Reflections of a Cold War Warrior – Duty
Duty is the fourth in a series of Reflections of a Cold War Warrior written by Steve Traywick. This series provides a rare behind-the-scenes view of what a recruit in the military experiences in the transformation from boy to warrior; from a kid next door to a man who is willing to give his life to keep you free. His first three posts, Every story has a beginning and this one is mine, Reflections of a Cold War Warrior, Reflections of a Cold War Warrior – Being There are great reads!
Author: Steve Traywick
Note: Most of these events happened in the early 1980’s. I was in my early twenties. I wish
I could remember the minute-to-minute and day-to-day details of everything that went on then but, unfortunately, time has washed a lot of that out of my memory. As I write this, I’m clawing away at my memory for any details I can remember. A lot of events are hazy, but the names of the guys I served with are not. I want to put their names here so that no one will forget that they were real people. Guys, dudes, bros, GI’s, soldiers, tankers, scouts,…When you see a post where someone talks about signing their name to a blank check, ‘payable to the US Government and people’, ‘good for one life’. This is quite literally true. Each person that served did, in fact, offer their life to their country.
They probably weren’t thinking that when they enlisted, but that’s what it boiled down to. The guys I served with (I still can’t bring myself to remember most of them as MEN. We were just kids, really.) came into the military for myriad reasons; couldn’t find a job in the late seventies economy; education benefits; a sense of adventure; an honest of sense of duty to country; a chance to see another part of the world.
Hey New Guy
“The values composing civilization and the values required to protect it are normally at war. Civilization values sophistication but in an armed force, sophistication is a millstone.” T. R. Fehrenbach, This Kind of War
“Hey, New Guy, you know where you are, right? You’re thirty klicks from the Grenze. The entire Russian army is just on the other side of the border. We’re well within artillery range
if the balloon goes up. They’ve probably got about thirty arty battalions targeted on the parade ground right now. Yep, if the balloon goes up your life expectancy is about fifteen seconds.”
Every new guy heard this recital or a version of it; GI’s love to ease their own inner fear and nervousness by passing it along to someone else. B Troop was set perpendicular to the parade ground and Regimental Headquarters. Of an evening while waiting for 1700 recall formation we would cluster around an open window at the end of the hall looking out over the parade ground smoking and joking. One evening as we were grab-assing there was a loud explosion from the parade ground. It echoed down the hallway. I swear for a second I had no neck; just my head attached to my shoulders and I was flat on the floor.
“What the hell is wrong with you?”
“JESUS! I thought that was artillery!”
“It was. That’s the recall gun. It’s five o’clock.”
Then I heard To The Colors sound and looked out the window to see the flag easing
gracefully down the flagpole. This ceremony is played out almost daily on every Army post world-wide. A lot of us would try to make sure and be indoors at 1700 so we wouldn’t have to go through it. Later, we would be proud to be caught out. At 1700 a bugle would play Recall. If you were outside, you stopped what you were doing and came to the position of ‘parade rest’. As Recall ended a gun would usually go off somewhere (firing a blank charge) and you would come to the position of ‘attention’. Then, To The Colors would play and you would salute the flag as it ended another duty day.
November turned into December. It got progressively colder. Without tanks, the powers that were came up with things for us to do: classes, details; things to make us look busy and not wasting ‘tax payers’ money. After duty hours and on weekends we were usually left to our own devices and that generally spells trouble of some sort where GI’s are concerned. One weekend, some of the guys got a little too unwound and ended up in the drunk tank at the MP station where they acquired a pretty good collection of bruises and contusions. When they were released they had to report to Top (1SGT) Novotny, a round Polack with a booming voice and devil may care attitude, who very nearly called the entire troop to formation to march to the MP station and kick some very serious ass. He was very close to retirement. The CO, Commanding Officer, talked him out of that one…or so I heard.
