West Germany, Sir Christopher Mallaby, to discuss the situation. Televised coverage of an October 16 march in Leipzig had been aired on West German TV following secret video recordings that were smuggled out of the GDR. Now the world could see hundreds of thousands of East Germans demonstrating, instead of just the hundreds who were trickling into the West German embassy compound in Prague seeking asylum. It was a far bigger story.

A general atmosphere of unease gripped Berlin, reinforced when the sudden news came through that Erich Honecker had been forced to step down. The younger generation within the East German politburo, led by his deputy Egon Krenz, had taken Gorbachev’s visit and his official rebuke on the need for the regime to change as a signal to make a grab for power. Krenz had long been seen as the heir apparent and had risen through the SED ranks to become secretary of the central committee. Crucially, he oversaw security for the country and was able to persuade the head of the Ministry of State Security, Erich Mielke, to support his bid to oust the ailing leader. The week after this bloodless coup, more than 350,000 people took to the streets of Leipzig for a second mass rally. Secret dossiers had been prepared for the new leader that outlined what kind of state he was now inheriting from the man he had unceremoniously ousted. The GDR was in effect bankrupt and surviving on enormous loans from the Federal Republic just to keep going in the short term. Debt was piling on top of debt to the international markets. Was the game up? Ambassador Mallaby and his fellow ambassadors of the USA and France were deeply concerned and this was reflected in the by now constant updating of plans by the three Western Allied Commandants and their staffs.

Leave a comment

Filed under Britain, democracy, economics, France, Germany, military, nationalism, U.S., USSR

Estrongo Nachama, Cantor for Berlin

From Checkpoint Charlie: The Cold War, The Berlin Wall, and the Most Dangerous Place On Earth by Iain MacGregor (Scribner, 2019), Kindle pp. 168-173:

Nachama had been born the son of a grain merchant in the northern Greek city of Salonika. His family’s Jewish ancestry was Sephardic—which meant they had fled from Spain toward the end of the fifteenth century as the diaspora then settled throughout the Mediterranean and in the Ottoman Empire. Nachama’s family line was academic and religious, with many of his ancestors important rabbinic and Talmudic scholars. After attending Jewish elementary school and a French gymnasium, and discovering what an extraordinary baritone voice he possessed, Estrongo Nachama joined the family business and became the cantor of the synagogue in Salonika.

By the beginning of 1941, Greece had repelled one invasion by Italy, but could do nothing to prevent the later German assault in April, which went on to conquer the country, occupy Athens, and then finally capture Crete. Nachama traveled with the retreating Greek forces as his home city of Salonika fell on April 9, and as with nearly all Jewish families who suddenly had new Nazi rulers, Nachama, his parents, and two sisters would eventually be rounded up and transported to a concentration camp, Auschwitz, in the spring of 1943. All but Nachama were gassed, and he would spend the next two years of living hell surviving on his wits, charm, and his extraordinary singing voice.

Prisoner 116155, as was tattooed on Nachama’s wrist, entertained the camp guards, inspired and revived his fellow prisoners with his unique and powerful baritone, his popular rendition of “ ’O Sole Mio” gaining him the nickname “the singer of Auschwitz.” As the Soviets advanced through Poland, the Jews at Auschwitz, including Nachama, were moved to camps in the west, such as Sachsenhausen. Heavy labor work and his irrepressible optimism seemingly gave him the mental and physical strength to survive the infamous “Death March” of prisoners of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. In May 1945, with the war in Europe over, he was freed by nearby Red Army units from his captors, in a small Brandenburg town called Nauen. From there, he was drawn toward nearby Berlin, originally with the intent of catching a train back to Greece. But the march from Sachsenhausen had weakened him to the point he was stricken with typhoid, and only nursed back to health by a Christian Berlin family whom he befriended. At this point, by 1947, just as the Allies were slowly sliding into a Cold War, Nachama decided to put his roots down in the city. He had come to know the Jewish community of Berlin, whose leaders had learned of the young man’s extraordinary singing voice and offered him the position as the community’s cantor. He would soon meet his future wife, Lily, who had survived the Holocaust in hiding.

By the time of the Berlin Airlift in 1948, Nachama’s voice was being heard celebrating Sabbath over the RIAS airwaves in the American sector, with his fame soon spreading as the program was taken up by other German radio stations. Before long, it became known even among non-Jewish Berliners, as he became a regular part of US garrison life, administering worship to Jewish soldiers. Despite the ongoing tensions between the Soviets and East Germans on one side and the allied powers on the other, the Jewish cantor seemed to float between the two halves of the city pre-1961, primarily due to his Greek citizenship.

What was left of Berlin’s Jewish community was not divided as the city had now become. Though Jews worshiped in various synagogues across both East and West Berlin, there was still just one community. The workers’ uprising in East Berlin on June 17, 1953, changed all of that. With its brutal suppression by the Soviets, East Berlin became a harsher place to live, work, and worship, and subsequently there evolved an eastern and a western Jewish community. Estrongo Nachama quickly bestrode both camps, his Greek passport again enabling him to travel safely between the two, though he was primarily working for the western community.

