Sunday, August 30, 2015

(160) Gallipolis, Ohio Resident Part of the History of the Berlin Wall: An Adventure in Cold War Intrigue

Checkpoint Charlie During a Standoff and Period of Great Tension October 1961.
            This month marks 54 years since the construction of the infamous Berlin Wall, a symbol of the Cold War as well as man’s strong desire for freedom.  In the summer of 1961 there was a flood of East Germans and other people from countries behind the Iron Curtain fleeing from Communist East Berlin into free West Berlin, a part of democratic West Germany.  It was an island of freedom surrounded by Communist East Germany (GDR).  According to Communist propaganda, these Communist countries were supposed to be part of the “workers’ paradise” of economic justice and equality free of capitalist exploitation with all of their needs provided for by the atheistic socialist system and their “dictatorship of the proletariat”.   The system was very oppressive and severely restricted basic freedoms that we take for granted……freedom of religion, speech, the press, assembly, etc.   

             Thousands of people wanted no part of that so called “paradise” and escaped to the more prosperous West.  The Communists responded to this exodus on August 13, 1961 by placing rolls of barbed wire at the border, while  constructing a horrendous wall topped by barbed wire around West Berlin to stop this flow of refugees to the “corrupt West”.  Even windows of buildings along the wall were bricked up.  They announced that the purpose was to keep out agitators who were trying to destroy their system.

Another View of the October 1961 standoff between Soviet and American Troops

            From 1961 until November 9, 1989 when the Wall came tumbling down, reminiscent of the walls of Jericho…….hundreds of East Germans risked their lives to find freedom by climbing over the wall and crawling under the wall though secret tunnels.  Many others were shot and killed by sentries; it was literally liberty or death.  However, according the Berlin Agreement, the allies insisted that they have free access to all of Berlin, the historic capital of pre-World War II Germany and today the capital of a reunited free Germany.  To make their point the United States Army maintained a garrison in West Berlin and controlled the main entrance into East Berlin, known as “Checkpoint Charlie”. I myself crossed it as a tourist with my mother in August 1962 while a guest of family friends, the Hennings and on leave from my Army unit in Orleans, France.  We  saw for ourselves the stark contrast between East and West Berlin in everything visible to the eye.   For more detail see my blog #60.  Today the site has been converted into the “Checkpoint Charlie Museum”.


A dashing adventuresome 24 year old soldier, later a member of our Gallia County community for many years, was stationed at the U.S. garrison in West Berlin and worked at Checkpoint Charlie in 1974 as an MP.  Bill Medley has a fascinating story to tell about his adventures in East Berlin that ended as an international incident covered by newspapers, radio, and television in the United States and all over the world through AP, UPI, TASS (the Soviet news agency), etc. He didn’t talk about it much and few know until now that we have his permission to share his story, including an album of newspaper articles and notes that document it.  This September the Checkpoint Charlie Foundation, funded in part by the German national and Berlin governments, has invited Mr. Medley and 11 other veterans of the Berlin garrison for a week of visiting with politicians, civic groups, and schools.  American veterans helped to keep West Berlin free for so many years by manning the garrison and Checkpoint Charlie.

            When off duty the young Army MP would often go into East Berlin and live it up a little.  He could buy East German marks very cheaply on the black market and then dine in the best restaurants of East Berlin and enjoy good German beer in the bars.  He befriended some people there.  After several months, one asked him for a favor that appealed to his anti-communist fervor and eagerness to help.  He gave the friend a key to the trunk of his Ford Taurus and someone on the other side of the Wall received a duplicate.  So whenever the off duty MP stopped in the restaurant, a refugee(s) would be loaded into his trunk and someone would unload the refugee(s) in free Berlin. 

  To this day, Bill Medley has no idea how many East German people he brought to freedom and never met any person he helped.  However, Medley estimates that he had six or seven opportunities because permission was required from his superiors to go into East Berlin not more than once a month.  

This is how Checkpoint Charlie looked when Bill Medley was an MP stationed there.  This gate was the only entry for Americans to enter East Berlin.  It is now part of a museum. 