Top Novotny was an ‘Old School’ NCO. If something displeased him he would shout at the top of his lungs “GODDAMN IT!” and every soul in the troop would freeze in their tracks. Legend had it that one morning the troop was in morning formation listening to Novotny put out information. A guy from C Troop nonchalantly leaned out of his window directly above Novotny and let fly with a loogie. Said loogie landed directly on top of Novotny’s cap. One hundred pairs of eyes in the B Troop formation widened as one. As one, one hundred sets of lungs took in air and held it. Novotny had no idea he’d been spit on.
The C Trooper saw where the round had landed. I’m sure his first instinct was to duck back in the window and go hide in the latrine, but for some reason he froze in place. Novotny, knowing something had just happened, took his cap off and looked at the impact area. His normally florid face went purple and a large vein on his forehead started throbbing. He turned and locked eyes with the poor kid from C Troop. “I HOPE YOUR MOTHER DIES, YOU WORTHLESS MOTHER FUCKER!!!” And that was just the beginning. I heard later that three dependent wives in the housing area miscarried. A couple of wives walking back from the commissary fainted. A couple of guys in the B Troop formation fainted from holding their breath to keep from laughing out loud. Legend has it that Novotny was called over to the Squadron Sergeant Major’s office and told to tone it down some. This was the world I’d become part of.
Christmas came and went. I found out too late that some German families would sign up to have a GI to their house for Christmas. Sounded like a good deal to me, but I put my name
on the list too late. It was probably a good thing I didn’t spend Christmas with a German family. The day after Christmas, 1979, first platoon. B Troop moved out for two weeks on the border at Observation Post Alpha. OP Alpha was a Cold War observation post between Rasdorf, Hesse, in what was then West Germany and Geisa, Thuringia, then part of East Germany. The post overlooked part of the “Fulda Gap”, which would have been a prime invasion route for Warsaw Pact forces had the Cold War erupted into actual warfare.
At this point, I have to talk a little bit about the 11th Cavalry Regiment. In armies going back to Alexander, The Great, cavalry has been used both as the commander’s eyes and ears and as a strike force. In modern time, cavalry maintains contact with enemy forces and keeps the commander apprised of what they’re up to. In the defense position, cavalry identifies the enemies’ axis of attack and avenues of approach. They will hold their ground if they’re able to, but will fall back to the main line of resistance and hand the fight off to a heavier formation.
On the offense, cavalry will screen ahead of the main force trying to take out the enemy’s
own recon screen thus keeping the enemy in the dark about its own intentions. Cavalry is at its best, though, when a breakthrough can be made in the enemy’s lines. Cavalry would then be used to blow through the hole to get into the enemy’s rear areas and disrupt his lines of communication, and supply. In cavalry parlance, this known as “getting in his rear and tearing shit up.”
A cavalry platoon was made up of two sections: Scout and tank. The scout section was made up of three scout tracks (M113’s) and two ITV’s (Improved Tow Vehicles or Hammerheads). The platoon leader rode one of the
scout tracks. The tank section was made up of four M60 tanks. They were the main fire power of the platoon.
A cavalry troop (equivalent to a company) was made up of three cavalry platoons, a mortar section and headquarters consisting of mechanics and other support personnel. A cavalry squadron (equivalent to a battalion) was made up of three cavalry troops, a regular tank company (14 tanks), a howitzer battery and an engineer company.
A cavalry regiment (brigade equivalent) consisted of three ground squadrons plus an air squadron made up of scout and attack helicopters. In the nineteen eighties, a cavalry regiment was pretty much a reinforced brigade; very mobile with a lot of firepower.
Our mission at the time was to conduct reconnaissance along the German inter-zonal border. We were to keep an eye on any Warsaw Pact activity in East Germany or the Deutsch Democratic Republic (DDR). First Squadron, Eleventh Armored Cavalry operated out of OP Alpha.
The eastern side of the OP sat about six inches from the actual border. It overlooked a long broad valley known as “The Bowling Alley”. The town of Geisa sat at the head of this valley. Some of B Troop’s battle positions were actually across the border overlooking the town. OP Alpha was always occupied and someone was on duty 24/7. If First Squadron was at gunnery or in the field training, another unit would move in and relieve us.
