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Gerry Coles

Class of 1951

Remembrances about Cold War Berlin & Sailing 1956-'57 and 1960-'63,
Gerry Coles.

Having had 3.5 years sailing experience early in the club's history
(1957 and in 1960 through 1962) that is supported by some facts on file
with the AIYCB - I believe I was its first Commodore in 1962.


Arrived by Army Duty Train in Berlin on a cold but clear September morn
after spending 12 days on the storm tossed Atlantic Ocean in a troop ship
built in 1918.

It was my first day in the Divided City on my first trip to Europe. At
age 23, with a college degree (Economics), single, an Army draftee with
one year already served, and one more year still to spend 110 miles
behind the fearsome Iron Curtain. This situation had my full attention,
especially when the Hungarian Uprising had us on Full Alert with ammo
locked and loaded. Assigned to the 272 Military Police Company at
Andrews Barracks, Lichterfelde-West, as a Radio Repairman my first job
was removing non-functioning radios from border patrol jeeps, and
re-fitting them with radios that worked. Bumping along rough border
tracks with old-fashioned vacuum tubes (transistors were still being
invented) those two-way radios really took a beating.

A few months later I coordinated the unit's training programs, which
included having our troopers shoot at targets, see movies that included
lots of WWII newsreels and some about how to avoid contracting VD. Many
of the MPs then were like they are now in Iraq: over-sexed, not well
trained, not always sympathetic. Most were volunteers, not draftees
(now they are all volunteers), and the pugilistic among them often
fought with McNair Barracks's Infantry troops.

The first German I learned was how to say "two transfers please" so we
could go to the Kurfuerstendamm by trolley.

Outside the barracks in Occupied West Berlin most West Berliners
(including a few Fraeuleins) welcomed us as friends. A new language to
learn, a new Karmann Ghia, a studio apartment, lots of operas to attend,
good friends and sailing to enjoy, and an exchange rate of 1 US$ to
4.2 West DMs or 16 GDR Marks, all made for wonderful experiences even
with Berlin being a bona-fide Cold War hot spot.

A 35-foot motor cruiser that was used for patrolling the American Sector's
waterways was berthed at the Wannsee Rec Center and staffed by my MP unit.
After the ice melted in early 1957, and thanks to Hans, I passed the
Recreation Center's sailing test, and from then on until I departed
Berlin (and then a discharge from the Army) in August - it was smooth
sailing along with capsizing the Center's O-dinghies (Olympic) that
were rented for a mere $0.25 per hour. All this sure delivered many
happy memories.


That September, after two years of working for the American Express
Company in West Germany, I arrived back in Berlin with my wife Doris
and one month old daughter Christine as Manager of AMEXCO's West Berlin's
U.S. Military Banking Facility. Though it was at the end of the Rec
Center's sailing season I was very pleased to be back in Berlin employed
by the American Express Company, and affiliated with the Berlin Command's
Office of the Comptroller. Our clients were Allied military, diplomats,
and tourists, but not Germans who then still were not fully repatriated.
AMEXCO then had about 40 employees in offices on Clayallee opposite the
U.S. Mission and Army HQ, at Tempelhof Air Base and at McNair Barracks.
We had a comfortable West End apartment in the British Sector. That
winter life was exciting even though the chill from the East made Berlin
turn a deeper gray as it's citizens continued to recover from WWII's

Two incidents with CIA spooks are worth mentioning. I was asked to
tighten up our security because US cloak and dagger CIA types were very
concerned that our posting machine operator who resided in East Berlin
could disclose to the Soviet agents our client's account balances (and
embarrassing overdraft histories). But as she was the only person
familiar with our cranky NCR machine so we kept her on, since the spooks
couldn't replace her. She made us (and them) happy when she moved
to West Berlin shortly before the Wall went up. Shortly afterwards the
other East-West event happened when our Cashier had a hunch. Because a
new teller left work with a smirk after placing his cash box in the main
safe - he (the Cashier) later opened it to find it was short about $3,000
(45 years ago that was a lot of money!). Though he (the teller) seemed a
likable guy we later learned that he was a major in the Stasi, and believe
he returned permanently to East Berlin and nothingness with our privileged
account information along with lots of our US$$$s.


Early on the morning of August 13 an aide to Colonel Thomas Foote (he was
Berlin Command's Chief of Staff) called me to say the colonel who was my
friend and student sailor wouldn't make our date to sail at noon because
an 'emergency' had erupted. This news didn't seem too unusual as we were
accustomed to radio, TV, and newspaper reports that the Allied troops
were often under Alert conditions because thousands of East Germans were
fleeing daily through East Berlin on public transportation to find freedom
in West Berlin. Soviet troops also were continually maneuvering near the
Zone border.

Next call on the phone that August 13 morning was from our reliable and
loving babysitter (aka: Oma Berlin). While sobbing she said that all
traffic from East Berlin to West Berlin had been stopped. She feared this
meant she would be prevented from being with her only grandchildren later
that afternoon who lived in East Berlin. We then turned on our radio to
learn that East Germans with the Soviet's help were building a wall that
would likely shut off West from East Berlin. Later reports(*) said Allied
troops numbered only 11,500 while an estimated 40,000 heavily armed
soldiers and police did their dirty work along Berlin's East-West sector

Not wanting to go sailing that rather chilly, cloudy summer's morning
(Berlin does have cold summer days), I drove my car with US Army license
plates through the Brandenburg Gate shortly before it was closed to
traffic for the next 28 years. Crowds of West Berliners had gathered
at various places along the Sector border to witness the construction
of what was to be named the Wall of Shame. Soon it became a significant
testimony to the world that the Communist governance and economic system
had some serious problems. I still regret I failed to take my camera with
me that day.