When the Wall was erected suddenly on August 13, 1961, the family was in Italy, to holiday in Venice. They watched in horror on Italian television as the evening news brought pictures of the barriers going up, and the anguish of Berliners. Somehow, they managed to drive back to West Berlin through East Germany.

The Jewish community in East Berlin developed differently from the one in the west of the city. Those staying in the east were mainly old people, with the younger ones going over to the west. The eastern community was also smaller, as very few new members could actually get into that part of the city.

Cantor Nachama rarely performed services in East Berlin as this would have happened at the same time he would have been doing them in West Berlin. In East Berlin, he mainly administered funerals, not just for East Berlin Jews, but also for those from West Berlin who wanted to be buried back in the east, where their spouse’s or the family grave was. He also gave concerts, singing with the East Berlin Radio Choir and also the Magdeburger Dom Choir. He performed many memorial services for the victims of the Shoah, and the service was an old Berlin ritual he knew by heart. The funerals were two to three times a week, and he tried to arrange them so as to conduct two appointments in one trip, to save time. The guards never suspected him despite this level of traveling, as there were others who crossed the border more often. Professional musicians, for example, who worked in the orchestra in East Berlin, traveled every day, sometimes more than once. Surprisingly, Nachama never came on the radar of the Stasi, though he was aware that he could be observed. In his Stasi file, opened in the 1990s, it said: “Hasn’t got anything in his mind but singing.”

For his sixtieth birthday in 1978, RIAS had a half-hour program celebrating Estrongo’s life and the contribution he had made to Jewish life in the city. He was now chief cantor; he led the choir, and had even managed to have a walk-on part in the Oscar-winning musical Cabaret, starring Liza Minnelli and Michael York. The presenter of the RIAS program asked him why the community in West Berlin had six thousand members whereas the one in the east had only four hundred? How do you explain that there are so few and here so many? The question could have potentially caused him problems, as the authorities might have wondered, why did he need to travel to East Berlin so often then? But his reply was typical of the way he had survived the war; he brazened it out. “Well,” he said, “in East Berlin, I am only doing the funerals, in West Berlin, I am doing the prayer service.”

Cantor Estrongo Nachama died on January 13, 2000, aged eighty-one years old. He was still teaching music students the day before he died. His journey from war-torn Greece, to the concentration camps of the Nazis, to witnessing the start and the end of the Cold War, had made for a life full of optimism, compassion, religious tolerance, and love for his people. He was one of the key figures who rebuilt the Jewish community in the heart of Hitler’s Reich. “My father was pleased that by the end of 1989 the Jewish community was reunited,” remembered Andreas. “And travels to East Berlin were not restricted to Checkpoint Charlie anymore, and many routes could be taken. He enjoyed these practicalities. He certainly did not shed a tear for the old regime.” Many elderly German Jews who survived the Shoah decided to have their bones buried in Israel. But Cantor Nachama is buried in Berlin.

Leave a comment

Filed under education, Germany, Greece, migration, Poland, religion, Spain, U.S., war

Western Journalists in East Berlin

From Checkpoint Charlie: The Cold War, The Berlin Wall, and the Most Dangerous Place On Earth by Iain MacGregor (Scribner, 2019), Kindle pp. 121-123:

Mark Wood, embedded in East Berlin, still has distinct memories of the city during that pivotal time. “In the seventies, my overall impression of the city was on the one hand utterly depressing, and on the other, a place of pure decrepit drabness. Walking through East Berlin, one was surrounded by unpainted, bullet-pockmarked buildings, all of which were in poor general repair. The winters were not only renowned for being unforgivably cold, but I also recall the all-pervading smell of briquette dust. The only heating fuel available to us East Berliners were the industrial brown coal briquettes, and I would use copious amounts (my Reuters salary helped) in the old pre–World War Two stove I had in my kitchen (one of only two in the whole building that worked). It still had old pieces of Soviet shrapnel in the tiles. Quite often, a balcony of a nearby neighbor within the block would simply fall off the building through decay and disrepair. At that point the authorities would round up a group of ‘experts’ to inspect one’s own balcony, which usually involved all of them jumping up and down on it in unison to make sure it was ‘safe.’

“East Berliners’ clothing was drab; restaurant interiors, such as existed, were likewise drab. To those marooned in the austerity of the GDR with no access to the delights of the West, only one wine was available and then only sometimes, joyfully labeled ‘Bull’s Blood’ and shipped in from their Communist ally, Hungary. There were regular shortages of everything but the staples, and what could be bought was invariably of poor quality. If an East German saw a queue, they would join it immediately, and only then check what might be on offer. It was no wonder that shopping and entertainment for the very few who had access, like me, was all done in the west.”

