We got our orders next morning and I was made packet commander of three other GI's headed for Wiesbaden, the Hollywood of Germany. Located in the Taunus Mountains, a beautiful city that the 8th Air Force had missed with their bombs during World War Two. I could only find one house that had been damaged by bombs. Not the case with Mainz just across the river. The train ride from Zweibruecken took us all the way back to within twenty-six kilometers of where we had started two days before. Go figger, the Army Way.
A GI from the 443rd AAA, Skysweeper Battalion met us at the Bahnhof (Train Station) and we loaded in to a Six-By, the standard mode of transport for the ride to Wiesbaden Air Force Base. On the way, the driver told us the rest of the unit was in the field for weapons firing and that we would be on our own for the next three days. The CQ gave me some bedding and assigned me to a room on the fourth floor of a very nice steam heated barracks. I was soon to be very grateful for all the niceties of those quarters.
By the time the unit returned, I was plugged in pretty good. I had found the PX, the Servicemen's Club, the Snack Bar and the movie, all within easy walking distance. Anything less than two miles was easy walking distance for me back then. When things settled down a bit, I carried my orders in to the Orderly Room, introduced myself to the First Sergeant who turned me over to the Battery Clerk. I signed for my bedding, a carbine, picked up a Class A Pass and map of the base. I was also told I would be assigned to the Radar Section as an Operator. I reported to my NCO, a Sgt. Keith who gave me a cook's tour of our site.
The Air Corridor: The Western Allies did have an ironclad guarantee of air access to Berlin, however, stemming from the 1945 Allied Control Council agreement. The air safety accord set aside a "Berlin Control Zone" extending 20 miles from the city center. It laid out three 20-mile-wide air corridors linking Berlin with the occupied western sectors of Germany. The Allies could fly into Berlin at any altitude below 10,000 feet without advance notice.
I inserted the note above for a little background. Our radar set was installed on the fourth floor of the barracks. It was a long range surveillance set capable of detecting targets (bogies) out to a range of 160 nautical miles. We monitored the sides of the corridor watching the MIG fighters the Russians flew at the time. One of their tricks was to head in our direction. Just before they reached the border between East and West Germany, they would turn, fly back towards Berlin and then repeat the maneuver. Just keeping us on our toes. If they got too close we sounded an alert that went to F-86 fighters on the base. If it looked like a real threat, they would scramble and roar off to intercept the intruders. Sometimes, I think they roared off out of boredom.
The first thing I wanted to do after settling in was make arrangements to have my wife and daughter brought to Germany. She had funds for a ticket and only needed word from me to board an airplane bound for Wiesbaden. Was not to be. Sgt. Keith informed me I had been selected to attend the Radar Mechanic's school in Ansbach, Germany for a period of twenty weeks. The course was a condensed version of the Signal School at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. That course was twenty months. I was not a happy camper but it came with a promotion to corporal before I left. Stay with me, we are about to get to the camping part.
The school was located just outside the little town of Ansbach in what had been an SS Kaserne. (Barracks) Very nice rooms, no KP or guard duty. We were there to attend school. This also meant no inspections and we could attend classes in fatigues and low quarters (shoes instead of boots.) Reveille at 0530, breakfast at 0600 and first class at 0700. Last class started at 1700 (5 PM) and ended at 1800. We started with a math class that first day. From two plus two to calculus by lunch break at 1200. My head was really spinning. I had a pretty good background in high school math but they had symbols on the blackboards that were pure gobbley-gook to me. Fortunately, I roomed with two college graduates, both Electrical Engineers. Those classes were just easy refresher courses for them.
Classes were small, about twenty-five students to begin with. We had been told that first morning that 30% of us would fail and be washed out by the fourth week. My little pea brain formed a plan that would return me to Wiesbaden and I could proceed with plans to bring my wife over. I would fail the course. We were tested daily with a big test over all the material on Fridays. I had a 68 average, seven points below failing. I also had an appointment with Maj. Bell, the School Commandant. He turned out to be a friend but he was pretty stern when he told me he planned to send me back to my unit. I thought I would just fess up. He said he understood but if I didn't bring my grades up in the coming week, he would send me back to my unit with prejudice and recommend a court martial and reduction in rank. It is amazing how quick I changed my mind when presented with the facts. I promised him I would do my best. Back in the barracks, I told Bill and Oz, my room mates what I was up against. I have never had more demanding tutors. Every night, all weekend, we studied. I scored high enough on the next tests to bring my average up above 80. Maj. Bell came to see me again and this time he offered some encouragement and help. I paid attention in class, took good notes and with my tutors managed to graduate in the upper ten percent of the class which by now only numbered about 18 students.