A few months later another significant personal event happened during
and after I had taken a high ranking US Senator Byrd from Virginia and
his son around East Berlin without Berlin Command's clearance at a time
when the Soviets and East Germans were making things quite difficult for
the Allies (page 94-96 in *) when all sorts of swaggering tanks faced off
at Checkpoint Charlie. Because my HQ in NY had arranged for the Senator's
travel accommodations, the Senator asked me (and my boss told me to do
what the Senator wanted) to take them into East Berlin - even though its
Police (Vopos) had started to challenge our right to freely enter East
Berlin. But what shocked me most was when we parked on Unten den Linden
in front of the Soviet Embassy to take some photos, the Senator complained
about forced desegregation in the schools of his state, and then justified
his opposition to it saying the 'Nigras just smell different'. I'm so glad
a East Berlin TV crew didn't record his racist statement!

Though our luck held when the Vopos allowed my car to sail through
Checkpoint Charlie, both going in and out of East Berlin, a serious
problem for me surfaced a day later when a personal friend, Madeline
Murphy, secretary to Berlin Command's Commander General Watson, warned
me that my taking the Senator to East Berlin might have me kicked out of

An aide to General Lucius Clay (JFK's personal envoy who was a hero to
Berliners because of his Airlift legacy) summoned me to to meet with
General Clay. Without a handshake greeting I was directed to settle
deep in a sofa opposite his huge desk in a dimly lit room. General Clay
then sternly asked me, 'Why the hell did you take the Senator for a jaunt
through East Berlin without Berlin Command's or the State Department's
permission?' Gulp. I meekly explained: (1) That no US authority ever
told me I had to first get their OK since it was never required on any of
my personal trips to East Berlin for the opera, sightseeing, etc. (2) It
seemed inappropriate for me to question a senior US Senator if he had the
US State Dept's OK to go to East Berlin. What saved the day (and my
career) was that my sailing friend, the Berlin Command's Chief of Staff,
Colonel Foote, needed more sailing lessons from me! Knowing the ropes,
having his friendship, along with lots of luck provided us with many
more happy sailing days on the Wannsee.

The Wannsee Rec Center's sailing program then was informal. Hans, a most
agreeable chap, was employed there to keep its small fleet of sailing
boats in order, and do some sailing instruction on the side. He hated it
when boats were not returned in ship-shape condition and the sails not
properly bagged.


The American Yacht Club Berlin members elected me the club's first
Commodore. The Berlin Command assigned the club lower floor sider-door
rooms at the Wannsee Recreation Center's building, which was a big move
in the right direction (closer to the Wansee). East-West tension was at
a peak. West Berlin was losing its population as thousands moved to safer
situations in West Germany. This caused the Berlin Command to urge
Americans assigned there to reach out to Berliners in the spirit of
cooperation and friendship, which then motivated the AYCB to invite a few
sailors from the Potsdamer YC (Juergen Barth is one name I still remember)
to join in our races along with the British and French clubs.

Less than two decades after the end of WWII - the Allies hoped to convey
to Berliners that we needed to support one another, to be equals, to be
friends. It became official policy to avoid Berlin's past, which included
the fact that the Final Solution conference (Wannsee Konferenz) was held
in 1942 by the Nazis at a villa on the Wansee opposite the Rec Center.

1962, October :

Historians agree that WWIII didn't happen when, during the Cuban Missile
Crisis, President John Kennedy rejected his own military advisors desire
to blast the Soviets out of Cuba, and convinced Chairman Khrushchev of
the USSR to remove his nuclear missiles that at the time were already in
Cuba or on the way there. Historians say this also saved vulnerable
(sitting duck) West Berlin from either being once again blockaded or
bombarded by the Soviets who at the time had 150,000 Soviet troops
garrisoned near Berlin.

The Curve of Tension Representation of Berlin's History 1945-73
(page 136 in *) shows Berlin in the 1961-62 period ranked in the worst of
situations, which was the "Outbreak of General War" category. (Bold type
added for emphasis!) Sailing then provided us Occupiers with happy
diversions so we could hope for the best while trying to avoid thinking
about the worst.

Early the next year (Feb. 1963) after having lived in West Berlin during
a stressful two and a half years, we departed Cold War Berlin for a new
life in California. Notwithstanding California's earthquakes, floods and
forest fires we thought we deserved a safer environment. Ten years later
my wife Doris died of cancer.

Final Note: My wife Kathryn (also an avid sailor) and I reside near San
lFrancisco, California in the small coastal town of Bolinas on the Pacific
Ocean. We vis Berlin often and now look look forward to being at our
yacht club for its 50th Anniversary Regatta this June 2012. Ship Ahoy!

* "American Forces In Berlin - Cold War Outpost", Grathwol and Moorhus,
Dept. of Defense, Legacy Resource Mgmt Program, Cold War Project,

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