The platoon had already turned in the old M60A1 tanks before my arrival. Ordinarily, the
entire platoon would road march our vehicles up to the OP. I believe we all loaded into the scout tracks for the road march up.
Cold German Duty
It was already cloudy and cold. The road march is a blur now. SOP (standard operating procedure) was for the relieving platoon to stop short of the OP gate and wait for the
lieutenant and platoon sergeant to go into the OP, get with their counterparts from the platoon already there and inventory and sign for all the equipment organic to the OP. The other platoon would have cleaned up the barracks and common areas. They would have their gear packed and on their vehicles; sitting at the gate in column and ready (usually more than ready) to leave and head back to civilization.
Once the handoff was complete, the outgoing platoon would move out to the road and the incoming platoon would move onto the OP. The vehicles would be parked with one scout track set aside as the ‘standby’ vehicle. This vehicle would be loaded with live ammunition and the weapons would be kept mounted. The idea was that if there were an incident in our sector of the border it would be the first vehicle rolling to the scene.
Duty assignments would have already been given out as soon as the platoon occupied the OP. The guys went to their duty locations; one man at the front gate, an NCO and private in the tower, an NCO and private in the ops room, and the stand-by squad. The stand-by squad and anyone not on duty would sweep the autobahn (the driveway) and settle into the barracks.
Op Alpha was made up of two towers, a wooden one and a taller metal tower. Word was that when the metal was put up it swayed in high winds and was prone to getting lightning struck in rare German thunderstorms. It didn’t take long for the powers that be to decide not to use it. Instead, the old wooden tower was kept in use. It wasn’t as tall as the metal tower but was much more solid.
There was the chow hall/NCO barracks. The chow hall was plenty large enough for the platoon. There was a fully equipped kitchen and usually two to three cooks. The lieutenant, the platoon sergeant, and NCOs stayed in this building. The third building was the enlisted barracks and arms room.
My first duty was third shift in the tower. Night duty in the tower was fairly simple. There was a ground surveillance radar, GSR, set up with an operator to run it. The NCO and private pretty much stared out the window and waited for the East German BT’s (border troops) to drive by. A spot report would be written up and phoned down to ops. “x” many BT’s moving whatever direction on the high speed patrol road. Last seen grid whichever. The GSR operator would keep track of how many blips came up on the radar screen. The GSR could determine light medium or heavy vehicles moving down in the valley. Almost all GSR contacts were light or medium. A heavy contact would have meant something military and gotten immediate attention.
About the second day at OP Alpha it started snowing. It snowed for the next two days. I was born in Tennessee and grew up in Texas. I had seen some snow, but nothing like this. A light dusting of snow that would have shut down the city of Houston for days was nothing compared to what came down on the OP. I think it would be safe to say that by the time it stopped, there was close to three feet on the ground.
One morning coming out of the tower just at sun up, I stopped and just watched the snow fall. I was the only person out. The flakes were about the size of half dollars. Each seemed to make its own little thump as they landed. Never in my life had I seen snow like this. I turned to look at the tower and could see only a hazy outline. Later, I would learn to dread snow; I would even learn to ignore it, but at that moment it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.
That night, I had tower duty from 1600 to 2359 (that’s the four to midnight shift). There was no latrine in the tower. I had to pee something awful. I told the sergeant that I was going to run down to one of the buildings. He told me “No, just go over the rail. It’s dark.”
So, that’s what I did. I let fly over the rail and was feeling somewhat relieved when I heard a voice yell “HEY!” I looked down into East Germany and saw nothing but tall grass sticking out of the snow. Suddenly, a figure materialized out of the snow. It was a BT (an East German Border Troop) standing at the foot of the tower just across the border. He was wearing a green on white camouflage coat and had his AKM on his shoulder. He shook a finger at me and turned and disappeared into the snowfall. One second he was there. The next he was gone.