Once the academic portion of the course ended, we started in labs working on actual radar sets. The instructors would put bad tubes and other components in the lab sets and we had to troubleshoot and repair them. That part was fun.
One day in a radar lab, we were told to return to the barracks and fall in on the parade ground for an announcement. Maj. Bell told us we were on alert and were to move out post haste. We only had a short time to gather up our field gear and weapons and board trucks for transport to our alert area which was in the woods about five kilometers from a small village. We set up pup tents, put out trip flares around the perimeter, and placed guards in key places. I was Corporal of the Guard and was responsible for one squad, nine men. Once all this was done, we did what we did best in the Army, we waited. The whole thing was just a test to see how fast we could move in and secure an area. We were classified as a reserve unit. We had a good mess sergeant, good chow, so we were pretty happy. I posted my guards for the first two hour shift and returned to my tent for a game of hearts with Bill and Oz. About an hour in to the game, I heard one of my guards holler, "Halt!" Then again. "Halt." Then he fired a blank in his rifle and one of the trip flares went off. That thing lit up the sky pretty good. I ran to where the guard had fired the blank and asked him what was happening. He was laughing. Two men had decided to visit a gasthaus in the village and were returning drunk. When he fired the blank they had panicked and run right in to a honey pit. The Germans stored human waste in long six foot deep ditches for use on their crops. You can imagine what the two miscreants looked and smelled like when they emerged from the ditch. Soon after this incident, the alert was called off and we returned to the barracks. Those two in their ponchos as they didn't have any clean clothes with them.
I finished the school and returned to my unit the last of October. My wife was set to arrive around the 11th of November but I had another surprise. She made it on time but we had to go to the field for NATO maneuvers. This time, instead of a tent we would have a van for the radar and another one for parts and the antenna when we moved out.
This van was really neat. Airconditioned, room for several crew members. While the rest of the Battery slept in pup tents, we slept inside the parts van on sleeping bags. We heated water with the exhaust from the generator and cooked food we had brought from home. Every time I went to the field in Germany, six or seven young boys would show up. They were eager to run errands and honest to a fault. A case of German beer, 20 one liter bottles, cost about 2.50 US. They would go "shopping" and return with the goods and our change. Usually all they wanted in payment was a few marks, the candy, gum and instant coffee from our C Rations. At that time the rate of exchange was 4.20 DM for $1.00 US. Pretty good rate and they were always pleased when we pitched in and gave them twenty dollars in script.
It is a good thing we had the trailers for warmth and shelter. This was one of the worst winters in Germany in years. Before this alert, I had surveyed the site to make sure we had good coverage. A damage control officer cautioned me about the pine seedling farm on either side of the rode where we planned to set up our radar. Now comes Lt. Know It All. We pulled in to the site at night. He was right there to tell me how to set up the trailers. He told me to turn them around to face the main road which wasn't necessary but to let him think he was running things I told the drivers to go to the cross roads about two hundred yards away and turn around. That wasn't in his plan and he told me to tell them to turn around in the seedling area. I tried to tell him that wasn't a very good idea but he was adamant so I told the drivers to follow his orders and make the turn. Two six by's with trailers make a lot of ruts and tear up a lot of foot high seedlings.
Next morning at first light, the Battalion Commander, the Damage Control Officer, the Forestmeister and Lt. NIA were at the trailer wanting to know who was responsible for all that damage. Didn't take me long to point a finger at Lt. NIA who called me a liar. Fortunately, my crew jumped in to the fray and told a different story. I mentioned that I had cautioned the Lt. and that I remembered what the Damage Control Officer had told me about the seedlings. Did you ever see a Lt. trying to save little seedlings? I have. Germans charge for what the tree would be worth at maturity. Over $25,000.00 was the estimate.
Our next big camping trip came in January or February of 1956. It snowed almost every day. If it warmed enough to melt the snow then it froze on top of the cobble stones which made for some very slick driving. NATO was involved in these war games with British and French troops acting as aggressors. They were pretty serious about it too. Our Chaplain, Father Piquet, bunked in the parts van with us. He was pretty young, held the rank of Captain. To give you and idea of his personality, he had a Jewish kid as his driver and altar boy. Together they made quite a pair. He could always be counted on to make a trip to a local gasthaus for beer and snacks and he loved to remove his rank insignia, borrow a rifle with some blanks and go about playing soldier. Almost got him in trouble when he was "captured" by some Brits who didn't believe he was a Chaplain.
That was the last "camping trip." Except for some discomfort while setting up the radar set, I had a good time and felt like I had learned something. I had a good set of troops who knew their jobs.