3. října 2020

A BATTLE OF NERVES

 

Our Armed Stand-off with U.S. Army at the Iron Curtain


We Czechs were pointing automatic rifles at the Americans and the Americans were pointing theirs at us, both sides ready to fire. I was one of the Czechoslovak Border Guard soldiers and I was not happy. Who would fire first?

Iron Curtain on the Czechoslovak-West German border during the Cold War. 

During the Cold War, I served first as a non-commissioned officer and later as a commissioned officer of the Border Guard in Czechoslovakia

Our mission: protecting the Czechoslovak border. Our orders: prevent any unauthorized person, without or within, from entering the Czechoslovak-West German border zone, a zone further secured by a system of metal fences, known to us as “Signal Wall” and to the rest of the world as the “Iron Curtain.”
 
Czechoslovak Border Guard, a military oath ceremony. 


In June 1985, I graduated at the Border Guard Military School of  the Ministry of the Interior and in August 1985, I reported to active duty at the 1st Border Guard Company. Our company was stationed in the “Tri-border” area and was part of the 5th Border Guard Brigade, headquartered in the Czech city of Cheb

Border Guard Cadet School in Holesov, I am the kid circled in green.
Photo: Author

I was promoted to the rank of sergeant and became a platoon leader. That’s when the incident with the U.S. Army happened. On my watch.

Our daily duties at the 1st Border Guard Company, author circled in green.
 
The 1st Border Guard Company guarded a small area where the borders of Czechoslovakia, East Germany and West Germany met—Tri-border. This was the most westward territory of Czechoslovakia, consisting of a short border zone along the German Democratic Republic and of a longer border zone along the Federal Republic of Germany.
 
The Czechoslovak Iron Curtain ended at the border landmark HM13/9 and continued into East Germany where it was guarded by East German Border Troops. The closest East German town was Pabstleithen and the closest one in West Germany was the town of Prex.
 
The position of the 1st Border Guard Company. 

The incident with a U.S. Army patrol took place at the HM 1/1 border landmark in the Tri-border area. That day our commander sent me and several of my men on a routine patrol outside the infamous Iron Curtain. We called this duty “Demarcation Inspection.”

Our patrol took us to the HM 3 border landmark near the Bavarian farm of Hollerung and from there to the HM 1/1 landmark that stood exactly on the border of three countries.
 
Tri-border area, soldiers of the 2nd Armored Cavalry, U.S. Army.

Weather permitting, this patrol was a pleasant hike outside the fences of the Iron Curtain, while still in the territory Czechoslovakia. We enjoyed this—there was no danger of a surprise visit by a Brigade Inspection there.
 
To our right side, we could only be seen by East German Border Troopers, who manned their concrete towers scattered along their border, and by the residents of picturesque Bavarian villages and farms in West Germany. West-German Federal Border Police and Bavarian Border Police were also stationed nearby and their presence was usually demonstrated by a marked Audi or VW.

We walked by West German Customs officers, who were patrolling their side of the border. We exchanged neighborly greetings and continued our patrol. Peace and quiet, if not a bucolic idyll, reigned on the border that day. So far.
 
We slowly approached the Tri-border HM 1/1 landmark. This was a small clearing, in the middle stood a low wooden fence that divided Czechoslovakia from West Germany. No one was on the West German side of the fence, we saw no civilians, no West-German police officers, and their small parking lot about 200 meters from the border landmark was empty as well. We saw no one on the East German territory behind their fence either—no troopers, nor their military vehicles IFATrabant, or UAZ.
 
We had some time left and I decided to conduct a small experiment. About 100 meters from the border landmark and inside the Czechoslovak territory was a ruin of an abandoned house. I brought a hand grenade imitation, known as a V-10b in the Czechoslovak Army. This grey-white cylinder-shaped thing was used for exercise purposes. The white flash and acoustic effect of its explosion imitated an explosion of a real hand grenade.  
 
I told my soldiers that we should find out what the imitation grenade can do in the basement of the house. I pulled the grenade pin and threw the grenade into the basement. The strength of the explosion took us by surprise at first, but then we realized the explosion had been enhanced by the small enclosed space of the basement.
 
