Monday, August 17, 2015

War Stories 1

So there I was...

West Berlin, Spring 1989.  Reagan was President.  Communism was teetering on the edge of collapse, and nobody, but nobody, knew which way the Soviets under Gorbachev were going to jump.  They could let it all fall apart, or they could slaughter a few hundred thousand people.  No way to tell.

I was a spy, of sorts.  I was a communications intercept technician in the happy hunting grounds - totally surrounded by the enemy.

Good times.  I was a natural, and ended up after my first hitch as probably one of the top ten people in the US at the job.  Not that that meant anything during the 'peace dividend' draw-down after Gulf War 1.

Everything you ever heard or read about espionage in Berlin during the Cold War is true.  Especially the contradictory things.  I actually saw a briefcase exchange on a bus once.  Yes, I reported it.  Later on, when I got back into the Army and went through counterintelligence school, my trainers were curious why I knew about all these espionage cases that weren't public knowledge...

Anyway, we had a communications center, better known as the watch office.  All the message traffic  flowed through that office, and had to be manually forwarded, for reasons.  (Please insert 'single point of failure' joke here.)  We got in a new private, and he was assigned to the watch office.  Nice, low stress, cushy job.  All he had to do was learn how to hit the 'forward message' button, and type up standardized reports.  His NCO assigned him to type up a message form, then the NCO and the rest of the watch standers went to lunch.  MAJOR FUCK-UP NUMBER ONE.

The private typed up the message, made sure it was perfect, then cleared the screen and went to lunch.  Everybody else had, so it must be all right.  Leaving the watch office empty.  MAJOR FUCK-UP NUMBER TWO.

Did I mention that the message he was practicing said, basically, 'GSFG is heading west, with no intention of stopping at the border.  We are under attack.  The balloon has gone up.'  Oh, and
did I mention that the 'Send' key was adjacent to the 'Clear Screen' key, and that sending a message also cleared the screen?  MAJOR FUCK-UP NUMBER THREE.

About two minutes after the private goes to lunch (leaving the watch office empty, of course), the phone starts ringing.  And nobody answers it.  And no more messages are coming out of West Berlin.  From the perspective of the leaders in the West, Berlin sent the 'World War III has started' message and then WENT OFF THE AIR.

US forces in West Germany went immediately ape shit.  They executed the 'this is not a drill' plan.  Units got snarled up trying to mobilize with no warning, pick up their ammunition loads, and head to their assigned positions.  Extra weapons appeared out of nowhere, including an entire tank battalion loading up with Tommy Guns, which hadn't been in the inventory for decades at that point.  7th Corps requested permission to cross the 1km line and counterattack into Czechoslovakia.  Artillery units were requesting nuclear release to begin bombarding the Fulda Gap.  Everybody who had been stationed in the West then remembers that day as 'the day the First Sergeant/Sergeant Major looked scared.'

And then it all got turned off, after the people went back to the watch office after lunch, and the messages started flowing again, and a ringing phone was answered with "What are you talking about?  Nothing's going on here."

Needless to say, the NCO rapidly became a private.  As a positive effect, the battle plans were updated to reduce road congestion after the 'unannounced drill.'  No one actually died, so the whole episode ended up being a funny story, instead of a major tragedy.

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