Thus Bill Medley is part of the lore of the Berlin Wall along with the famous “Mole”, Hasso Herschel, who escaped from East Germany in 1961 by using a borrowed passport and smuggled more than 1,000 people across the Berlin Wall over the next decade using tunnels and hiding them in cars.  This inspired the 2001 film, “The Tunnel”.  See http://www.npr.org/blogs/parallels/2014/11/05/361787858/the-cold-war-mole-who-smuggled1000eastgermanstothewest?utm_source=npr_newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_content=20141109&utm_campaign=dailydigest&utm_term=nprnews.

The East German police always routinely wave on through the checkpoint the clearly marked American owned cars.  On September 10 it was different.  Someone informed the East German police or Volpo, who attempted to search Medley’s car just 75 yards from Checkpoint Charlie.  The soldier denied that he was carrying a refugee and tried to talk his way out of it: “Look, this is my uniform (required to be worn in East Berlin) and I’m an American soldier.  You have no authority to detain me and I demand the right to proceed”.  According to the Berlin Agreement with the Soviets after World War II, the East Germans had no authority to stop, search, or arrest an American; the Russians, yes.  Thus Medley demanded a Russian officer.  What made the situation more serious for the East Germans was the fact that the man in the trunk was a defector, an employee of the GDR Police who probably had sensitive information.  During the two hours of haggling, the defector and his cramped wife could take it no longer and pounded on the trunk wall to the amusement of the ten police on the scene.  It was the first time in ten years that the East Germans took direct action against a uniformed member of the U.S. Garrison. 

 Finally, they handed Sp. Medley over to the Russian occupiers, who treated their prisoner well, but interrogated him for eight days; usually they immediately release Americans.  The young spunky GI told them what he thought of their system and would not let them use him for propaganda purposes.  What motivated Medley was a desire to help people.  He was outraged by life across the wall.  “Those people didn’t have any individual freedom whatsoever.  None.  Well, they’re free as long as they do what the military tells them.  But that’s not being free.  They are trapped on the other side.  You feel sick kind of.   You feel there’s something you should do.  That’s what I felt”.  As an exception, he did accept an unsolicited offer of $1000 on that fateful night, but that was not his motivation.      

Some of the MP's of Checkpoint Charlie and the Berlin Garrison in 1974, enjoying some good fellowship in the Mess Hall.  Bill Medley is the one in uniform in the center.


Although some 7,000 people escaped each year and many GI’s in violation of Army regulations brought refugees across the Wall, this time it was made into an international incident.  Apparently, the Russians created this incident to put a stop to what they previously tolerated.  The Communists had American soldiers visiting East Berlin under surveillance for years.  The young soldier’s grandmother, worried about Bill’s safety in that center of the Cold War, was flabbergasted to hear Walter Cronkite describe her nephew’s plight on the CBS Evening News.  Involved daily in negotiating for his release were the top levels of the U.S. Government……Dept. of the Army, Dept. of State and the American Embassy, and his Congressman.,

 For the sake of Détente, the Russians did not make a global crisis over it.  They knew that Medley did it on his own and released him to his superiors on September 17 after a week of interrogations.  Through TASS, its news service, the Soviet Union stated that the release was “in the interest of relaxing international tension” and demanded that the soldier be punished and that such incidents not be repeated. 

  Needless to say, Bill’s unauthorized extracurricular exploits in international intrigue did not sit well with his military superiors even though other soldiers successfully brought out East Germans across the wall.  It was against Army regulations and the two superpowers were in a period of détente and delicate negotiations to reduce tensions.  He was busted three grades to buck private, fined, and shipped to the U.S., where he finished his military service with an honorable discharge. Anything more severe would have been appeasing the Soviets.  Nevertheless, the young man demonstrated a big heart with courage and daring despite personal risk. 
 
           Without judging the times that Bill Medley got into trouble as a soldier or as a judge, this story gives us an insight into his person and to where his heart is.  He was active in community service in his free time such as midget league football, 20 years director of the mock trial program at Gallia Academy, 10 years helping the Vital Links Program (job shadowing) for the Middle School, 20 gallons of blood donated over his life, and has been active among veterans groups.  Bill always tried to help people even if it might skirt the rules at times and risk getting himself into hot water.