For Uli Jörges, the thrill of finding the story was mixed with the energy of youth and living for the moment every day. “There is a special relationship between journalists that cuts across nationalities, language, and culture because you are all in it together, trying to get to the truth of a story amid tough times. We all worked and covered stories in East Germany for Reuters. For Mark and me, it was tricky to get information from the local SED [Socialist Unity Party] press officers, and it made it more fun going up against them to try to find the story we thought was there, that they were hiding.”

For Wood, East Berlin was by its very nature in 1978, to a foreign correspondent’s eyes, never dull. Granted, he didn’t lead the cut-and-thrust life of one of his esteemed Reuters predecessors, the thriller writer Frederick Forsyth, who had not only lived in the same apartment Wood later had but claimed he had rather colorfully managed to circumnavigate his actual day job of reporting to instead enjoy various sexual and undercover escapades in Her Majesty’s service with MI6. “My flat was the only one in the block with a working bathroom. Needless to say, that did not stop the Stasi from bugging it. In fact, I was later told by an ex-Stasi operative in the 1990s that the flat had fourteen listening devices placed in the bedroom alone, as well as my phone being tapped. Two doors down my corridor was a Stasi-owned room, which was the ‘listening center’ for the whole building—I never knew.

Leave a comment

Filed under Britain, economics, food, Germany, military, publishing, U.S.

Checkpoint Charlie’s Other Names

From Checkpoint Charlie: The Cold War, The Berlin Wall, and the Most Dangerous Place On Earth by Iain MacGregor (Scribner, 2019), Kindle pp. 64-65:

Checkpoint Charlie would be formally distinguished by the Four Powers as the single crossing point (either by foot or by motor vehicle) for foreigners and members of the Allied forces. Members of the Allied forces were subsequently not allowed to use the other sector crossing point designated for use by foreigners at the Friedrichstraße railway station. The name “Charlie,” though it would become quite catchy to fans of spy novels and films over the years, had a more prosaic backstory. The Allied checkpoints covering entry into East Germany, and then into Berlin, derived their names, simply, from the letters in the NATO phonetic alphabet. The Allied checkpoints on the Autobahn linking the city to the West were Checkpoint Alpha at Helmstedt/Marienborn and Checkpoint Bravo, its counterpart at Dreilinden/Drewitz in the southwest corner of Berlin. Soldiers of the US Army’s 287th Military Police Company would man this new crossing in shifts around the clock beginning on August 23. This small unit was then formally expanded, and a desk was placed in a nearby building on Freidrichstraße to serve as the official checkpoint, complete with a radio system. Now that it had a radio, it needed a call sign, and thus “Charlie” was attached to it. Within a few weeks, the US Army moved a trailer to the center of the road to act as the new control point on the Allied side. Checkpoint Charlie was now designated the major crossing point for Allied personnel, foreigners, and diplomats in the heart of Berlin. The Russians simply called it the “Friedrichstraße Crossing Point,” and their East German cousins the Grenzübergangsstelle (“Border Crossing Point”) Friedrich/Zimmerstraße—which was geographically where the checkpoint was located.

Leave a comment

Filed under Britain, France, Germany, language, military, U.S., USSR, war

Inner German Border Before the Wall

From Checkpoint Charlie: The Cold War, The Berlin Wall, and the Most Dangerous Place On Earth by Iain MacGregor (Scribner, 2019), Kindle p. 16:

This Inner German border, … stretching almost fourteen hundred kilometers (close to nine hundred miles) from the Baltic Sea to the border with Czechoslovakia, was still not the impregnable barrier Stalin envisaged, a fact reflected in the name the locals living along its length gave to it, die Grenze (“the Border”).

Hans-Ulrich Jörges’s father decided to flee to the West in 1956, sending word to his family to follow him a year later. “We could leave,” Uli recalled later, “because they were not interested in a single woman with two children. I do remember a house search by Stasi officers, who wore long Gestapo-like leather coats, when I was three or four years old. Of course, that was a terrifying experience. In West Germany we settled in a village close to the border in Hessen, not far away from Bad Salzungen. Every Sunday for many years, in a sort of Homeric ritual, we traveled to the border and looked across the fence into our homeland of Thüringen. My parents would stand there fighting back the tears, gripping our hands tightly, and talking to one another to offer some comfort.”

For Uli’s family, the frontier was perhaps in the mind. “Our border was marked with a simple fence that you could walk across fields to and stand right up against, without any concern as to the border guards on the other side harming you. It was almost like a fence for retaining cattle in their field. There was no ‘Death Strip’ at that time, and when the border guards in the East passed by, one could even casually talk to them. I recall a small man standing beside us who shouted out to them as they marched past us silently that they come over to eat some white bread [difficult to obtain in East Germany]—and they did.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Britain, food, France, Germany, migration, military, nationalism, U.S., USSR, war