In November 1989, the Berlin Wall fell — or, more accurately, it stopped functioning. Nobody knew this would happen, not even the people who authorized the change. Only a few months afterwards, I was lucky enough to visit Berlin, both East and West. And because at that time I was an analyst with the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), I guess this qualifies as a spy story. Albeit, it isn’t much of a story, but it is my story.

In May 1990, I arrived in Frankfurt, West Germany, after an official trip to Scandinavia. While in Norway, I had visited a NATO military facility built inside a mountain. There, Western intelligence people such as myself were still discussing the Cold War, but we knew things were changing. How could we not? East Germany still existed, but the Berlin Wall had fallen seven months before and the “People Power” Revolutions of 1989 had since ousted most of Europe’s Communist regimes.

Back in 1945, after Nazi Germany was defeated, occupation agreements signed between the Allies allowed the Western Allies — the United States, Great Britain and France — to run military trains from their occupation zones (comprising what became West Germany) to the city of (West) Berlin, across the Soviet Union’s occupation zone (East Germany). But as early as 1948, the Soviet regime wanted to get the Western Allies out of Berlin, fearing (quite rightly) that the city’s Western half and its free enterprise economy was likely to become very prosperous and thus, by comparison, make the surrounding Communist economic system look pathetic. At the same time, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin didn’t want a shooting war, and so he tried to make the Western presence too difficult to sustain, not worth the effort, especially to help, of all people, Germans. So the Soviet regime suddenly claimed that all the rail lines, roads and waterways leading to Berlin across the Soviet zone were closed due to “technical problems” — in effect, blockading Berlin and threatening to starve the place. Not that the Soviet government dared to state the threat of starvation explicitly. In this war of ideas and nerves, adhering to perfunctory diplomatic niceties often involved euphemisms, lies, and creative interpretations.

Unable to reach Berlin by land or sea, the only way left to resupply West Berlin was by air. It sounds simple but it wasn’t. West Berlin’s two million people were already struggling to survive in a city still in ruins from World War II — they needed nearly everything. Obviously food was a critical need, but another item was heavier and nearly as urgent: coal, for warmth in the coming winter. To carry it all, the only cargo planes available were smaller than today’s and still only propellered, no jet engines. The magnitude of the effort needed was so massive, it had never been attempted, not even during the recent world war. Yet, the Western Allies refused to capitulate. As U.S. President Harry Truman put it, “We are going to stay, period.”

It took constant determination and some trial and error, but eventually the Berlin Airlift achieved the efficiency of an assembly line — with a cargo plane landing in or taking off from West Berlin every 30 seconds. The pilots were Americans, British, Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders and South Africans. To supplement West Berlin’s Tempelhof and Gatow airports, German laborers under French supervision built a third, Tegel. In eleven months, 250,000 flights delivered 2.6 million tons of supplies. The most popular food item was not unloaded as much as dropped: candy-bars with mini-parachutes. Grateful German children called the delivering aircraft “chocolate bombers.” The supplies included raw materials for West Berlin’s factories and even squad cars for the local police. Return flights to West Germany carried goods manufactured in the city, proudly stamped “Made in Blockaded Berlin.” All this increasingly embarrassed the Soviets until, in May 1949, they lifted the blockade and allowed the West’s military (“troop”) trains to resume.

Four decades later, I was to ride one of the last of those military trains.

When I arrived at Frankfurt for transport to Berlin, I had no official travel orders nor a uniform, only a hope that I would be allowed aboard, substantiated by my U.S. Army Reservist identification card and a letter from my Army Reserve unit. At the train station, I met a heavyset German official and told him, matter-of-factly, that I didn’t have travel orders.


The reply was short, sharp, loud and — if you’ve ever seen a war movie in which the villains are Germans — very German. Did Hollywood actually get this right? Or maybe those seemingly “German” traits were merely his own. Not very personable. Nor flexible. Nor satisfied with his life, forced to contend with young Americans newly arrived in Germany, like me. I handed him the letter from my Army Reserve unit. (I didn’t tell him I had drafted the letter myself). After reading it, he activated his desk intercom and bellowed something in German. Somewhere in his shouting I heard my last name pronounced the purely German way — Hei-den-REICH. Ultimately, without looking me in the face, he commanded, “Come back later! We’ll see!”

At least that answer was better than Nein!

Still, there was something about his demeanor that made me wonder. I bet I’d find your picture is in the ODESSA file.

I never told him what I really did for a living. To his credit, though, I received some official travel orders upon my return. The orders’ official masthead colorfully displayed the Flag of the United States.

Now awaiting the train, I packed some of my notes, which were very work-related, deep inside a bag of dirty laundry. Empty out the dirty clothes and you would find the notes — as any Soviet guard with a little determination would have — but I was not going to make the search easy for him. The notes were not classified, but if anyone were to discover that I worked for the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, my scribblings would have looked very interesting. (By the way, there was no Internet back then. And I had neither much time nor much trust in using a foreign postal service.)

Perhaps I should not have worried. I did notice, however, that the American soldiers assigned to the train looked more agitated than I was. We would be traveling overnight through East Germany, something they had already done repeatedly but never enjoyed. The train was commanded by, as usual, a young American lieutenant. If necessary, his job was to stand up to higher-ranking Soviet or East German interlocutors. Interesting job.

The train departed Frankfurt on time and we reached East Germany late in the evening, stopping at the border. Typically, Soviet troops would surround a Western troop train to make sure that nobody got off and, more importantly, nobody got on. But the times now, they weren’t typical.

Nobody met the train.

Where the heck are they? Through the window of my compartment, after a wait which felt eventful because it was so uneventful, I saw two men crossing the station platform: a short, skinny East German railway official and a rather large, muscular American sergeant. I don’t know what the East German said. But I expect that it went something like this:

“Go! Take your American train and get out of here! Go to Berlin! Go to Moscow for all I care! Just go!”

Formalities concluded, we resumed.

In my next post: arriving in West Berlin.

— John G. Heidenrich