We were going back to our unit when we heard the roar of several military vehicles on the West German side. A short silence followed, only to be broken by the thudding of heavy army boots as several U.S. Army soldiers appeared on the Tri-border clearing. Probably 2nd Armored Cavalry. They wore their typical fatigues, brandished M16 automatic rifles, and carried large radios. They stopped at the wooden fence on the Tri-border clearing.
 
This was the very first time I ever saw real U.S. Army soldiers and they stood just a few meters away from me. Until then, I had only seen American soldiers in war movies. I never considered American soldiers our enemies, but rather an opposing force. They were soldiers just like us who by the dealings of fate wound up in the place of their duty on the border.
 
We were curious and approached the Tri-border clearing. An old Czech proverb says that curiosity can make you old, but in this case, our curiosity came close to making us dead.


Sleeve patches of the two opposing forces:
Czechoslovak Border Guard (left)
U.S. Army 2nd Armored Cavalry (right)

The Americans looked surprised and apprehensive. I could hardly blame them, they had heard a grenade explosion. It seemed to me that the Americans began to do something with their weapons and I ordered my men, “Assume a Low Ready Position!” That meant taking the weapons off their shoulders and holding the muzzles down. Unfortunately, they misunderstood me, instead, they went to a High Ready Position and pointed the weapons at the Americans, getting ready to fire. The Americans did the same. I took my Skorpion Vz. 61 machine pistol out of the holster.
 
After the rattle of all the weapon-readying on both sides died down, we, the Czechs and the Americans, stood there pointing weapons at each other in complete silence. Adrenalin boiled in our veins, our nerves stretched to the max. Had someone coughed or sneezed, we would have probably shot each other.

Another stand off between Czech Border Guard and U.S. Army at the Tri-border area. Ours was worse.

Not a good situation, and there was no one anywhere near to help us out of it. Luck would have it that our East German colleagues couldn’t see us from one of their watch towers and none of them happened to patrol the area either. Trying to contact our company by radio was out of the question—our 40 MHz Tesla radios had a low performance of 1 Watt, and besides, we were in an area of “radio shade.” Asking the Americans to let us use their radios wasn’t much of an option either.
 
German Federal Border Police officers, none were around that day.

At that moment, I prayed for a patrol of West-German Federal Border Police or Bavarian Border Police, or at least West-German Customs. I could speak to them in German and explain the situation. My English was nil, except for “Hello baby,” and I thought the Americans might not appreciate that or even mistake it for a battle cry. Why is it that when you need a cop, there is never one around?
 
It occurred to me that I could order a slow retreat. However, I was only 18, a young sergeant full of ideas and pride, and worried that such a retreat might look as cowardice in front of the Americans as well as my men.

All of a sudden, we heard the sound of a Praga V3S military truck. In a few seconds, the truck appeared above us on the road.

This truck probably saved several lives that day.

The truck stopped and our Captain Barta jumped out of the truck's cabin. He was a country boy from Moravia and called to us in his unmistakable Moravian accent, “Hey, Zdenek, what the fuck are you doing down there? Get your ass back now!”

It was all over, I had my order, and now we could retreat with dignity. The men put their Vz. 58 weapons on safe, slung them over their shoulders, and slowly marched to the truck. The Americans lowered their weapons and incredulously watched us leave.
 
In my youthful inexperience, I caused an international incident. My fate was sealed and it wasn’t going to be pretty.
 
Monitoring station in Cerchov in Bohemian Forest. In this complex, the Border Guard Military Intelligence monitored communication of U.S. forces in West Germany.  

The Military Intelligence of the 5th Border Guard Brigade in the city of Cheb was constantly monitoring U.S. Army radio communication and learned about the incident from a U.S. Army report right away.
 
Our Battalion commander called me on his carpet. I shook in my boots during his “sermon” and shame prevents me from replicating his words here. At the end he said, “Sergeant, I will not decide your punishment. Others will. Dismissed!”
 