JRR Tolkien wrote of Hobbits that they could hide so quickly upon seeing someone that they didn’t want to deal with that they seemed to vanish into thin air. I believe to this day that Germans have a touch of Hobbit. In a wood or forest, you won’t see them if they don’t want to be seen. They are that attuned to their environment. Put a German (even those who live in cities) in a forest and he or she is in their element.
I went inside and sat down and thought about what I’d just seen. I told the sergeant. He called up the spot report leaving out the details of how I’d spotted the BT.
We generally stayed on a particular duty for three days. My next assignment was to the standby squad. For three days we didn’t dare take a shower or take our clothes off. We slept with our boots on but unlaced. The NCOIC (also known as the MMFIC or Main Mother F***er In Charge) was SSG Felix Bala, our scout section sergeant.
Bala was living proof that warriors and legends usually don’t look like what you would expect them to. He stood about five foot six inches and weighed about one hundred fifty pounds. He wore an Eighty Second Airborne combat patch from service in Vietnam and a Pathfinder tab. He never got tired and had an eye for the smallest detail. He was the only man I ever saw that could smoke a cigarette during a three mile run while the rest of us were puffing and blowing.
Bala also believed in training and practice. He carried a whistle around with him. When he wanted a practice run for the standby squad he would blow the whistle. When we heard the whistle, we dropped whatever we were doing and bolted for the standby track. We kept our steel pots and LBE on the benches in the track. Meal time was a favorite for Bala to blow his whistle. He would stand in the chow hall and wait for the last man to get his food and sit down and then blow that damned whistle.
The goal was for the squad to be able to be on the track and ready to roll in less than a minute. Anything over that we could count on ten or fifteen drills a day and into the night. During the day, we kept our weapons with us at all time. At night, we run to the arms room window and grab whatever weapon was thrown at us. We would sort them out on the track. The .50 caliber machine gun was kept mounted and covered; boxes of .50 cal, small arms ammo and grenades were kept on the track, too.
One night we had settle-in and getting what sleep we could with our uniforms on when the whistle sounded. We grabbed weapons and piled out of the barracks sprinting for the track. As we came out the door, the night sky was lit up with flares and we could hear small arms going off.
I remember thinking “Great! My first time up here and some sonofabitch has gone and started a war!”
We only hesitated briefly and continued to the track. The driver was in first and cranked it up. There were a lot of muttered “Oh shits!” and “What the fucks?” as we shrugged into our LBE, exchanged weapons and got ready to roll. We shivered from the cold and from fear.
On Christmas, 1976 a man and his son had tried to climb the fence and escape into West Germany. A mine killed the kid on the fence. The father made it across but was killed by small arms fire before he made it across. Forty armed Americans watched but could not do a thing. Had they made it across they would have automatically become West German citizens and had new lives.
This night we didn’t know if we were rolling into a similar situation or if the balloon had indeed gone up. Beneath the racket of the flares and small arms we could also faintly hear the sound of church bells coming from the direction of Geisa. Bala strolled nonchalantly and motioned the driver to shut the engine off. He stuck his head into the back of the track and we saw he was holding a stop watch.
“Forty seven seconds, gentlemen. Not a bad time from a standing stop. Just wanted to tell you all Happy New Year.”
We checked watches. It was a minute after midnight, 1980. Happy New Year, indeed!
[Editor’s Note: Steve Traywick was born in Union City, Tennessee on April 11, 1958 but grew up in Houston, Texas. Steve went into the Army in June 1979 as a 19E10 (M60A3) Tank Crewman. He arrived in Fulda FRG, Germany in November 1979. Strategically important during the Cold War because it was an area where tanks could invade, The Fulda Gap is situated between what used to be the East German border and Frankfurt. Steve was assigned to B Trp 1/11 ACR and served there until January 1984 when he was transferred to A Co 2/8 Cav, 1st Cavalry Division at Fort Hood. Steve continued his service with the 1st Cavalry Division until he left the service in 1989.]
 Wikipedia; Observation Post Alpha; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Observation_Post_Alpha