He made it sound as if I would be shot by a firing squad at dawn, or at least get court-martialed and then spend a long time in a military prison.
 
The next day I was sent to the 2nd Border Guard Company in the area of Pastviny to see the Military Intelligence Chief in the rank of a colonel. I had no idea what kind of punishment he had in mind for me, but when he saw me—a shaking pale young man—he was visibly taken aback.
 
“How old are you, sergeant?” the colonel asked.
 
“Eighteen, sir,” I barely breathed.
 
“Jesus,” he said, “some of my privates are older than you.”
 
He thought for a moment. Then he said, “Sergeant, yesterday you pulled some really stupid cowboy shit! I am giving you three days of house arrest. Never, EVER do anything like that again! Do you hear me?”
 
“Yes, sir!”
 
“Dismissed!”
 
To this very day, I don’t know why I got away that easily. Perhaps, the colonel felt sorry for me or perhaps he liked the fact that I didn’t retreat in the face of the opposing force. Probably both.

1st Border Guard Company officers, author circled in green.
 
The colonel had a reputation of a reasonable man and a fair commander. Perhaps, he didn’t want to destroy the career of a soldier who was still practically a kid.


 A guard dog: the historic symbol of the Czechoslovak Border Guard

LT (ret) Zdenek 
Czechoslovak Border Guard
__________________________
From the Czech original translated by Mirek Katzl.


TENTO PŘÍBĚH V ČEŠTINĚ (publikováno květen 2012): 

7 komentářů:

Pohranicnik řekl(a)...

PODĚKOVÁNÍ.

Děkuji Mirkovi Katzlovi, že si dal tu práci jak s anglickym textem, tak i grafikou, aby přiblížil můj osobní zážitek, incident s hlídkou US.ARMY na státní hranici, pro anglicky hovořící publikum.

Ze statistik na Blogger.com vím, že weblog Pohraničník se čte v USA, nebo i Velké Británii, předpokládám, že v drtivé většině se bude jednat o bývalé, možná i současné vojáky a členy různých military klubů, kteří na překlad z češtiny používají Google Translator. Ovšem, překlad je strojově kostrbatý, místy až nesrozumitelný.
Diky úsilí Mirka Katzla je zde tato první vlaštovka :-)

Protože, pan Katzl, který utekl z ČSSR (přes Jugoslávii) si zkusil vojenskou službu v uniformě US.ARMY, můžete se již brzy těšit na jeho, zde publikovaný příběh, při němž si my, co jsme prošli výcvikem a službou u Pohraniční stráže, nebo Československé lidové armády, budeme moci porovnat výcvik u nás a ve Spojených státech.
A nebojte, žádná politika ani ideologie v článku nebude :-)

Anonymní řekl(a)...

Zdá se mi, že česká a anglická verze se liší :D

Pohranicnik řekl(a)...

Samozřejmě, že ano.
A co má být?
Anglická verze, napsaná Mirkem Katzlem, je upravena tak, aby byla pochopitelná i pro průměrného Američana.
Československé reálie nemusí být pro každého cizince plně srozumitelné.

To je vše, vy odborníku.

Mirek Katzl řekl(a)...

Ano, to máte pravdu, liší. Jsem rád, že jste si toho povšiml. Nechtěl jsem příběh překládat slovo od slova, spíše jsem chtěl zachovat fakta a ducha příběhu tak, aby byl srozumitelný pro americké čtenáře, zvláště pak pro bývalé americké vojáky, kteří sloužili v 80. letech. Každý překladatel má svůj styl a mnohdy úplně jiný.

Anonymní řekl(a)...

Nemyslel jsem to zle, jen z české verze vypadl odstavec o testu V-10, který by mohl vysvětlovat následnou eskalaci.

Anonymní řekl(a)...

https://www.bundesgrenzschutz-online.de

Mirek Katzl řekl(a)...

Jasně, dík za doplnění. Přesně si to nepamatuji, ale asi jsem jako zdroj použil více článků z blogu v češtině a to, co jsem měl od správce blogu. Někde ta historka s tou V-10 byla, jen si teď nemůžu vzpomenout kde.